AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This summer, we're looking back at the summer of 1963, as the civil rights movement challenged and shifted the country's political and national consciousness. Those shifts also echoed across pop culture, and we've been tuning into some of the music of 1963.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And 50 years ago today, the number one song in America was actually an import from Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUKIYAKI")

SIEGEL: A song about young love called "Sukiyaki" and sung by Kyu Sakamoto.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUKIYAKI")

IAN CONDRY: It is a kind of "Gangnam Style" of its time.

CORNISH: Ian Condry teaches Japanese culture at MIT, and he says "Sukiyaki" transcended language because it hit an emotional nerve.

SIEGEL: The song spent three weeks at the top of the billboard charts in June of 1963. It was already a huge hit in Japan before its American debut. And what most listeners here probably didn't realize was how it was symbolic of Japan's return to the world stage.

CONDRY: 1963 was when Japan was returning to the world scene after the destruction of World War II. 1964 was the Tokyo Olympics, which were right on the horizon. And Japan's economy was expanding globally, and so in some ways, the song is a kind of interesting metaphor for that global expansion of Japan on the world scene.

CORNISH: The singer Kyu Sakamoto was the face of this new postwar Japan, a clean-cut 21-year-old pop idol, but Ian Condry says underlying the song's sweetness was a story of sadness and loss.

CONDRY: The lyricist Rokusukay Ey was looking back actually on the failure of the protest movement in Japan.

SIEGEL: In the spring of 1960, there had been huge protests against the continued American military presence.

CONDRY: There was a virtual occupation of the Diet, which is the Japanese parliament, and student protests were happening all over - tens of thousands of people marching and chanting. And nevertheless, the government marched ahead and signed the security treaty.

SIEGEL: Ian Condry says that experience left many young people disillusioned about protests.

CORNISH: And in Kyu Sakamoto's song, he says he hears the longing for a fresh start.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUKIYAKI")

CORNISH: So what that means is walking along, looking up so that the teardrops won't flow out of my eyes. I look back on a spring day on this lonely night.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUKIYAKI")

CORNISH: Later, he goes on to saying...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUKIYAKI")

CONDRY: ...(foreign language spoken), a good fortune is beyond the clouds. A good fortune is beyond the sky. So I'm looking up and looking forward and imagining that good fortune in the future. So it really is a song about the sadness of looking back but also being on the cusp of something being better in the future. And so that in some ways also helps explain the timelessness of that kind of sentiment.

SIEGEL: So while the pop hit "Sukiyaki" may have come out of a failed protest movement in Japan, that same song with its hummable melody and sweet disposition became an unlikely hit in an American summer of change: the summer of 1963.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUKIYAKI")

CORNISH: "Sukiyaki" has been much covered since its release. You can hear five different versions at nprmusic.org.

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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