An unlikely song hit #1 on the U.S. in 1962: “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. It’s the only song in Japanese to top the charts in America, and that’s especially surprising since it’s not in line with Western music tastes of the time. It sounds like a traditional Japanese folk song or weird foreign pop song, or totally stereotypically Japanese. Speaking of stereotypes, the producer that got the song released in the U.S. in the first place renamed it “Sukiyaki” for Americans, after the Japanese dish so they’d have a frame of reference. It’s fairly racist. The song’s real title is “Ue o Muite Aruko,” or “I Look Up When I Walk.” Americans hate looking up while they walk.
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This should have opened the door for eventually more Japanese music in the U.S., or at the very least, Japanese music that sounded more like Western rock and pop music, because “Sukiyaki” was at its worst a novelty song, and at its best an entry point for a Japanese Invasion. The big-in-Japan, Japanese rock band Happy End was one of the best rock bands of the ’70s with a chill, acoustic- and electric-guitar driven sound that would slip right in with the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd either back then, or today on classic rock radio.
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From their second album Kazemachi Roman (which is a concept album about Tokyo just before the 1964 Olympics. A concept album! Why didn’t you like them, ’70s burnouts?) came the single “Kaze wo Atsumete.” I doubt anybody but the coolest three or four free-form FM DJs even touched this song. But supercool tastemaker Sofia Coppola did and used it, appropriately, on the soundtrack of Lost in Translation, her own gentle masterpiece about Tokyo. In 2007 Rolling Stone Japan named Kazemachi Roman the best Japanese rock album ever. You still can’t buy it in America.