Sukiyaki and beyond: Hiromi Uehara, music, war and peace, Chick Corea, and others

by Bill Benzon

You may or may not know that sukiyaki is a beef-based Japanese hot-pot dish. But I’m not talking about food. I’m talking about music, specifically, a Japanese pop song entitled “Ue o Muite Arukō” (“I Look Up as I Walk”) which was a hit by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961 in Japan, 18 years before Hiromi Uehara was born. It became one of the world’s best selling singles of all time (13 million copies) and has been recorded countless times by singers all over the world. [Various versions on YouTube.] It was issued in the United States in 1963 as “Sukiyaki”, where it went to the top of the Billboard Hot 100.

Why “Sukiyaki”? Perhaps, you’re thinking, it’s a novelty song about the dish? No, it’s not. It has nothing to do with food. According to Wikipedia:

The lyrics tell the story of a man who looks up and whistles while he is walking so that his tears will not fall, with the verses describing his memories and feelings. [Lyricist Rokusuke] Ei wrote the lyrics while walking home from a Japanese student protest against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the United States and Japan, expressing his frustration and dejection at the failed efforts. However, the lyrics were purposefully generic so that they might refer to any lost love.

The melody is wistful and haunting. I would imagine that is what propelled the song to international fame. Many of the cover versions use different lyrics. As for the renaming in America, it’s about marketing. “Sukiyaki” is a Japanese word that Americans would recognize as Japanese.

Here’s the original version:

Notice the whistled sections – appropriate to the origin story, which I remember from my childhood. Read more »