Music

'Sukiyaki' lyricist Rokusuke Ei dies at 83

by Naomi Schanen

Staff Writer

Rokusuke Ei, who wrote the lyrics to the global hit “Sukiyaki” (“Ue o Muite Aruko”), passed away from pneumonia at his home on Thursday. He was 83.

Born in Tokyo in 1933 and a graduate of Waseda University, Ei began his career as a broadcast scriptwriter before teaming up with jazz pianist and “Sukiyaki” composer Hachidai Nakamura to form the Hachi-Roku songwriting duo. Nakamura passed away in 1992.

“Ei reinvented Japanese songwriting and was largely responsible for the creation of a new genre of  kayōkyoku (traditional Japanese pop),” says Michael Furmanovsky, a professor of Japanese popular culture at Ryukoku University. “His simple but profound phrases eschewed the flowery language that was considered the default for a song of loneliness and loss. Instead he used the everyday language and expressions of the baby boom generation to literally craft the Showa dream in song.”

“Sukiyaki,” whose original title translates as “Let’s Walk Looking Up” and which was sung by Kyu Sakamoto (1941-85), reached the top of the Billboard Top 100 in June 1963. The track has been said to have been written by Ei (whose real name was Takao Ei) in response to political events of the late 1950s.

The song was released ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and perceptions of the Japanese at the time were still somewhat negative. Writing in to BBC on the 50th anniversary of “Sukiyaki,” American John Taylor described the effect it had on people he knew.

“I am not old enough to remember the song coming out in 1963, but many older Americans have said this song marked the first instance where they began to see Japanese people not just as a former enemy or some mysterious, exotic race, but as people with feelings no different from their own, and capable of expressing beautiful, tender emotions.”

The song has been covered many times by everyone from jazz artists such as Kenny Ball to rapper Slick Rick.

Among his other songs, Ei wrote the lyrics to 1963’s “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi O,” which was also sung by Sakamoto, “Konnichiwa Akachan” (“Hello Baby”) in the same year, and Hajimete no Machi De” in 1979. Ei was also a published author and in 2000 he won the Kikuchi Kan Prize for literature.

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