484. ‘Japanese Boy’, by Aneka

This week, we’re off to discover the mysteries of the Orient… The opening chords sound like the famous intro to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ remixed, a cheap sort of way to show we’re not in Kansas anymore. All that’s missing is a huge gong being banged…

Japanese Boy, by Aneka (her 1st and only #1)

1 week, 23rd – 30th August 1981

Then in comes a driving synth riff with a familiar rhythm and tempo… Disco’s back (again!) baby, for a week at least. It’s a toe-tapper, for sure; the sort of record you can’t help dancing to, even if you don’t really want to. And you may well not want to dance to this because, let’s be honest, it’s a bit naff…

He said that loved me, Never would go, Uh-oh, Uh-oh… Aneka’s been left all alone. Her happy home’s been broken up. Mister can’t you tell me where my love has gone, He’s a Japanese boy… Meanwhile a very tacky tick-tock effect keeps time, and there are the same ‘pew-pews’ from Kelly Marie’s ‘Feels Like I’m in Love’. Maybe the two songs were recorded in the same studio? I feel strangely proud that two of the early-eighties’ trashiest (and catchiest) #1s were Scottish.

For yes, no matter the, um, chopsticks in her hair. No matter how convincing she looks in a kimono. Aneka is not, brace yourselves, actually Japanese. Her real name is Mary Sandeman, and she’s from Edinburgh. You can look at it two ways: it’s a white woman singing in a high-pitch, pretending to be a geisha. While you could argue that she usually sang in a high-pitch (she did), the video below in which she bows and dances like an obedient courtesan does look a bit iffy these days…

Or you could look at the positives. It’s a white woman who’s been dating, maybe even marrying – definitely sexualising – an Asian man, in 1981. Something that Hollywood still gets stick for not doing enough of thirty years later. Is ‘Japanese Boy’ both incredibly progressive and incredibly backwards…? Or is it just a silly disco hit that doesn’t deserve either weighty tag?

I have to admit I’m enjoying this. It’s a musical Big Mac – lacking in any sort of proper sustenance, every verse, chorus and chord change signalled a mile off, but completely hitting the spot. And it seems that Europe agreed wholeheartedly that summer – it hit #1 from Ireland to Switzerland. One place that didn’t agree was Japan. All the ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ bits I mentioned in the intro…? Japanese record labels thought they sounded too Chinese (which they obviously are), proving yet again that Westerners struggle to differentiate anything east of India.

This was Aneka’s one and only hit (the follow-up made #50) and she’s pretty much disowned it these days, refusing offers to do oldies shows. The most bizarre thing about this whole story is that Mary Sandeman is actually a well-respected Scottish folk singer. The follow-up album to this Japanese excursion was titled ‘Reflections on Scotland’. Even the ‘B’-side to this very smash hit was a cover of Robbie Burns’ ‘Ae Fond Kiss’. ‘Japanese Boy’ was her one attempt at something different… and it ended up being a chart-topping single, written about in WordPress blogs decades later. That’s life.


7 thoughts on “484. ‘Japanese Boy’, by Aneka

  1. Yes, pure Scottish cheese 🙂 I always liked the oriental sounds myself, because i have always wanted to see cultural mixing and matching, as i have said many times. And i support your “fancying asian people” suggestion too – speaking as someone who had a poster of Bruce Lee stripped to the waist from one of his films on my bedroom wall. And who as a 5 or 6 year old was mad on the semi western cultural “appropriation” of the japanese language hit known as sukiyaki from the then very cute kyu sakamoto. Tune! Singer!

    The video almost certainly was not the brainstorm of Mary, so quite happy to see that as a cheesey mistake not her fault….

    • I agree, but it is a shame that when western pop songs took on ‘Oriental’ influences it did tend to be for a cheesy, almost comic effect… As for fancying Asians, well, I’ve spent many years in Asia and you are preaching to the converted 🙂 In recent years, though, it has changed: BTS are huge, and Asian actors can take leading roles in blockbuster movies without starring as the nerdy neighbour, or having to be good at martial arts…

      • Yes totally, and about time too:) i grew up loving many Asian support actors like the fab James Hong so its great to see so many strong leads like Ming-na Wen, Michelle Yeoh along with character greats like Awkwafina, Benedict Wong – with or without the british accent!

  2. Your description was perfect. When I saw her picture…I thought no way I remember this…but I do. Faintly I do remember hearing this song. Even if you don’t like it…you have to listen…there is something enticing about it.
    “It’s a musical Big Mac” That is all you had to say…

  3. Pingback: 485. ‘Tainted Love’, by Soft Cell – The UK Number Ones Blog

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