The US Billboard Hot 100 charts has been ranking music since 1958. The current number one track, as of 4th October 2016, is The Chainsmoker’s ‘Closer’. However, this article isn’t about the song ‘Closer’; it’s about a song that, unforeseeably, climbed its way to the top of the charts in 1963.
In 1952, Japanese lyricist Rokusuke Ei, on the walk home from a failed student led protest against US Army presence in Japan, penned the lyrics to a song.The song – later titled “Ue o muite arukou” – reflects a widespread feeling of helplessness during the American occupation of Japan, painting a bittersweet story of a man persevering in the face of adversity. As the famous line goes: “I look up to the sky, so my tears don’t fall”.
It’s of no great surprise that “Ue o muite arukou” became popular in Japan when it was released in 1961. But in 1963 – only two years later – the song resurfaced onto the American music scene and went on to occupy the top spot in the Billboard charts. The irony here is obvious. It becomes even greater when we realise “Ue o muite arukou” is the only Japanese-language song to find its way into the US pop scene. As one of the earliest cross cultural language debuts, the fame of “Ue o muite arukou” paved the way for the more modern cult hit “Gangnam Style” – which upon its own debut in 2012, never graced the top spot as it battled with Maroon 5 for weeks.
Another win for Western music.
However “Gangnam Style” entered the charts with a name true to the lyrics it spoke. Rokusuke’s song, upon entering the American music market, had a slight change of title. “Ue o muite arukou” (“I’ll look up and walk”) was changed to “Sukiyaki” as it travelled from the Pacific to American shores. For those that haven’t ventured past the California Rolls section of the menu at your local Japanese restaurant, Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot dish. “Ue o muite arukou” doesn’t touch the topic of food at all. Perhaps the song would’ve travelled wider around the world if it’s title had been even more relatable; perhaps something like Sushi?
English covers in the late 60s and 80s continued to transform the song. It made its way into the backgrounds of American shows such as Malcolm in the Middle, Mad Men and Charlie’s Angels. One famous cover, performed by a trio called ‘A Taste of Honey’, reached number 1 on the Billboard R&B and Adult contemporary charts in the 80s. Samples from this version featured in songs by the likes of Snoop Dogg and Missy Elliot. What had started as a song arising from the struggles of occupation somehow found its way onto the iconic West Coast hip hop album ‘Doggystyle’.
The bizarre journey of “Ue o muite arukou” escapes Rokusuke’s original intentions, however the love it’s gained internationally is undoubtable. One can search endlessly for an answer as to why, but perhaps top Youtube commenter Edward Guzman puts it best: