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Transformative Music from Japan during COVID-19

Takako Yamaguchi

An example of music that has been both transformed and transformative in the time of COVID-19 is the famous Japanese song, “Ue o Muite Arukō” (上を向いて歩こう, “I Look Up As I Walk”, alternatively titled “Sukiyaki“), which has been beautifully rerecorded for this YouTube video in the context of the pandemic.

JapanThe song, originally recorded by the famous singer, Kyu Sakamoto, and released in Japan in 1961, went on to be a global hit, selling 13 million copies and spending several weeks on the Billboard charts in 1963.

As this article notes “Ue O Muite Aruko” means “Let’s look up and walk” and is a song about “sadness and isolation. It is often stated that this song is to encourage people not to look back at the sad past of WW2 and its aftermath, but to be positive and have hope for the future. Ironically, the lyrics [were] written by Rokusuke Ei, who was protesting against the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, and was frustrated when the protest movement failed.”

Artistically speaking, the translation of the lyrics shown on this video is a poetic rather than literal version of the song. The video’s inclusion of people of disadvantaged backgrounds is particularly heartwarming as well as their gratitude towards medical professionals in our current global pandemic. I like this artistic translation/expression as much as the original meaning.

My take on the original lyrics is that the 1960’s was one of the times of turmoil in Japan’s modern history. College and university students’ demonstrations resulted in a death of a female student during a struggle with the police force. It’s one of the reasons why my parents approved of me attending university in the United States; they feared that I would end up being arrested as part of the students’ movement. Though it was not as dangerous as the incidents of an earlier Taisho era in which pro-socialists were assassinated by the military police at night, the 1960’s was an uneasy time for the Japanese people. Even to this day it is said that privileged university students or educators tend to read pro-social justice Asahi newspapers more than conservative Yomiuri newspapers.

As this article shows,  this song was the only international hit of Japanese music, and is associated with 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The singer, born just two days after the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941, later died in a plane crash.
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Takako Yamaguchi is the Chair of the Sylvania Japanese department. She grew up on a smaller town on the West edge of Tokyo and first visited the United States as a seventeen-year-old for a two week summer program at OSU . She is avid fan of Korean dramas and films. Her favorite music artists are Korea’s Girls Generation. Lecca, a Japanese singer-songwriter inspired by Jamaican reggae who became a politician, also fascinates her. Her favorite Japanese novels are Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata and Silence by Shusaku Endo. She is also naive at heart and enjoyed reading the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Frankenstein by Mary Shelly left her in tears. Yet she could only understand The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne using the Cliffs Notes. She will forever be a student of English language. She has been teaching at PCC for thirty-two years.