Ue o muite arukou or Sukiyaki – the saccharine Japanese song with protest roots

Above is the sweet Japanese song 上を向いて歩こう (Ue o Muite Arukō) with its characteristic whistling. Known in the West under the virtually meaningless name ‘Sukiyaki’, this is the most famous version, sung by Kyu Sakamoto in 1961. The song was written by Ei Rokusuke. When you read the lyrics, you see the text of saccharine tune about love lost or desired.

However, its origin is not as sweet. The composer wrote this song after he returned from a protest against a revision of the Security Treaty with the United States. Ei was so disappointed by the failure that he wrote the following words:

I look up as I walk
So that the tears won’t fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I’m all alone tonight

The text was adapted and turned into a general tune that had little more to do with political engagement and it went on to conquer the world as one of Japan’s first successful cultural exports. As such it is already important. However, I find the context of this song also noteworthy.

The early sixties, the period in which this song was published, was one of great turmoil for Japan. The occupation by the US was over, but the country was still in the process of restoring its full sovereignty and it was grappling with the issue of balancing sovereignty with very useful security guarantees from the US and a volatile society.

At the same time, the Japanese society was also undergoing changes: the first postwar generation was growing up and the country was only on the outset of the huge economic growth that would later make Japan so huge. The political climate was fraught with tension while the left battled the right. The on-stage assassination of socialist leader Asanuma Inejirō serves as a shrill illustration of this era.

One grouping in this political tumult were the pacifists. Consisting for a large part of people grown up or born during or after the Second World War, they were abhorred by what had happened in that war, especially the atomic bombing. They—of course, there is no one ‘they’ here—did not like to be drawn into further conflict and were afraid that by choosing one side in the Cold War, Japan would risk being drawn into a new war. That is why they often demonstrated against alignment with United States. Apart from them, there were also leftists who were just against the conservative-dominated government.

Composer Ei participated in protests organised by groups like these. It was about the failure of one such protests that he wrote this song. The shed tears for compromised sovereignty or neutrality compromised, I feel, show the emotional side of Japanese nationalism or patriotism.

It is therefore somewhat ironic that this song did so well in the United States and the rest of the West. It reached the top of the charts, is still one of the best sold single ever and has been covered many times. Still, behind this ostensibly saccharine love song lies an interesting story!


Best, Anthony – International History of the Twentieth Century and Beyond, 2nd Edition
Totman, Conrad – A History of Japan, 2nd Edition

Not Syria, but the United States is the greatest threat to international order

The civil war ravaging Syria is filling the columns of newspapers around the world with horror. When I first saw the footage of the victims of the chemical attacks in spasms on the television in a Hangzhou bus, the terrified look on their faces seemed to beg the question: why is no one doing anything?

More people are asking that question and calls for intervention—inevitably led by the US—got louder and louder. If we would not intervene, the proponents said, we would do great damage to international order. For it would be a great danger for all of us, if Assad could get away with using chemical weapons, since others would see it is possible to get away from it.

In this article I do not want to talk about intervention in Syria. The question of intervention seems to be off the table (for now?) while a diplomatic solution is being implemented. Rather, I want to focus on one of the arguments used in favour of intervening. I do not agree that intervention is necessary to preserve order. Instead, I would like to draw attention to the fact that there is a much greater danger to the future of the current international society: Washington D.C.

Syria just signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a first step on the path of a plan in which the chemical weapons of the country be completely gone next year. This solves the biggest concern of the Americans, who like to see the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons universally enforced. Universally? Well, not exactly of course. Israel is not a signatory to the CWC and the US Armed Forces also have plenty of napalm, nuclear weapons and even smallpox at their disposal.


This hypocrisy is one of many and follows a great tradition. The American Declaration of Independence espoused great values that certainly deserve some admiration. But at the same time, those rights of self-rule and the opposition to tyranny were trampled on when it came to the native Americans, who were chased away from their own lands and put into reservations like animals.

Washington does not like it when other countries ignore treaties they have signed with the US. However, it has a long history of ignoring or nullifying treaties when it is convenient for itself. Examples are the numerous ignored treaties with the native Americans and the American refusal to listen to the judgement of the ICJ when it lost the case the Nicaraguan government had brought against the United States for their involvement in a rebellion.

Nowadays we see that the US continues to campaign against torture, even though at the same time it engages in torture itself. It says that states have to sovereignty and human rights, while it is taking out suspects, their families and the surrounding civilians by drones without even asking full consent from the countries they’re operating in. It allows Israel to ignore the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while being furious when Iran seems to have the beginnings of a nuclear programme.

President Obama has said on Syria that inaction from the UN Security Council undermines its legitimacy. It is true that inaction is starting to become a problem; America’s continuous refusal to allow any action against the clearly illegal behaviour of Israel has done a lot of damage to the UN’s standing outside the western world. The fact that it used its veto to prevent a judgement from the ICJ against it to be enforced and that it has no qualms in ignoring fundamental rights of non-Americans, like privacy or the right to life, show how easily it ignores the desire for justice from the rest of the world when it suits it.

Now, I am not denying that what Syria is doing is okay or that it would not in some way have damaged the international order, if the world would have let the use of chemical weapons go unpunished. However, Syria’s actions are much less important for shaping what is possible in the international arena than what the US has done and is still doing. Syria is not a global superpower, but virtually a failed state. The US, to the contrary, is the chief architect of the present international society.

International society

When the Second World War was over, only the United States was left standing. Europe was burned by war, Britain having gone virtually bankrupt in the process and France and Germany being too busy with rebuilding. Asia was scarred, with Japan in shambles and China getting ready for civil war. Russia also had had a price to pay and Latin America had in the course of the war only become more dependent on the US. This left Washington room to remodel the international society in its own image.

The result, with of course also input from other countries, was the United Nations system with a key role for the American dollar and the role of global policeman for the United States, in the West at least. Via the GATT and later the WTO, an economical system of international free trade soon spread and expectations of respect for human rights and democracy were built in. Not every member of this society followed this liberal world view, but it was at least the norm against which everyone was judged.

The United States has not only shaped this international society, even nowadays it is also still more or less the most important actor. No longer completely the ‘most popular kid’, it is instead the most respected and feared and somewhat popular kid. This still gives Washington the most power of any actor to influence the international society. Its actions have weight.

Drowning its own child

Past actions of the United States have shown how it regards the international society and its rules of conduct: they are very good and morally significant and all that, but not when it comes to its own ‘national interests’. In that case they only apply to the Other. This selfish way of thinking is putting the whole system in danger.

If Syria ignores the rules of the international society, it falls outsides that international society and it is punished directly or indirectly. Our norms will not stretch to include the wretched ideas of Assad. He is simply not influential enough for that. However, when the very author of the same order disregards its own universalist claims, that sends a completely different signal. If the pope would marry a man, that would be of far greater impact than when a priest would do the same. The pope could simply excommunicate the priest. But who would excommunicate the pope?

Because of the way it behaves, the United States is doing the same. The norms and rules of the international society require a moral leadership from the main powers in that system that Washington is not able to provide. If it does not change its behaviour, less and less countries will regard it as a legitimate authority for determining what states are allowed and what not. In that case, someone else will take over this role. If not the European Union, this might lead to an international society led by one of the rising powers.

The changes that such a move would bring to the international society would be far more far-reaching than whatever is happening in Syria right now, moving it to a new phase that might or might not be desirable.

This article was inspired by slowly growing anti-American sentiment I notice in myself and by George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian, ‘Obama’s rogue state tramples over every law it demands others uphold’ of 9 September. Apologises for its rantiness, but I believe this is an important point.