“Sukiyaki” is a song that has popped up throughout the generations in the last 50 years, and has meant something for each one. For people of my mom’s generation, this was a song by Kyu Sakamoto. It was always played throughout Honolulu under its original title “Ue O Muite arukō”, and from what I’ve been told, even if you did not know Japanese, many knew what the actual song was about. In this case, “Ue O Muite arukō” was about a man who reflects on things in his life, and as he does so, he smiles and whistles so he will not be able to slow down and cry. If you read between the lines, if a boy was able to sing this to his girlfriend, it would make her cry because the lyric project a level of emotion that he normally would not share. Awwwww.
Due to the song getting a bit of airplay at a radio station in rural Pasco, Washington, it started to be played by a few other radio stations across the U.S. This is where things get blurry, and one day I’ll find out the true story, but Capitol Records would release the radio due to growing demand, and it became a surprise hit. Back then, songs that were not in England were sometimes considered a novelty. Whether novelty meant “a joke” or “not the norm” didn’t matter, but let’s face it: the song had nothing to do with food, but because most people in the United States were not familiar with anything Japanese, they gave the song a word that they were familiar with due to its assumed exoticness. That alone might give it “joke” status, but regardless, it worked. Play “Sukiyaki” to anyone of my mom’s age, and you might find them singing, as if they were trying to soothe the man whose heart did not want to cry.
In this promotional film made for the song, Sakamoto recreates the theme in the song, which is simply to walk and smile the best as you can. As the video comes to an end, he whistles the melody one last time as it fades into the sadness that can no longer be hidden.
20 years after its release, Capitol Records would find success with the song again when A Taste Of Honey released it. The group had become known for their funky bass disco slapper, 1978’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” and while the group had not been able to meet with the same success with other singles, “Boogie Oogie Oogie” helped to extend their life a bit longer. To a degree, A Taste Of Honey had been looked by some initially as a novelty act, because the group were fronted by two women who played guitar and bass. Women have played instruments in bands for years, going back to the days of big band jazz, but the mainstream norm has always been to promote them solely as singers and their looks. A guitar, bass, or any instrument would be “a distraction from seeing the form of their bodies”. Groups like Fanny, The Runaways, BeBe K’Roche, and countless others went out of their way to change that, slowly but surely changing that perception. When people realized guitarist Hazel Payne and bassist Janice-Marie Johnson were very serious about what they did, they listened, buying not only the single but the album it was on.
The band’s third album was Twice As Sweet, and bassist Marie-Johnson choose to use the song’s original melody but write a new set of lyrics. In other words, her lyrics was not a translation of the original Japanese song, but most fans didn’t know or care. The new lyrics still reflected a level of sadness that made it exclusive to A Taste Of Honey, and it also changed the perception of the group since they had only been known for their big disco song. “Sukiyaki” showed audiences that they could be balladeers as well, and people believed in it, enough for them to take it to #1 on Billboards R&B Singles Chart and Adult Contemporary chart, and #3 on the Pop Singles chart.
For the single, Payne and Marie-Johnson wore kimonos, with Payne holding a sensu (fan) and both wearing geta (wooden slippers). It was very much a flashback to older times, and very much honored the song’s Japanese theme. For those of us who were young and becoming aware of girls and women, this shot was very sexy. Beautiful black women wearing something from Japanese culture? It was very much like the song itself, two worlds coming together to create something new. Payne learned how to play the koto and used it in the final recording (she would also play it during performances).
One of the lines in A Taste Of Honey’s version would be interpolated by rapper Slice Rick when he and Doug E. Fresh created “La-Di-Da-Di” in 1984. At a time when clearing publishing in rap songs were not an issue, the use of “Sukiyaki” was not listed on the original record, yet when the group, Doug E. Fresh, or Slick Rick would perform the song as solo artists, everyone in the crowd looked forward to singing the lines “it’s all because of you, I’m feeling sad and blue” along with them. “La-Di-Da-Di” has been sampled countless times over the years and has become a hip-hop standard. As the compact disc became the format of choice, there was a move to released the song on CD for the first time. But upon trying to clear the rights for the use of the “Sukiyaki” lines, Marie-Johnson denied permission, which is why for years, if you wanted to find the song on CD, every version had the “Sukiyaki” section removed. No one bothered to go to any existing multi-track for the song to simply mute Slick Rick’s vocal, so the final edit sounds sloopy. Fortunately, in the era of the MP3, one can simply hunt down for a vinyl rip of the song and listen to it as originally intended.
Nonetheless, “Sukiyaki” continues to have a life around the world, and when it is performed in English, you can thank Marie-Johnson for writing new lyrics to the original melody, and A Taste Of Honey to reviving it. By doing so, you can also thank Hachidai Nakamura for the music, Rokusuke Ei for the lyrical sorrow, and Kyu Sakamoto for being responsible for recording the first and only Japanese-language song to hit #1 on Billboard. Illegally, you can give props to Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick as well. Ah hee ho ha ho hoo hee, I can’t be your loverrrrrrrrrrrr. Domo arigato.