This song has a remarkable story - it's a Japanese hit that became wildly popular in America despite Japanese lyrics that hardly anyone in the US could understand. Kyu Sakamoto was a star in Japan as both an actor and a singer, and this song, known in his country as "Ue O Muite Aruko," was a #1 hit there in 1961.
Sometime in 1962, a British music executive named Louis Benjamin heard the song when he was traveling in Japan, and he had his group Kenny Ball & his Jazzmen record an instrumental version that made it to #10 on the UK charts. Benjamin renamed the song "Sukiyaki" after a Japanese food he enjoyed - a one-pot dish made with sliced beef, tofu, noodles and vegetables.
The song made it to America when a disk jockey in Washington state heard the British version, and started playing the original by Sakamoto. He used the title "Sukiyaki," which was much more palatable to Americans than "Ue O Muite Aruko," and requests started pouring in for the song. Capitol Records obtained the American rights to the song and released it stateside, where it went to #1 on the Hot 100 for three weeks and also held the top spot on the Adult Contemporary chart for five weeks.
So how did this American disc jockey get a copy of the original song? Marsha Cunningham gave us the answer. She explained to us: "In 1961-2 I was a high school student at The American School In Japan, living in Zushi, Japan. My dad was a pilot for Japan Airlines
. While enjoying a Japanese movie staring Kyu Sakamoto, I heard the most unbelievably beautiful song. I purchased the record at a local shop and brought it back to the states the next year when I attended a girl's boarding school in Sierra Madre, California. I played it in the dormitory frequently; everyone liked it. One girl took my record home with her on the weekend so her dad could play it on his radio station, and the rest is history!"