‘Sukiyaki,’ Kina Grannis’ music and the random magic of YouTube

hapa singer-songwriter kina grannis Surfing YouTube videos can be like the early days of surfing the Internet. Following links to random Web pages is a leap of faith, a trust in kismet, that what you’re about to see is both somehow related to what you were seeking in the first place, and hopefully entertaining.

In the midst of one of my YouTube forays, following related videos then backing up and taking another path to other videos, I came across one of my favorite songs of all time, “Ue O Muite Arukou” by Kyu Sakamoto, the Japanese pop star who had a worldwide #1 hit with the song in 1963.

You probably know the song better by the name put on it by its American label, “Sukiyaki.” It’s been covered in English by a number of artists, most notably Taste of Honey in the ’80s and the Viet pop singer Trish Thuy Trang more recently. She sings both English and Japanese in her version. (See Sakamoto’s, Taste of Honey’s and Tran’s video versions below. They’re all available on YouTube.)

From there, I clicked to a cover version of the song by a hapa musician named Kina Grannis and was pleasantly surprised by the sweet, cool, understated quality of her version of the song — which she sings in the original Japanese — as well as the scope and depth of her talent on other videos. Here’s the video:

Grannis is from Southern California, and won a songwriting contest sponsored by Doritos with the catchy song, “Message from Your Heart,” which was aired during the Super Bowl in February. The contest led to a deal with Interscope Records.

This year she also wrote a cute, funny song about the social news site Digg, about how people use the site to bring each others’ attention to interesting stories online: “Gotta Digg, gotta Digg, gotta Digg, gotta make this story big.”

The tactic got her Digg votes, all right, and made her bigger on the online audience’s radar. I’m betting she’ll keep getting bigtime attention in the months to come.

Grannis has her indie music already available on iTunes (an EP and a couple of full albums, an amazing output for a young artist), and she has a ton of videos on a channel of her own on YouTube, including lots of interesting covers as well as her own music.

Here’s a video that explains a little about herself:

Now that I’ve stumbled upon her, I’ll download some of her music from iTunes, and continue following her career.

(Note: Thanks to DoxiGrl’s comment below, I made some changes to this post, to accurately reflect Granni’s accomplishments. Duh … I could have clicked to her video for “Message from Your Heart” to see that it’s a professional production from Universal Music Group, the parent company of her new label. I’ll keep an eye out for her Interscope release!)



BTW, here’s a passage from a speech I made in a Tokyo government office more than a decade ago, about the influence of Japanese pop culture in the U.S. Part of the speech was about the song, “Sukiyaki,” and how it came to be called that:

The story of “Sukiyaki” is a perfect example of how Japanese popular culture can find a market in America, but as a novelty instead of as a serious cultural export, or at least as a respectable cultural export with credible staying power: Kyu Sakamoto hit number one June 15, 1963, with “Sukiyaki.” (It replaced Leslie Gore’s “It’s My Party” at the top of the charts.)

Sakamoto, born in Kawasaki, started playing clubs while still in high school. He signed as a “boy-next-door” by a talent company in 1959, and recorded for Toshiba Records. By the time “Sukiyaki” was released in the U.S., he had 15 best-selling singles and eight albums in Japan, and had appeared in 10 movies.

Here’s the story of how the song was called “Sukiyaki” in the West.

The song that made his reputation in America (though it would be difficult to find any American who remembers his name) was actually called “Ue O Muite Arukou,” Louis Benjamin, the head of Britain’s Pye Records (the label that would a few years later be the first to record The Who), was visiting Japan on business in 1962, and brought the song back for jazzman Kenny Ball to record.

For the simple – and condescending if not somewhat racist – reason that English-speaking radio DJs might find the Japanese title hard to pronounce, the song was renamed “Sukiyaki,” one of the few Japanese words most Westerners were already familiar with. Unfortunately it didn’t have anything to do with the original title or the sad story in the song, but perhaps that wasn’t taken into consideration because it was intended to be recorded as a jazz instrumental, not in its original version. Newsweek magazine at the time described the situation thus: “It is like releasing ‘Moon River’ in Japan with the title ‘Beef Stew.'”

Ball’s instrumental “Sukiyaki” went to number 10 in England in January 1963. Meanwhile in America, a DJ for station KORD in Pasco, Washington, got hold of Sakamoto’s original and found listeners liked the song. The regional airplay caught the attention of Capitol Records, which re-released it with the British title, again for the convenience of radio DJs and listeners who might buy the record. It was the first song sung in a foreign language to top the Top 100.

Country singer Clyde Beavers later recorded an English version, but his recording wasn’t successful. A new generation of U.S. pop music fans know the song best from A Taste of Honey’s 1981 release, which reached #3 on the charts with its silky, soulful translation.

Maybe Louis Benjamin did Ryu Sakamoto a favor by changing the name of the song to “Sukiyaki.” It’s possible that even though it’s a great song, Westerners wouldn’t have given it a chance if they had to stumble through its real title. But the choice of the new title was so arbitrary that it comes across as cavalier.

Kyu Sakamoto

The original, and a moody, artsy promo film version.

A Taste of Honey
, charting #3 in 1981.
Nice koto playing. It was A Taste of Honey’s second pop hit

Trish Thuy Trang

Trang has some suspect “Japanese” stereotypes including a floozy kimono-like outfit, but it’s nice that she slips in both the Engliah and Japanese lyrics.

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4 Responses to ‘Sukiyaki,’ Kina Grannis’ music and the random magic of YouTube

  1. doxigrl says:

    Hi Gil! Actually, Kina attempted to win the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest…. and actually DID win it! Her music video was aired during the 2008 Super Bowl game and she received a recording contract with Interscope Records. The song she wrote for DIGG was actually a marketing strategy to get more exposure on the internet, since the winner for the Super Bowl contest was determined by online voting.
    When she won the contest and began having regular meetings with her manager, record label, and attorney (all new to her, of course!) in LA, she moved back to Southern California from Austin. She’s originally from Orange County and had resided in Texas for only 6 months.
    Sorry, this is probably too much information, but I wanted to set the record straight!

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, DoxiGrl! I’ve changed the post to make the information accurate (lete me know if it’s still wrong). I appreciate the note so I could make the corrections. I guess I should have paid closer attention to the last Super Bowl after all… But I just wasn’t a Giants or Pats fan…. 🙂

  3. doxigrl says:

    Glad to be of service! I only watched the game to see if she won 🙂

  4. Hi Gil,

    Wow…I am just about to produce a girl I found on Youtube over here in Japan. Shanna Gilfix. She doesn’t speak Japanese (she teaches Karate)lol… but I asked her to send me some songs in Japanese and she shocked the hell out of our head producer.

    Youtube is making my job as a producer a whole lot easier. Great post.

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