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Sunday, July 22, 2001

The song remains . . .

Staff writer

One of the biggest smash hit songs of the year, bellowed in karaoke rooms across the nation, is "Ashita ga Arusa."

Kyu Sakamoto on the cover of his 1961 single "Ue o Muite Aruko" (a.k.a. "Sukiyaki")

Not one but three artists recorded cover versions of the song. First came a rock version from the super-genki rock band Ulfuls, which has sold 700,000 copies to date since its February release. Then came the mass singalong by Re:Japan, made up of 11 popular comedians who star in the salaryman TV drama of the same name, and a light pop version, sung by former pop princess Chisato Moritaka.

In times darkened by an ailing economy, the song's optimistic chorus -- "There's always tomorrow" -- has obviously struck a chord with the populace. What might surprise many people, though, is that this salaryman anthem was first sung in the early 1960s by the late Kyu Sakamoto.

Considered one of the greatest artists in Japan's music history, this Kanagawa-born singer debuted in 1959 and made his name on the TV variety show "Yume de Aimasho (Let's Meet in Your Dreams)," on which he sang his popular numbers, including "Ue o Muite Aruko (I Look Up When I Walk)."

Sakamoto rose to international fame after "Ue o Muite Aruko" was exported to the United States, retitled "Sukiyaki." From June 15, 1963, it was ranked at No. 1 on Billboard's charts for three consecutive weeks, making him the only Japanese ever to reach the top of the U.S. music market. This was quite a feat, given the fact that the lyrics were incomprehensible to most non-Japanese listeners.

"I think the main, and very obvious reason [for the international success of "Sukiyaki"], is that it's a great song," explains Steve McClure, Asia bureau chief of Billboard magazine. "It has an extremely catchy melody that conveys the essential emotion of the song apart from the lyrics, which perhaps explains why a Japanese-language tune did so well in the English-speaking world."

Another reason for its success, says McClure, is that it was promoted as a novelty song -- "something weird and exotic from far-off Japan."

Sakamoto's tragic death came in the summer of 1985. In the worst single plane accident in the world's aviation history, he perished along with 519 other passengers and crew when their Japan Airlines jet crashed in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture. Sakamoto was only 43.

Nearly 16 years since his death, few Japanese artists have equaled the fame he achieved both at home and abroad.

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