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March 6th, 2012 at 11:25 am

Sakamoto Kyu’s “Sukiyaki”

In Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, Michael Bourdaghs discusses the aesthetic, cultural, and geopolitical implications of a range of musical styles that were popular in post-war Japan. Rockabilly first gained a wide audience in Japan in the late 50s due in large part to the popularity of Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent. Among Japanese musicians Sakamoto Kyu not only found a legion of fans in Japan but his single “Ue wo muite aruko” (1961) became an international hit under the title “Sukiyaki.” Below is a promotional video for the song:

As Micheal Bourdaghs explains the song not only gave Sakamoto international prominence it also played an important role in Japan’s postwar identity among the Japanese:

The song’s success abroad and the Gold Record award it earned the following year (again, the first ever for a Japanese performer) were widely reported in the Japanese media. One critic was quoted as saying that the song’s breakthrough in the West shows that “our eighteen years of struggle in the postwar period have not been in vain.” Domestically, Sakamoto took on enormous symbolic value as an icon of Japan’s ascending star in the global firmament of nations. As we have already seen, when Sakamoto arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in August 1963 to perform the song live on The Steve Allen Show, he was met by thousands of screaming teenagers, foreshadowing what would happen the following February when the Beatles arrived in New York City. Incidentally, while in Los Angeles, Sakamoto asked to meet his idol but was told that Elvis was too busy filming his latest movie.

Later in the chapter, Bourdaghs discusses how the song’s success transformed Japan’s image in thew West:

Moreover, given the Cold War context of 1963, I would argue that only by singing in Japanese could Sakamoto demonstrate that he—and the nation of Japan, which had so recently exploded in violent protest against the United States—was in fact singing in our language all along. “Sukiyaki” in the West presented the image of a Japan that was ready to take its place within the U.S.-dominated security order for East Asia. It was an exotic peripheral member of this community, speaking a kind of marginal dialect—and yet nonetheless a fully integrated member, just like the Asian American characters in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song, which had achieved enormous popularity just a few years earlier. In the schema of cofiguration that became ideological common sense during the Cold War, Japan was “one of us.” Unlike Red China or North Korea, it belonged to the community on this side of the Iron Curtain, an adopted member of the family of free nations. Performing this role was, it seems, the precondition for Sakamoto to enjoy the status of a globally famous pop singer. It is also true, however, that by singing in Japanese, Sakamoto—unlike, for example, the Beatles—condemned himself in the West to the status of a one-hit wonder, more specifically an ethnic novelty act, akin to Chinese acrobats, even as his global success helped pave the way for the Beatles.

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