‘Tabemasho! Let’s Eat! A History of Japanese Food in America’

Editor’s Note: This is an edited excerpt from a book Gil Asakawa is writing for Stone Bridge Press for publication in 2022, about the history of Japanese food in America.

THE MAN WHO STARTED IT ALL ­— File photo shows Japanese singer Kyu Sakamoto arriving to a warm welcome at Los Angeles airport in August 1963 after his song “Sukiyaki” became a smash U.S. hit. “Sukiyaki,” as it was known in the U.S., has nothing to do with the Japanese dish featuring simmered meat, vegetables, tofu and noodles. Kyodo file photo

On June 28, 1963, the number-one song on the American Billboard charts was “Ue O Muite Arukou,” which translates to “I Look Up as I Walk.” It’s a plaintive lament by the Japanese pop star Kyu Sakamoto — the Elvis of Japan because he was a handsome singer and a movie star — because its chorus goes, “I look up as I walk so that my tears won’t fall.”

While it sat at the top of the U.S. charts, it was not called “Ue O Muite Arukou,” admittedly a title that would have been difficult for most non-Japanese to say. The song was instead called “Sukiyaki.” Mind you, it has nothing to do with sukiyaki, the Japanese dish. It was simply chosen as the title in the west to accommodate English speakers.

The tactic worked — the song, which sat atop the Top Pop list for three weeks, had already been a huge hit in Japan under its original title in 1961, and spent three months at the top of the Japanese bestseller chart. It was voted the number-one song of the year in Japan. It’s been covered a number of times, with the best-known version by the R&B group Taste of Honey in 1980 (with new English words written to fit the melody).

Given the sadness of the lyrics and emotion in Sakamoto’s singing, the song should have been called by another Japanese word that most Westerners, including Americans, would have known in 1963, “Sayonara.” That’s a more apt title and one that most English-speakers would have been able to remember and say, partly because of the 1957 film starring Marlon Brando as an American pilot during the Korean War who falls in love with a woman when he’s stationed in Japan.

But the word “Sukiyaki” was chosen by a British music producer who was traveling in Japan in 1962 and heard Sakamoto’s version. When he returned to England, he arranged for a group, Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen, to record an instrumental version of the catchy melody with his new title. The song made it to the Top 10 of the British music charts (it would have been difficult to bump off the Beatles, who were just starting their worldwide chart run), and as luck would have it, the track crossed the Atlantic.

A radio disc jockey in Seattle, Washington heard the instrumental version with the foodie title, and began playing it. It didn’t take long for Capitol Records (ironically the label the Beatles would release their hits on) to seek out the original Japanese version, slap the British title on the single and put it out into the world. It remains to this day the only Japanese song to top the charts in the United States, and until the Korean “boy band” BTS in 2020, the only Asian act to top the American charts.

Two interesting facts to note about the song and its title: The British producer chose “Sukiyaki” for the track’s title because when he was traveling in Japan, he enjoyed the dish sukiyaki.

Sukiyaki is a Japanese dish featuring simmered meat, vegetables, tofu and noodles. photo by Kenji G. Taguma/Nichi Bei Weekly

And the title that was tacked onto the song perfectly crystallized Americans’ awareness of Japanese food.

Thanks to the returning GIs after World War II, some with Japanese “war brides,” despite the racism they would most likely face, many Americans knew a thing or two about Japan. The military men and women coming back from Japan brought bits of culture in ceramics, tea sets, hanging scrolls and screens, and they brought back an appreciation of some Japanese food. “Some” is the operative word. For one thing, Japan was still devastated in the immediate postwar years, and many people lived in poverty or off the black market. And for another, the major cities’ restaurant culture that we applaud today would take time to become re-established.

The typical GIs that served in the Occupation years didn’t necessarily dine out on sushi and sashimi — that likely would have been too exotic or unavailable. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Occupation forces, may have been able to stay and dine at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama upon his arrival in Japan in 1945 and enjoy its haute cuisine, but even that was a pale improvisation in the early weeks after Japan’s surrender. The hotel served MacArthur and his military retinue an Army specialty — spaghetti made with ketchup for sauce. The New Grand gussied it up for the general with meat and tomato sauce in addition to the ketchup, but the dish was brought to Japan by the military, and it’s on the menu to this day.

The more typical rank-and-file soldiers were able to eat more typical fare, street food like ramen, or they stuck to their canned rations and Spam (which caught on and became hugely popular in Okinawa).

It’s when they returned that they brought back the souvenirs, artwork, cameras and Hi-Fi stereo equipment at exchange rates that made everything bought in Japan very affordable. And, they brought back knowledge of three Japanese dishes: Sukiyaki, Teriyaki and Tempura. These three were the main types of Japanese food as far as most Americans knew, outside of Japanese immigrants, travelers who had been to the country before the war or had been there during the Occupation, or members of the U.S. military who had open minds and culinary curiosity to try a wider variety of Japanese cooking.

Still, the three were a good representation of the basic flavor palette in Japan. And, “Sukiyaki” found its place in the pop music pantheon.

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