Thirty-five years ago today, 520 people onboard JAL Flight 123 from Tokyo to Osaka tragically lost their lives in what remains the deadliest single aircraft crash in aviation history. Due to faulty repairs, the plane crashed into a ridge near Mount Osutaka just over 30 minutes into the journey. Only four survived.
The most recognizable name amongst the fatalities was iconic singer Kyu Sakamoto. The first Asian recording artist to top the American Billboard Chart, his iconic track “Ue o Muite Arukou” (known as “Sukiyaki” in English speaking markets) stayed at number one in the States for three weeks and also became a top ten hit in numerous other countries including Australia, Canada, Britain and Germany. In total, it sold over 13 million copies.
More than just a one-hit-wonder, Sakamoto continued to have a successful career after “Ue o Muite Arukou” as an actor, presenter and more famously as a singer thanks to tracks such as “Ashita ga Arusa” (“There’s Always Tomorrow”) and “Miagete Goran Yoru no Hoshi o” (“Look up at the Stars at Night”). Taken far too soon at 43, we remember the legendary performer on this day by sharing eight things you may not have known about him.
1. Kyu was the youngest of his father’s nine children
On December 10, 1941, Hiroshi Sakamoto welcomed his ninth child into the world with his second wife Iku. Called Hisashi, the alternate kanji reading of his given name (九) was Kyu, meaning nine. He was subsequently given the nickname Kyu-chan which later became his stage name. When his parents divorced in 1956, Kyu and two other siblings adopted their mother’s maiden name, Oshima. The older children kept their father’s surname, Sakamoto.
2. He had a near-death experience as a child
During World War II, Hisashi and his family were forced to evacuate from Kawasaki and headed to his grandparents’ house in Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture. On the way there, they were riding in a vehicle that collided with a train at Tsuchiura Station and fell into a river resulting in a number of fatalities. Fortunately for the Sakamotos, they had transferred to another vehicle shortly before the accident. Kyu was just 20 months old at the time, but when told about the incident, he believed the God of Kasama Inari Shrine protected his family.
3. A string of arguments led to his departure from “The Drifters”
In 1958, 16-year-old Sakamoto joined The Drifters (then known as Sons of Drifters), but ended up quitting after six months due to in-house fighting. One of the main reasons for this was his dissatisfaction with being the second vocalist. He then joined his classmate in a band called Danny Iida & Paradise King before going solo. The Drifters, meanwhile, went on to become the most famous rock/comedy group in the country and, in 1966, supported The Beatles at the Budokan.
4. “Ue o Muite Arukou” was a song born of sadness and frustration
First released in Japan in 1961, Sakamoto’s seminal track, “Ue o Muite Arukou” was composed by Hachidai Nakamura with lyrics by Rokusuke Ei. The latter penned the song while returning home from a failed student protest against continued American military presence in the country. “I look up as I walk so the tears won’t fall,” reflects the writer’s disappointment as the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between the US and Japan was signed despite thousands taking to the streets.
5. It was one of the first pieces of music sent to humans in space
“Sukiyaki” became a global phenomenon and in 1965 an instrumental version was played over the radio by NASA for astronauts aboard Gemini 7, on what was the 21st crewed spaceflight. Down the years it has been covered or sampled in various languages by numerous artists including A Taste of Honey, 4 P.M, Selena and Avicii on his posthumous album “Tim.” The original has featured in several movies and dramas such as “M*A*S*H,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Mad Men” and the Ghibli Film “From Up on Poppy Hill.”
6. Sakamoto once worked on the same movie as Hayao Miyazaki
Though Sakamoto is most well-known as a singer, he also appeared in numerous films including the movie adaption of Higuchi Ichiyo’s famous novel “Takekurabe,” Seijun Suzuki’s “Subete ga Kurutteru” (“Everything Goes Wrong”) and Yoji Yamada’s “Kyu-chan no Dekkai Yume” (“Kyu-chan’s Big Dream”). In 1965, he provided the voice for lead character Ted in the animated feature, “Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon.” A young Hayao Miyazaki, working as an in-between artist, impressed Toei with his contribution to the end of the animated production.
7. He was a strong advocate for sign language education
Wanting to use his fame to help give back to those less fortunate, Sakamoto did a lot of work for charity during his career. In the 1960s, he held a concert to raise money for the Tokyo Paralympics, which was struggling for funding. He was most passionate about supporting children with disabilities, particularly those who were blind or visually impaired. In 1979, he released “Soshite Omoide,” Japan’s first song in sign language. At that time, sign language was prohibited at deaf schools so people studied it independently.
8. ANA was always his domestic choice of airline
Tragically for Sakamoto, there were no seats available for ANA flights on August 12 as it was the eve of the Obon holidays. As he always flew with them, his wife Yukiko was unaware that he had been on JAL 123 until she saw the passenger list with his name on it. On August 13, the day after the accident, a pre-recorded performance by Sakamoto was featured on the 200th episode of the Fuji TV program, “Naruhodo! The World.” His body was discovered the following day with his family confirming it was him on the 16th, 99 hours after the crash. Though his body was severely damaged, they were able to determine it was him from the Kasama Inari pendant that he always wore around his neck.
You can listen to some of Kyu Sakamoto’s best songs here.