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The "Sukiyaki" Song and Its Connection to Japan Airlines Flight 123

Rockin’ before she could walk, Kaili is a vinyl hound who knows the words to every post-1960 song.

Kyu Sakamoto was only 19 when he recorded "Sukiyaki."

Kyu Sakamoto was only 19 when he recorded "Sukiyaki."

The Sukiyaki Song

Anyone born in the late 1950s or prior, or anyone who is a fan of 1960s pop music, will recognize this song immediately: "Sukiyaki."

The English translation for sukiyaki is ‘to slice thinly’ (suki) and ‘to fry, boil or sear’ (yaki). The Japanese dish we all know and love is typically a noodle dish with stir-fried vegetables and either beef or chicken in a delicious soy broth.

So, how on earth did this sad song come to be named after a Japanese food?

The song is about a man who walks with his face to the night sky, counting the stars, so that his tears won’t fall.

Original Title: "Ue wo Muite Arukō"

The song was first released in Japan in 1961 under its Japanese title, "Ue wo Muite Arukō," which means "I look up as I walk." It was written by a Japanese composer and author by the name of Rokusuke Ei.

There are two versions to the story about how Rokusuke Ei came up with the lyrics. One version suggests that he was walking home from a protest over the continued U.S. military presence in Japan and was saddened by the fact that the protests did not seem to be having the desired result. The other far more romantic version of the story says that he had his heartbroken by a Japanese actress by the name of Meiko Nakamura.

The song was a huge hit in Japan in 1961, and in 1962 a British record executive from Pye Records by the name of Louis Benjamin heard the song while visiting Japan, and knew he had to bring this hit home to the UK.

The song "Sukiyaki"—the name was chosen as it was easier for English speaking people to remember and be able to pronounce—was recorded as a purely instrumental tune by a popular British band called Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen, and it reached number 10 on the British music charts. The label His Master’s Voice (HMV) then released the original Japanese version in the UK.

The song then crossed the ocean to the U.S. when a DJ heard the British version, and managed to get his hands on a copy of the original Japanese version. He also called the song "Sukiyaki," which was already a word familiar to Americans because of the food. Capital Records in the U.S. licensed and released the original Japanese version using the more familiar "Sukiyaki" name in June of 1963.

The DJ’s daughter was at college with a girl who had lived in Japan for a time and had a copy of the original.

Who Sang "Sukiyaki"?

The original Japanese version of the song was performed by a young actor and singer by the name of Kyu Sakamoto.

Kyu began his musical career in 1958 as part of a band, but things really took off for him when he recorded "Ue wo Muite Arukō" at the age of 19. The song was released on vinyl in October of 1961 and remained in the top spot in Japan for three months. Kyu embarked on a world tour in 1963 and visited the U.S., where he appeared on The Steve Allen Show.

Today, "Sukiyaki" remains one of the top-selling single songs ever, with 13 million records sold. Downloading the song is easy. It appeared on a great compilation released in 2010 called Lost Hits of the 60's (remember "Burning Bridges" by Jack Scott or "Jean" by Oliver?), but you can also download just this one song.

Kyu Sakamoto, "Sukiyaki"

JAL Airlines Flight 123

At 6:04 p.m. on August 12, 1985, Japan Airlines (JAL) flight 123 took off from Japan’s Narita Airport on route to Osaka International Airport, about an hour and a half away. Twelve minutes into the flight, when the aircraft had nearly reached its cruising altitude, an explosive decompression took place in the pressurized bulkhead that sits between the passenger cabin and the tail of the plane. The failure stemmed from an incorrect repair that had been made to the plane fully seven years earlier, when the tail of the aircraft had struck the tarmac.

As the plane climbed and pressurized, cracks that had gone undetected over the seven years since the original repair began to grow. The rear bulkhead exploded violently, causing the ceiling to collapse at the back of the plane and sending pressurized air from the cabin rushing backward toward the tail section. A huge piece of the aircraft’s tail was sheared off and the hydraulic lines critical for steering the plane were completely severed.

Emergency oxygen masks dropped from the overhead compartments, and the captain immediately called out "Squawk 77," an emergency request that was picked up by operations in Tokyo. Despite his request to attempt to reach Haneda airport, the pilot was instructed to head for Nagoya Airfield, a former international hub.

But the plane was failing fast. With no hydraulics and no tail to stabilize the aircraft, it began flying in a rolling uphill and downhill motion, speeding up, and then slowing down, over and over. The crew made a desperate attempt to gain some sort of control over the aircraft, using the flaps and throttle to try to steer it. The plane had descended to the 13,500 foot level, then to 7,000 feet, before climbing once again to 13,000 feet. There, she fell into a sharp descent, one of her wings clipping a mountain ridge. She then crashed into a second mountain ridge and came to rest on her back.

The U.S. Air Force scrambled a military transport C-130 Hercules plane from its base at Yokata Air Base, near the flight path the plane had taken, and was the first to spot the wreckage about 20 minutes after JAL 123 disappeared from radar.

The Cockpit Voice Recording From JAL Airlines 123

A Sad Song for a Sad Story

The passengers on the disabled plane had 32 minutes from the time of the depressurization until the crash, enabling some of them to actually write farewell notes to their loved ones. Of the 509 passengers and 15 crew aboard the aircraft, four people actually survived. The official investigation after the crash determined that there could have been more survivors if rescue operations had been launched immediately, as doctors later discovered that some passengers had died from shock and exposure in the cold mountain air. The crash remains the deadliest single plane accident in aviation history.

And Kyu Sakamoto, the man who sang about looking skyward so his tears would not fall, was among the passengers who died in the crash of JAL 123.

JAL Airlines has not used 123 as a flight number since that terrible day in 1985.

© 2016 Kaili Bisson


Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 01, 2019:

Hello Aurelio,

Wow, I have a friend who has been studying Japanese for a long time. She says it takes a while to really learn how to speak day-to-day colloquial Japanese. Good for you!

Yes, very sad indeed. I learned about his connection to the flight and just knew I had to write about it.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on March 01, 2019:

I've always liked the song and can understand some of it in the original language since I am studying Japanese. But I did not know about the crash, which is very sad.

JohnnyRock5 on February 22, 2018:

I loved that song, and remember it from my childhood. It has a haunting melody that so strongly evokes unrequited love, the lyrics aren't really necessary. You can "hear" them in his voice. I think it would be appropriate to identify JAL 123 as a Boeing 747. It's perhaps trivial, but, because of the moniker "deadliest single plane accident in aviation history.", it is an important footnote. Thank you, Kaili!

Veronica on September 03, 2017:

Very sweet!! As a young girl growing up In Jamaica.i dont know the language but was so touched by the lyrics of this God can you imagine!! A littke girl loving this song and have no idea the history behind was two weeks ago, my daughter's father- in- law was taking about this young man and he mention the song Suki Yaki, and the memories of my childwood days came back, how much i loved it.i started

Mario Saseve on May 30, 2017:

Absolutely beautiful!!

I've always loved this song growing up. And never knew why I couldn't stop crying when I'd listen to it. I wasn't even born when Kyu passed, but I'm ever so grateful for his magic to be left for us to bask in and experience. :)

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on March 19, 2017:

Hi Robert, you are most welcome. I love this tune, and seeing the English translation and knowing the circumstances of his death make it all very bittersweet.

Robert Sacchi on March 19, 2017:

I remember the song and when JAL123 crashed. They mentioned Kyu Sakamoto was one of those killed on board. An English version of the song came out about 1980. Thanks for writting the Hub.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on February 09, 2017:

Hello Rock and thank you for reading and leaving a message. It truly is a beautiful song. I'm glad you enjoyed this...the song has always been a favorite of mine.

Rockriley on February 08, 2017:

I forgot to mention the plane crashed on my wife's birthday (1954). Guess I will always remember his fate was somehow synced with my wife's birthday. Love the site, thanks!

Rockriley on February 08, 2017:

I like the history and the song. I must say when I did not know the lyrics, it was even more beautiful for some reason. I think I felt the soul of the song and it carried no preconceptions and that allowed me to imagine what was so obviously sad and yet expressed in such a beautiful way!

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on September 15, 2016:

Hello Mel and thank you! So sorry...just seeing your comment now (vacation and all that). I just love this tune.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on July 10, 2016:

I had not heard of the Sukiyaki song, but it's a terrific tune. I think I've heard that opening instrumental line on about 100 commercials, however, although I can't recall any specific ones. This young man had a great voice, it's really tragic. Great article.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on June 14, 2016:

Hello Patricia,

I am so glad you enjoyed this story.

I may redirect the angels your way as you have more need right now.



Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on June 12, 2016:

Lovely song...had no idea of its glad I stopped to read. What a tragic ending, ironical at best, to his life...

It is always so interesting to me to hear the back story as it increases my appreciation for the story or song.

Angels are once again headed your way ps

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on May 05, 2016:

Hello Flourish and thank you for reading this. Very true...when I first heard the story, I couldn't get the song out of my head for days. The cosmos does work in strange ways...bigger ways than we will ever be able to fathom.

FlourishAnyway from USA on May 05, 2016:

Wow, this is tragic and makes you really wonder about coincidences from a cosmic perspective.

Kaili Bisson (author) from Canada on April 28, 2016:

Hello Ron and thank you for reading and commenting.

I just love the song too, and had read about his fate years ago. I was humming the song the other day and thought the story would make a good hub.

P.S. I just followed you and left some fan mail...we have some interests in common :-)

Ronald E Franklin from Mechanicsburg, PA on April 28, 2016:

Sukiyaki has always been one of my favorite songs, even though I had no idea what the words meant. But I love the haunting melody, and still listen to it regularly. Hearing of the fate of the young man who sang it adds a new level of poignancy to the song.