As a teenager, Kyu Sakamoto was a member of a comedy vocal group, but he wasn’t happy. He felt he should be the group’s lead vocalist and often fought — physically — with his bandmates over the decision. He finally got his opportunity when he sang lead on one song during a performance at a winter carnival. Still, his band wanted him to remain as second vocalist, so Kyu left the band.
Now a solo artist, Kyu recorded the love song “Ue o Muite Arukō” (“I look up when I walk”) in 1961. The song was a huge hit in Japan. During a 1963 visit to Japan, a British record executive heard the song and brought it back with him when he returned home. Concerned with the title being too difficult to pronounce for an English-speaking audience, he renamed it “Sukiyaki,” after a popular Japanese beef dish, despite it having absolutely nothing to do with the song. (One writer for Newsweek magazine observed: “It’s like if “Moon River” was retitled “Beef Stew” for distribution in Japan.”) “Sukiyaki” was released in England by Pye Records and it became a hit. The song was then released in the United States on Capital Records. It immediately sold over one million copies and spent three weeks in the Number One position on the Billboard Top 100. Kyu Sakamoto embarked on a worldwide promotional tour that lasted nearly a year. He appeared on The Steve Allen Show, although he missed The Ed Sullivan Show due to a scheduling error. Kyu’s follow-up, “China Nights (Shina no Yoru),” only reached Number 38 and, although he was popular elsewhere, he never had another hit in the US again.
On August 12, 1985, Kyu boarded the ill-fated Japan Airlines Flight 123 with Osaka being its proposed destination. Twelve minutes into the flight, the craft experienced a sudden decompression. The plane crashed into Mount Takamagahara, killing 520 people onboard. It remains the deadliest single-aircraft accident in aviation history. Kyu Sakamoto was 43 years old.
“Sukiyaki” has been sampled by a number of artists including Slick Rick, Doug E. Fresh, Salt-N-Pepa, Snoop Dogg, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Raphael Saadiq, Mary J. Blige and Will Smith. The song was also featured on the soundtracks of Mad Men and The Man in the High Castle.