“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live.” Ecclesiastes 3:12
Although Japanese artists have produced quite a variety of quality music, only one Japanese song can claim the honor of rising to the number one spot on the U.S. pop chart. That notable achievement was accomplished in 1963 by the song entitled “Sukiyaki.” The melody of this famous song was composed by Nakamura Hachidai and the lyrics were written by Ei Rokusuke. However, it was the singer, Sakamoto Kyu, who propelled the song to popular heights within Japan and eventually overseas. His jaunty singing style along with powerful interludes of whistling compelled listeners to join in by humming or tapping their feet in rhythm.
Oddly enough, the commonly accepted Western title, “Sukiyaki,” has absolutely no relevance to the actual lyrics of the song. Sukiyaki is a popular dish consisting of thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked in a pot on the table. In contrast, the lyrics of the song speak vaguely of a lost love that strikes a responsive chord in the hearts of Japanese. The song testifies of deep personal loss, which accounts for its renewed popularity fifty years later among survivors of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake.
The actual Japanese title, “Ue o Muite Arukō” (上を向いて歩こう), means “I Look Up When I Walk.” The lyrics are simple, but penetrating, as seen in the following excerpt:
I look up when I walk,
So that tears won’t fall.
Remembering those spring days,
But I am all alone tonight.
Happiness lies beyond the clouds.
Happiness lies in the shadow of the stars.
Sadness lurks in the shadow of the moon.
The phrase that is sung repeatedly throughout the song is “hitori bochi no yoru,” meaning “I am all alone tonight.” It speaks of a profound sense of loneliness where happiness remains elusive, existing somewhere beyond the clouds or hidden in the shadows of the stars and moon. The melancholic words of someone who has to look up to keep tears from falling are heightened even further if one is aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of the singer Sakamoto Kyu. At the young age of 43, along with 519 other passengers, his life was cut short in a tragic aircraft disaster. Japan Airlines flight 123 slammed into the side of a mountain in Gunma Prefecture on August 12, 1963, making it the deadliest single crash in aviation history.
Almost everyone aspires to achieve happiness, but this pursuit often ends with disappointment when it proves to be unobtainable. Ei Rokusuke, the author of the lyrics to Sukiyaki, actually penned the words to the song following his disappointment over the failed outcome of the 1960 protests of the U.S./Japan Security Treaty. This one incident verified that happiness can indeed be stymied by any number of blocked goals and easily lead to heartache and sadness. Happiness is understandably a longing of the human heart, but as the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us (3:12), it is a heavenly gift from God that can only be obtained as we look up to Him while walking on this earth. In contrast to the words of Sukiyaki, we are surely not alone.
You can listen to Sukiyaki at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C35DrtPlUbc Feel free to whistle along.