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That Was A Hit?!?: Extra Helpings Of 'Sukiyaki'

Arbitrarily named for a Japanese hot pot dish, this melancholy ballad went to No. 1 in 1963

Friday, June 20, 2014

This segment originally aired on June 10, 2013.

Brooklyn-based writer Paul Ford returns to our studio with the story of Kyu Sakamoto's “Sukiyaki,” in a new installment of our series about improbable chart success.

The story begins with "Ue o Muite Arukō," a Japanese pop song recorded by Sakamoto in 1961. When it was released in the U.S. two years later, the song was renamed "Sukiyaki," even though its lyrics have nothing to do with the hot pot dish. It became the only Japanese-language song to hit No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100.




But that was just the start of Sukiyaki's catchy reign. "This thing got into the culture and held on," Ford says. "If you start googling 'Sukiyaki' and doing some research, there's no end in sight. There are dozens of covers on Spotify."

 Best-known cover: Taste of Honey's ultra-smooth, English-language version, which went to No. 3 on the Hot 100 in 1981.



Best-known shout-out: Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh's "La Di Da Di."



Creepiest reference: In a scene from the second season of Mad Men, "Sukiyaki" plays in a restaurant as Don Draper reflects silently on the death of a character's father in a plane crash. Kyu Sakamoto, the pop star who recorded the original version in 1961, died in the crash of Japan Airlines 123 on Aug. 12, 1985.




Paul Ford

Comments [5]

pat from NJ

I was shocked to hear in this segment that the host and guest (Schaefer and Ford) both made disparaging remarks against the 1981 cover by Taste of Honey! They thought it was awful?! Wow -..I guess there's no accounting for some people's bad tastes. I have always thought that both the original 1963 and the 1981 remake sound great and were very beautifully done. It is an irony of history/culture that the 63 version is sung in Japanese but uses western style music, while the 81 version is sung in English but uses japanese style music!

Oct. 26 2014 06:11 PM
Bob "A" from LES

There was a "cover" of this on Prairie Home Companion in 2000:

Sushi-Yucky (Sukiyaki)
Saturday, May 13, 2000

I am from Minnesota;
I went to Tokyo to
Visit the Land of Enchantment and quaint pagoda.
I almost died the night they tried
To make me eat that yucky sushi.
They think it sounds so yummy,
But, hey, I ain't no dummy,
I knew no way it would stay down in my tummy.
I took one bite, and I was right,
No likey icky yucky sushi.
It took some wine, but I finally agreed
To eat that dish of dead fish and seaweed.
What happened then I don't know,
I loosened my kimono,
I make a noise like the voice of Yoko Ono.
Then just like that, right on the mat,
Me sicky icky yucky sushi.
Don't eat raw squid, like I did, 'cause it's true,
It make you do like when you got the flu.
So if you're in Nagoya,
Here's a suggestion for ya,
Take my advice, stick with rice, and think twice before ya
Bow in disgrace, lose lunch and face,
No picky icky yucky sushi.
No likey icky yucky sushi.
(c) 2000 by Pat Donohue

May. 05 2014 03:23 PM
phdesmond from cambridge, mass.

additional info from wikipedia:

"Sakamoto's follow-up to "Sukiyaki", "China Nights (Shina no Yoru)", charted in 1963 at number 58."

other versions are easy to find:

a movie from 1940; apparently the song was popular with japanese soldiers serving in china:

this one has a transliteration into the roman alphabet of the japanese lyrics, as well as, it seems, the japanese original (i don't speak or read japanese):

a possible translation of uncertain authenticity:

so, apparently, sakamoto's second hit was a 1940 song popular with japanese soldiers serving in china.

Jun. 15 2013 06:26 PM
최형윤 from the Occident

Speaking as an Asian American, I find nothing racist about the Taste of Honey video (though the bits with the fan were a bit much). "Cultural appropriation," I guess one might call it, isn't always negative. Arguably the setup is a *tribute* to the beautifu aspects of Japanese culture. It's not like they went full-geisha with facepaint and simpering submissive gesturing. If anything, the Mad Man clip had more disturbing undertones to me, saved only by the fact that the waitress didn't have an accent.

Jun. 12 2013 12:41 PM
Gio San

The segment fails to take into account the all-round musical excellence of the original release, it's not just a good song; Kyu Sakamoto was a very fine singer, supported with a good arrangement, top notch studio band, etc.

Whereas the hip-hop version was clearly a parody of the cloying awfulness of the Taste of Honey cover, the Brazilian cover is an earnest tribute to the original.

Jun. 10 2013 09:07 PM

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