On June 15, 1963, Kyu Sakamoto accomplished something never achieved before or since when he earned a #1 hit on the American pop charts with a song sung entirely in Japanese—a song originally written and recorded under the title “Ue O Muite Aruk?.” This was not the title under which it climbed the U.S. pop charts, however. Instead of a faithfully translated title like “I Look Up When I Walk,” Sakamoto’s ballad was called, for no particular reason, “Sukiyaki.”
Kyu Sakamoto was an extremely popular singer in Japan in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and his recording of “Ue O Muite Aruk?” had been a major domestic hit following its release in 1961. A British music executive named Louis Benjamin who heard Sakamoto’s song while traveling in Japan in 1962 and decided to make an instrumental recording of it with the popular English “trad jazz” group Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen. Benjamin believed that the pronunciation of the original title was too difficult for British audiences, so he chose “Sukiyaki” on the logic that it was, at least, recognizably Japanese. As Kenny Ball’s “Sukiyaki” began climbing the charts in the United States, an American disk jockey started playing the Kyu Sakamoto original over the air, prompting Capitol Records to do a U.S. release under the name Louis Benjamin had invented.
When “Sukiyaki” became a hit, Newsweek magazine ran a piece that likened its renaming to releasing “Moon River” in Japan under the title “Beef Stew.” It seemed to many that the choice showed a distinct cultural bias—after all, there had been other foreign #1 hits in recent years that had been much more meaningfully renamed, including Domenico Modugno’s “Volaré,” which retained its original Italian name (“Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu”) in its subtitle, and Bert Kaempfert’s instrumental “Wonderland By Night,” which was a direct translation from the German “Wunderland Bei Nacht.”
The memorable melody of “Sukiyaki” resurfaced several times in the decades following its 1963 climb to the top of the pop charts, including in an English-language version by A Taste of Honey in 1981. That version, in turn, was picked up and used by Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh in their classic 1985 hip-hop hit “La Di Da Di.”