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Culture, No.9  Dec. 3, 2011


Photo : Sato Go

Sato Go

Ue wo Muite Arukou (Looking Up As I Walk) was a big hit for the Japanese singer Sakamoto Kyu (1941-1985). The lyrics by Rokusuke Ei were set to music by Nakamura Hachidai. As Sukiyaki, the song made it big in the United States, ranked No. 1 by Billboard magazine for the week ending June 15, 1963, and entering the Top 10 in the annual rankings for the same year. Here, we get to the bottom of the background and creation of a work that became a pioneer of Japanese content export, as it were.

It was Kuwashima Akira, currently living in Camarillo in the suburbs of Los Angeles, who told me about Dave Dexter, Jr., the A&R man for Capitol, one of the Big Four record labels.

A&R is the abbreviation of Artist and Repertoire, and it is a job that only exists in the music industry. The role of this profession is to connect artists, i.e., singers and musicians, with the repertoire, i.e., the tunes.

Heading for California in 1943, Dave Dexter, Jr. had a hand in the fledgling Capitol Records. Making use of his outstanding ear for music, keen intellect, and writing ability, he started his career working in PR, but he soon moved to A&R where he had tremendous success.

In his autobiography, Playback, Dave Dexter, Jr. maps out the development of the music industry in the United States and the history of Capitol Records in a series of anecdotes. At the start of Chapter 18, he tells the story of the creation of Sukiyaki. This is where it becomes clear that the story of how the single was released by Capitol is mostly down to the independent judgment of Dave Dexter, Jr. Reading the passage several times, I keenly felt the brilliant sense, intuition and ability to act of a truly outstanding music man.

The year 1963 was a time in American pop when there was a direct link between cute female vocals and hit tunes. I have no doubt that Dave Dexter, Jr.’s keen antennae went up when he heard about a phone call from a DJ in Fresno talking about the positive response by Americans to a record by a cute female foreign vocalist. But the trifling interest changed into great interest, when he realized that the vocalist was not female, but a young man. You can clearly read the moment when he had a change of heart in the sentence, “Seeing the answer, I stopped what I was doing.”

As he himself writes, the more he thought calmly about it, the more he concluded, “I didn’t remotely think that a vocalist singing in a foreign language could be a hit.” Presumably this is precisely why he immediately made his move when he felt something that went beyond common sense, reasoning and reality. Before the insight was suppressed by reason, he gave it shape by making a master.

The Age of American Pop

Sukiyaki was a radio release from Capitol, just before the British Invasion assailed American shores, and part of a stream of music history that included the birth of rock & roll and the heights of American pop. When the cute falsetto of Sakamoto Kyu streamed out from the radio, requests started to come in to radio stations all over the United States.

This is how the song became independent of Dave Dexter, Jr. and when the street release of Sukiyaki came in May, it started its unaided ascent to the top of the hit charts.

The lyrics said “nakinagara aruku” (crying while I walk), but the song far from walked; it dashed up the charts in a rapid ascent, reaching the top spot on June 15. (*1)

Ue wo Muite Arukou sung by a nineteen-year-old Japanese youth had performed a miracle on the American hit charts. It had defied the handicap of not singing in English to reach No. 1 on the nationwide charts. It was also an extraordinary achievement as three and a half years had passed since the original song was released in Japan.

That is not all, Sukiyaki entered the charts in one country after another, and in the twinkling of an eye, it overcame the language barrier to spread to people worldwide.

This was the first instance of approval of Japanese culture around the world after the Second World War. At a time when the Japan brand only had a negative image, this was quite an event. Before Sony and Panasonic, Honda and Toyota, pop music created in Japan had a major success on the global market. This marked the first time that postwar Japan was on a par with the rest of the world.

Sukiyaki and the Beatles
The Ears and Sensibilities of Two Producers

Twentieth-century America reigned supreme over the entertainment industry. Above all, after the Second World War, the general public worldwide yearned for American culture because of the affluent lifestyle. For film entertainment, Hollywood was the apex, for plays, it was the Broadway musicals of New York, and for music, the hit charts of Billboard and Cashbox became indicators of what was popular with young people.

Even in Japan, which had been burnt and left in ruins by air raids, American culture came pouring in through films, radio, and then television as the recovery got underway.

The postwar jazz boom, the rockabilly boom and the “cover pops” boom, which were epoch-making events in Japan’s music history, happened because they were rooted in the fervent wish of many young Japanese people of that time to somehow be able to integrate with the culture of young people in America.

For people working in some capacity in the entertainment industry, success in America was the dream inside a dream. It was a never-ending distant dream. The huge American market was attractive, but at the same time, there were also powerful barriers blocking the way.

In Japan, Toshiba (at the time, Tokyo Shibaura Electric Co., Ltd.), which had a technical cooperation agreement with EMI in Britain, built a factory for manufacturing records in 1955, and sold the first records in July. They included selections of classical music and chansons from EMI. (*2)

In the same year, Capitol, which had achieved remarkable growth in America, became a subsidiary of EMI in Britain by selling them 75% of its shares. This was the opportunity to establish a new department at Capitol for selecting works that might be successful on the American market from the catalogs of the international record companies that collaborated with EMI.

Dave Dexter, Jr. was singled out to take charge of the International A&R Department. An excellent A&R man, who also wielded the pen as a scholarly critic, Dave Dexter, Jr. was considered suitable for his broad knowledge and journalistic sensibilities.

For the recording companies, producers and artists affiliated with EMI, the ear and sensibility of Dave Dexter, Jr., the international A&R man, was the barrier at Capitol that stood in the way of the dream of moving into the American market.

Sukiyaki in Britain

According to the Complete Book of the British Charts (Omnibus Press), which lists all the singles and albums sold in Britain from 1951 to 1999, an instrumental version of Sukiyaki arranged in the Dixieland jazz style by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen reached No. 10 on the British charts on January 19, 1963.

It is not possible to specify the release date, but singles by Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen had regularly charted in 1962, on February 17, May 19, and August 25. Their previous release, The Pay-Off (A Moi de Payer) recorded its highest ranking at No. 23 on October 20. Consequently, a release date in the second half of December 1962, or in the first ten days of January 1963, is probably a reasonable guess.

In an interview with a weekly magazine, Sakamoto Kyu talked about how Ue wo Muite Arukou, a song in Japanese, came to be released overseas, and this is how I found out that he had made a tour of Europe from August 19 to September 2 to promote the song.

It all started with a request from EMI in Britain, partners of Toshiba Records, to send them a recording of Ue wo Muite Arukou by Sakamoto Kyu. Toshiba sent the record immediately and the response from EMI was “Wonderful. Both the song and the singer are absolutely wonderful. The melody is particularly suited to European tastes. We would like you to send more samples because we are going to introduce it to our affiliates nationwide.”

In the third week after sending the sample, Pathé Marconi in France launched the first bid for a release application. So, as a result of negotiations between Toshiba Records and Pathé Marconi, a decision was made to release a record with four songs, Ue wo Muite Arukou, Ano Musume no Namae ha Nanten Kana, Kyu-chan no Zuntatatta and Sore ga Nayamisa. The master tape for the original recording had been sent to France one week before.

Following on from France, releases of the Sakamoto Kyu record were planned for many countries including America, Britain, Belgium and Australia. In France, the single with four songs was released on the Pathé Marconi label in August 1962. Simultaneously with the French disc, the record was probably also released in Norway, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland, where Sakamoto Kyu had been on his promotional tour.

The first important action was that EMI, the largest record company in Britain, urged affiliated record companies in Europe and America to release Ue wo Muite Arukou. The story of the circulation and growth of Ue wo Muite Arukou started in the European countries in 1962.

Even so, who was it that had been trying to pressure EMI since the spring of 1962 to take on the worldwide market with a song called Ue wo Muite Arukou?

On January 19, 1963, Dave Dexter, Jr. must have been checking the weekly English charts a bit more carefully than usual.

The reason was that a single by The Beatles had shown some noteworthy chart action. Please Please Me had climbed the charts with a momentum hardly to be expected of the second record from newcomers, reaching the No. 2 spot as early as the second week of the release. This was after the EMI request for a US release had already been refused, but there were reasons to feel uneasy.

by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen had risen to the No. 10 spot in the same week. A Dixieland jazz instrumental was right up Dexter’s alley. There is no one left who knows whether or not Dave Dexter, Jr. heard the song at that time. But, three months later he heard Sakamoto Kyu singing Ue wo Muite Arukou, and it is highly likely that he thought of Sukiyaki for the title because he had heard Sukiyaki by Kenny Ball & His Jazzmen.

In May, Dave Dexter, Jr., who twice gave The Beatles the brush-off, released Japan’s Sakamoto Kyu singing Ue wo Muite Arukou under the title Sukiyaki on the American singles market. It became a huge hit, and by June 15, it had captured the No. 1 spot on the hit charts across the United States. In August, Sakamoto Kyu visited America, and when the effects of the promotion were added in, sales ultimately reached one million. Before long, he was even presented with a splendid Gold Record award by the Recording Industry Association of America.

From the viewpoint of the job of an international A&R producer, achieving a million-seller with a song sung in the Japanese language by a Japanese artist was surely an unprecedented achievement.

With its huge success on the American market, Sukiyaki was released by recording companies affiliated with EMI in many countries worldwide and became a major hit.

Then, in September, the Beatles crushed the high and powerful barrier represented by the person of Dave Dexter, Jr.

When Capitol released I Wanna Hold Your Hand on December 26, 1963, there followed one huge explosion after another. Suddenly, even people in America had given the thumbs up to The Beatles.

It was the best possible timing for America to encounter The Beatles. In the event, the same was true for The Beatles. That is precisely why The Beatles phenomenon materialized like a huge explosion in pools of magma.

Behind the legend, there is the historical fact that in 1963, the song called Sukiyaki and the artists called The Beatles were squaring off on the stage of the huge American market. Two A&R men, both with an extremely good ear, the American Dave Dexter Jr. and the Englishman George Martin, had faith in their own sensibilities and fought fairly behind the scenes. The verdict was handed down by the American market, by the sensibilities of teenagers.

A Great Music Man

Published on September 30, 1971, Toshiba Musical Industries: 10 Years of History consists of twenty-one chapters in chronological order. The moment I read the second chapter, “The Partnership between Toshiba and EMI,” I finally arrived at the great music man who worked tirelessly to send Ue wo Muite Arukou out into the world.

It was Ishizaka Noriichiro.

The decision to release the single Kuroi Hanabira (Black Petals) after an appeal by Nakamura Hachidai in 1959; Nakamura Hachidai’s study tour of America and Europe in 1960 to broaden his knowledge; giving shape to talks about writing a song for Nat King Cole who came to Japan in 1961; the move by EMI to release Ue wo Muite Arukou in Europe in the spring of 1962–one music man was instrumental to all of this, and it was Ishizaka Noriichiro.

Of course, everything was connected.

A typical intellectual of the Meiji period, Ishizaka Noriichiro was born in 1906 and went to Keio University where he studied economics with Koizumi Shinzo, who was also president of the university. He mastered economics, literature and history, but above all, he excelled at language studies. He was proficient in English and Latin, and his knowledge of classical music was unmatched by critics.

From the period before and during the war, to immediately after the end of the war, the predecessor of Toshiba, Tokyo Shibaura Electric Co., Ltd., was affiliated with the two largest record companies in Japan, the Japan Victor Company and Nipponophone Co., Ltd. (Columbia Records). However, after the war, the GHQ dismantled the zaibatsu, and the two record companies were separated from Toshiba.* To restructure Toshiba, which had been thoroughly weakened by violent industrial disputes, Ishizaka Taizo,* an economist and former bureaucrat with the Ministry of Communications and Transportation (subsequently, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, currently the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and Japan Post) ventured to put himself in the firing line by accepting the position as president.

Ishizaka Taizo, who had developed Daiichi Seimei into a leading life insurance company in the period before and during the war, took on the restructuring of Toshiba. By negotiating face to face with the unions, he achieved personnel reductions of as many as 6,000 people, and the restructuring succeeded very well in a fairly short time. Together with Hitachi and Matsushita, Toshiba was soon dubbed one of the Big Three electronic manufacturers, and became a leader of the business community during the period of rapid growth after the war.

Ishizaka Taizo not only focused on financial aspects, but he also thought that the company should be represented in the cultural field. With Toshiba back on the corporate growth track, Ishizaka Taizo considered the historical background of the company, and entered the recording industry.

The origins of Toshiba Records go back to the establishment of a record business at Toshiba Shibaura Electric Co., Ltd. At the time, Ishizaka Taizo dispatched his second cousin, Ishizaka Noriichiro, to take charge of the business.

Under the guidance of an engineer dispatched from EMI, Toshiba completed a factory for manufacturing records in 1955. In 1956, the company signed a contract with Capitol to expand into American popular music.

Laying the groundwork a little at a time with classical and popular music, Toshiba Records boldly struck out on the road to producing Japanese music from 1958 onward.

Toshiba Musical Industries: Ten Years of History is not only the history of a company, it is also a record of the blood, sweat and tears of a corporation that rose from the burnt-out ruins after the war, like a growing boy chasing his dreams. Reading hard between the lines, some passages even bring to mind the personal history of Ishizaka Noriichiro, which also makes it valuable reading material.

The book is a concise record of the aspirations, mission, troubles and joys of a great music man, who took a provisional project in a corner at Toshiba with only a few people assigned to it, and in a mere ten years after the formal launch in 1960, turned it into a leading record company with as many as a thousand employees. Behind each word is the unique thinking of Ishizaka Noriichiro about the past that the company had traversed, and the future ahead.

For Toshiba, which had only just embarked on the new business, the triumph of winning triple awards for new artist, new lyricist and new composer at the First Japan Record Awards in 1959 proved a brilliant launch. The aim of Toshiba Records was to create new Japanese songs suited to a new age.

The Dream of Popularizing Japanese Music Internationally

Routinely coming into contact with people involved in the international record business, Ishizaka Noriichiro knew how enormous the world market was. But, he was even more aware of how high the barriers were. With this understanding, he dared take a proactive approach to the possibility of international success for a Japanese tune.

He worked out a plan of action with knowledge acquired by cutting back on sleep to study and read vast numbers of books. It was a matter of personal confidence gained by building up relationships with key people overseas.

In 1962, Ishizaka Noriichiro figured out that the essence of the music business does not lie in manufacturing and selling records, but in the song creation and rights business. Based on this fundamental principle, and in order to get Japanese songs and singers closer to the international market, he concluded fair contracts with the copyright holders and sold Japanese music through established routes to partners who were American music publishers and record companies.

For Ishizaka Noriichiro, the music man, the challenge of the big dream of making Japanese music popular worldwide started in the spring of 1962 when, in anticipation of the future music business, he set up a new department and concluded a contract for Ue wo Muite Arukou right from the start. The first positive feedback came from the European countries, including France. It was the idea of Pathé Marconi that they “wanted to give free play to the Japanese original,” so in France, the song was released in Japanese, and other countries also followed France’s lead.

But the release of Ue wo Muite Arukou in Europe did not earn the rave reviews, or rake in the dollars like newspapers and weekly magazines were writing. The result was that you could hardly call it a failure, but you could also not say that it was a successful hit.

There were reports of plans to release an English version in America, but at some point it came to nothing. Despite all the statements and articles by everyone concerned that I found, there is absolutely no trace of a recording of an English version.

For some reason, it seems that the experiment of launching an original recording produced in-house by Toshiba Records onto the world market was temporarily terminated from the end of 1962 to 1963.

However, as the year 1962 drew to a close, something happened in Britain to prove that the foresight and approach of Ishizaka Noriichiro had hit home.

The title Sukiyaki

To have foreign musicians and singers doing covers of performances or songs was another way of gaining popularity abroad. This is how the cover of Sukiyaki on Pye Records emerged.

The people at Pye Records probably had a strong feeling that the jaunty Dixieland jazz version of Ue wo Muite Arukou arranged by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen would score a hit. Certainly, the preparations for the launch of the single went ahead. In such cases, it was a mandatory formality to obtain the consent of the copyright holder to the recording.

Toshiba Music Publishing had authorized overseas music publishers to manage copyright in their respective territories. Consequently, Pye Records had to request permission from the EMI music publishing company that was handling the rights in Britain.

How did Ishizaka Noriichiro react, and what conclusion did he draw, when he received word from the music publisher in Britain that Pye Records had contacted them, requesting permission to put out a cover version under the English title of Sukiyaki?

He had not been able to deliver good results right away with a song in Japanese by Sakamoto Kyu, but he must have continued to search for possibilities overseas. His analysis probably found that it would be quite a stretch for a song with a difficult Japanese title to win wide acceptance among foreigners. From the perspective of Europe and America, Japan was still a far-off small country at the time. It was an age when the average person only knew words like Fujiyama, Geisha or Tokyo.

Even so, the title Sukiyaki that Pye Records gave the song had a hint of mockery that was a long way from the image of the original Japanese title. As might be expected, Ishizaka Noriichiro knew the sincerity of the artists who had created the song, and he must surely have been bewildered.

Are there no other good song titles associated with Japan and easy to remember to substitute for Sukiyaki? Fujiyama, Sayonara, Tokyo, Sakura…

“I remember well that people from the office came to our home for a meeting about the English title for Ue wo Muite Arukou. If I’m not mistaken, there were three suggestions for words that would be easy for Englishmen and Americans to remember. At any rate, everyone talked about how it was important to first get the name to stick. Finally, in a rare display, I remember hearing my father raise his voice when he made the decision, stating point-blank that they would go with Sukiyaki.” (Interview with Ishizaka Kuniko in March 2011)

Ishizaka Noriichiro’s oldest daughter, Ishizaka Kuniko, told me about this important episode.

This is how a single called Sukiyaki by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen became a hit when it charted in the Top Ten in Britain in January 1963.

However, by the time the long-awaited positive results finally came and the issue of making the next move arose, Ishizaka Noriichiro was, unfortunately, robbed of time to work on overseas expansion. The reason was that in the third year since the company was established, it became clear that Toshiba Records was in a management crisis.

The Future of Ue wo Muite Arukou

Trying to extract the company from the worst-case scenario that had put its continued existence in danger, Ishizaka Noriichiro reverted to the original format, and gave his undivided attention to consolidating the whole company into a specialist in making, producing and selling records. It was at this critical point when an unexpected telegram arrived from Capitol in America.

It said that they wanted Toshiba to send a master tape of Ue wo Muite Arukou by Sakamoto Kyu as soon as possible.

The telegram said that Capitol had already distributed Ue wo Muite Arukou to radio stations all over the United States in the form of a radio release, and since the response from DJs and listeners was extremely positive, they planned a formal release in the United States as soon as the master tape from Japan arrived. The good news was that Capitol planned formal release on the American market, which as regarded as the most difficult one to crack. Unexpectedly, the day when Ue wo Muite Arukou would be recognized worldwide had come from the opposite direction.

It appeared that the song was frequently aired on the radio all over the United States, not only on the West Coast where there were many people of Japanese descent, but also on the East Coast and in the Midwest. It was clear that there was strong potential for a hit song. To have a hit in America in a language other than English, and in Japanese to boot, rather than in Europe where many people were said to appreciate the arts and culture of other countries, was an event completely outside the scope of the imagination.

Incidentally, during the talks with Capitol about a release, the Japanese side discovered something completely unexpected.

The Capitol radio release of the record had been given the title Sukiyaka. At first, the Japanese side thought that it was a simple spelling error, or a misprint in the telegram, but Capitol had intentionally given it the title of Sukiyaka.

Clearly, it was Dave Dexter, Jr. who was the man behind the title Sukiyaka.

With pop songs, the names of the artists and the names of the songs constantly roll off the lips in sets, such as Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel, Nat King Cole’s Love, or Yesterday by the Beatles So, it was advantageous to use words that radio station DJs found easy to say, and that listeners found memorable.

Compared to Ue wo Muite Arukou, Sukiyaki was easier to say and to remember, but Sukiyaka was even easier to remember. The reason is that the Saka in Kyu Sakamoto and the yaka in the song title have a similar ring, which emphasizes the accent. Consequently, when the radio DJs introduced the song, it stuck firmly in the mind.

When Ishizaka Noriichiro persuaded them to go back to Sukiyaki because the word Sukiyaka is impossible in Japanese, the record had been distributed to radio stations across the United States, and DJs all across America had already come to know it by the name Sukiyaka.

In fact, both the score and a cover record by the Billy Vaughn Orchestra had been marketed and sold as Sukiyaka. The record by Sakamoto Kyu was immediately changed to Sukiyaki, but the other versions on the market were sold as Sukiyaka, and the name remained in wide circulation.

Thanks to a music man who dreamed of making Japanese music popular around the world, Japan’s Ue wo Muite Arukou became Sukiyaki worldwide.

* At this time, Hitachi became affiliated with Colombia, and after an interval of four years, Matsushita incorporated Japan Victor in a capital affiliation.

* Born in Tokyo in 1886 (Meiji 19), Ishizaka Taizo became the second chairman of the Nippon Keidanren after his stint as president of Toshiba.

With the permission of the author and the publisher, this article was abridged and translated from the series “Ue wo muite aruko,” NEPPU, March 2010 – June 2011, [this series of article was published as Ue wo Muite Aruko by Iwanami Shoten, Publishers](Courtesy of STUDIO GHIBLI Inc.)

*1 The top spot was surrendered by Leslie Gore and It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To, the first No. 1 hit single produced by Quincy Jones.

*2 The first releases on the Angel Records label were internationally famous musical recordings anticipated by music aficionados at the time. The classical works included Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (conducted by Furtwängler), Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (conducted by Irving), and Smetana’s Die Moldau (conducted by Furtwängler). Popular works included Les Feuilles Mortes by Yves Montand, and L’Âme des Poètes by Yvette Giraud.