On December 10, 1941, Hiroshi Sakamoto welcomed his ninth child into the world with his second wife Iku. Called Hisashi, the alternate kanji reading of his given name was Kyu (pronounced ‘cue’), meaning nine. He was subsequently given the nickname Kyu-chan.
During World War II, Hisashi and his family were forced to evacuate from Kawasaki and headed to his grandparents’ house in Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture.
On the way there, they were riding in a vehicle that collided with a train at Tsuchiura Station and fell into a river resulting in a number of fatalities. Fortunately for the Sakamotos, they had transferred to another vehicle shortly before the accident.
Kyu was just 20 months old at the time, but when told about the incident, he believed the God of Kasama Inari Shrine protected his family.
When his parents divorced in 1956, Kyu and two other siblings adopted their mother’s maiden name, Oshima. The older children kept their father’s surname, Sakamoto.
In 1958, 16-year-old Sakamoto joined The Drifters (then known as Sons of Drifters), but ended up quitting after six months due to in-house fighting. One of the main reasons for this was his dissatisfaction with being the second vocalist.
He then joined his classmate in a band called Danny Iida & Paradise King before going solo. The Drifters, meanwhile, went on to become the most famous rock/comedy group in the country and, in 1966, supported The Beatles at the Budokan.
Kyu became famous for a song. First released in Japan in 1961, Sakamoto’s seminal track, “Ue o Muite Arukou” was composed by Hachidai Nakamura with lyrics by Rokusuke Ei.
“Ue o Muite Arukou” became a global phenomenon and in 1965 an instrumental version was played over the radio by NASA for astronauts aboard Gemini 7, on what was the 21st crewed spaceflight.
Down the years it has been covered or sampled in various languages by numerous artists including A Taste of Honey, 4 PM, Selena and Avicii on his posthumous album “Tim.” The original has featured in several movies and dramas such as “M*A*S*H,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Mad Men” and the Ghibli Film “From Up on Poppy Hill.”
More than just a one-hit-wonder, Sakamoto continued to have a successful career after “Ue o Muite Arukou” as an actor, presenter and more famously as a singer thanks to tracks such as “Ashita ga Arusa” (“There’s Always Tomorrow”) and “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” (“Look up at the Stars at Night”).
Though Sakamoto is most well-known as a singer, he also appeared in numerous films including the movie adaption of Higuchi Ichiyo’s famous novel “Takekurabe,” Seijun Suzuki’s “Subete ga Kurutteru” (“Everything Goes Wrong”) and Yoji Yamada’s “Kyu-chan no Dekkai Yume” (“Kyu-chan’s Big Dream”).
In 1965, he provided the voice for lead character Ted in the animated feature, “Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon.” A young Hayao Miyazaki, working as an in-between artist, impressed Toei with his contribution to the end of the animated production.
Wanting to use his fame to help give back to those less fortunate, Sakamoto did a lot of work for charity during his career. In the 1960s, he held a concert to raise money for the Tokyo Paralympics, which was struggling for funding. He was most passionate about supporting children with disabilities, particularly those who were blind or visually impaired.
In 1979, he released “Soshite Omoide,” Japan’s first song in sign language. At that time, sign language was prohibited at deaf schools so people studied it independently.
Tragically, Sakamoto was killed when Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashed in 1985. He was 43 years old. Due to faulty repairs, the plane crashed into a ridge near Mount Osutaka just over 30 minutes into the journey.
All 15 crew and 505 out of 509 passengers died, for a total of 520 deaths and only 4 survivors. It was one of the worst single airline disasters in history.
Oh, Kyu Sakamoto’s famous song “Ue o Muite Arukou”, we know it as ‘Sukiyaki.’ (They named it such as it is easier to pronounce for Americans, and it is a word that people associate with Japan. Sukiyaki is a kind of Japanese dish and has nothing to do with the song.)
The song topped the US pop charts for three weeks in 1963. It is the only Japanese language song to hit #1 in the US. It sold over 13 million copies internationally. (ThoughtCo)
Here is Kyu Sakamoto and Ue o Muite Arukou, “Sukiyaki:”
During a stop in Hawai‘i, Sakamoto told reporters, “Songs and laughter have a common language all over the world. I hope to show American audiences what the Japanese younger generation actually is and to let them know the wonderful meaning of the original title of the sukiyaki song.” (Sakamoto, SB, Aug 14, 1963).
“Ue o Muite Arukou,” is a song about loss that translates across languages and cultures. It’s at once sorrowful and hopeful. The light melody bubbles at the surface and sparks joy in listeners.
Yet the lyrics are more bittersweet and sad. It’s a song about loss, love and alienation. And it perfectly captures the mixed emotions listeners may feel in the wake of a loved one’s death.
Although “Ue o Muite Arukou” is a song that any listener can understand on an emotional level, the tune actually has layers of meaning under the surface. For instance, when you first read the song’s lyrics, they appear to be about a young couple falling out of love.
Kyu Sakamoto sings, “Ue o muite arukou” (I look up as I walk); “Namida ga kobore naiyouni” (So the tears won’t fall); “Omoidasu harunohi” (Remembering those happy spring days); “Hitoribotchi no yoru.” (But tonight I’m all alone.)
But the inspiration for the song’s mournful lyrics wasn’t love or the loss of a loved one at all. Lyricist Rokusuke Ei wrote these words in response to political tension and protests in Japan during the 1950s.
Although WWII had ended, the US still had a strong military presence in Japan, and many Japanese youth felt alienated by this continued military occupation.
Young people in Japan were protesting against the Japanese government’s security treaty with the US. Yet despite their efforts, the two governments agreed to the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. (SevenPonds)
Later, the group A Taste of Honey recorded English words to the melody, turning it into a hit for a second time in the 1980s. The English words made popular by A Taste of Honey were not a translation of the Japanese version of the song but probably revived interest in the original Japanese version. (Hawaii Herald) (Lots of information here is from TokyoWeekender.)