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