“Ue o Muite Arukō,” also known as “Sukiyaki,” by Kyu Sakamoto is a moving 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 Arukō” 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 when 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 actually wrote these words in response to political tension and protests in Japan during the late 1950s. At the time, young people in Japan were protesting against the Japanese government’s security treaty with the United States. Although WWII had ended, the United States still had a strong military presence in Japan, and many Japanese youth felt alienated by this continued military occupation. Thousands of people in Japan protested. Yet despite their efforts, the two governments agreed to the treaty.
The lyricist for “Ue o Muite Arukō” felt disheartened about the failure of the protests. He and many other Japanese youth at the time felt as though they were powerless. Yet at the same time, they believed they were on the cusp of immense political change. Nonetheless, rather than writing a song that spoke specifically to the protests, Ei decided to capture his feelings using phrases that are more universal across cultures. The sadness he feels for the present and the spark of hope he has for the future are emotions that everyone can relate to. This is what makes “Ue o Muite Arukō” such a powerful song about loss.
Kyu Sakamoto’s song also contains a great deal of hope, especially when he sings,
“Shiawase wa kumo no ueni” (Happiness lies beyond the clouds)
“Shiawase wa sora no ueni” (Happiness lies above the sky)
The song’s bittersweet message gave Kyu Sakamoto a new audience in the United States. Even though the lyrics were sung entirely in Japanese, Sakamoto’s song was a massive hit in English-speaking countries. And it is still one of the best-selling singles of all time in the United States. The song sold more than 13 million copies worldwide.
Even if you don’t speak Japanese, it’s easy to hear the bittersweet nature of this song in the melody. It begins light and airy, and as the song approaches the bridge, it grows more mournful. It’s a song about loss that will make you smile and cry all at once, before you even translate the lyrics.
You can read the full lyrics to “Ue o Muite Arukō,” alongside the English translation, here.