Japan from the inside out

Sushi as a metaphor for globalization

Posted by ampontan on Monday, June 25, 2007

THE CURRENT ISSUE of Washington Monthly has a review of The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy by Sasha Issenberg, which explains how sushi was transformed from a Japanese delicacy to supermarket fast food in the space of a couple of decades.

I haven’t read the book, but if the review is any indication of its contents, that might change soon. From the review alone, we learn that:

  • Before World War II, the Japanese considered tuna to be inferior food, and wouldn’t even eat toro–they used it for cat food.
  • The industry leader in the U.S. supplying the fish for sushi is a company established by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.
  • A significant amount of the world’s bluefin tuna is now raised in pens in Port Lincoln, Australia, which has reaped enormous financial benefits as a result. It is also the home to an annual tuna-tossing championship. (My wife was appalled when she saw a film clip of this recently on Japanese television.)

The entire review is here. You can find the website for the tuna toss here. Meanwhile, this is a Chicago Tribune article on True World Foods, the Reverend Moon’s company. And here’s the True World Foods company site.

14 Responses to “Sushi as a metaphor for globalization”

  1. Overthinker said

    While Wikipedia is not the best source, it does comment that the reason toro was not popular in the Edo period was because before refrigeration and such-like, it tended to spoil too easily. (かつての日本、特に江戸時代以前では、マグロといえば赤身を指し、赤身に比べ品質が劣化しやすいトロの部分は上等な部位とは考えられておらず)

  2. Paul said

    One of Sun Myung Moon’s preachers was sentenced to a year in jail for poaching protected baby leopard sharks. He was quoted by National Geographic as telling his fellow poachers that it was “God’s will.”

    In a sermon he said they used the money to support “church activities.” He also clearly told Sun Myung Moon about the project. You can hear audio of the sermon here or here –

    You can read an article about one of Moon’s businesses pleading guilty to a felony and paying a fine in another fishing crime here:

    You can learn more about the Moon “ongoing crime enterprise” here:

  3. KokuRyu said

    While the tuna raised in Port Lincoln may technically be “farm-raised,” the tuna themselves are caught as juveniles off-shore in large floating net-pens, and towed back toward shore to be raised and sold. This is the same way hamachi/buri are farmed-raised in Japan.

    I think the University of Wakayama (with Kansai Daigaku, one of the leading fisheries universities in Japan) recently figured out how to raise bluefin tuna (and crabs) from roe or eggs or whatever, so it’s likely this will replace the crashing wild bluefin fishery sometime soon…

  4. regular reader said

    my family had been members of the Unification church for many years (though not anymore) and one of the best kept secrets is the church’s control of the sushi market in the U.S. It’s amazing how little coverage a subject like this gets, but then again most of the church’s businesses and finances seem to be a mystery.

  5. bender said

    Is that why so many sushi restaurants in the States are run by Koreans or that Japan town in SF is filled with Korean taverns? I was wondering the irony b/c Koreans seem to be so outright anti-Japan…BTW, I haven’t seen any Chinese or Vietnamese-run Japanese restaurants, and not much Chinese restaurants run by Koreans.

  6. ampontan said

    It’s been a while since I’ve been there, Bender, but as I recall, Japantown in San Francisco was somewhat of an artificial construct, compared to Chinatown, for example. I’m not sure if it arose organically as a neighborhood.

  7. bender said


    Yes and no. I thought the same as you before, but Japan Town actually seems to function as an information/culture center for Japanese and Japanese Americans around the area. Not that people live there in numbers like the Chinese in Chinatown (I may be incorrect, but the original Japanese Americans came to CA as farmers, not city dwellers).

    But still, I can’t help but notice many Korean stores and ethnic Koreans reading Korean newspapers there…it is curious that of all the other places, they chose “Japan Town”.

  8. Nor said

    I wonder if parasitic diseases are going to be globalized as well.

    Mackerel and squid can be infected with Anisakis larvae. If humans ingest infected fish, Anisakis larvae could attach to the wall of stomach or small intestines and cause severe abdominal pain within hours. This is well known among Japanese medical doctors. If Ansakiasis is suspected, they would immediately perform endoscopy to visualize the parasite and remove it. Anisakis would die if frozen, so only very fresh unfrozen fish pose this risk. Anisakiasis is also known to the Dutch and Scandinavians, but I doubt that the US doctors are well prepared for it.

    Another concern is raw salmon. Japanese did not eat raw salmon a decade ago, since freshwater fish could carry tapeworms. But, sushi with raw salmon is quite popular nowadays and it is regularly on the menu of the US sushi bars as well. Those salmons are said to be farm raised in saltwater off the coast of Norway and free of parasites. Nevertheless, I am not very comfortable with eating raw salmon.

  9. Ken said

    In addition to no refrigeration system, there was not fast transportation so that inland people could not have fresh tuna in the Edo era.
    They preferred Akami (low fat part) to Toro (high fat part) because the latter does not absorb soy source for preservation well.
    Marinated tuna soaked in soy source was more prevailed than sashimi tuna in the era.

    There were long discussions about Korean running Sushi restaurant and parasites as follows.

  10. bender said

    Now that’s a long thread. Lots of spiteful people.

    I kind of think anti-Japan in East Asia and among Asian Americans is kind of like anti-Americanism in the middle east, south america and elsewhere. You have hoodlums shouting how immoral Japan is and smashing Japanese embassies or burning Japanese flags, but you have them embracing Japanese culture to a point they don’t even realize. Much the same or even more intense with anti-Americanism.

    The difference is that with anti-Americanism, many agree that it’s dillusional (maybe I’m wrong on this), but with anti-Japan, many people in the world seem to think that the problem is with Japan and not the other way around. Can this be attributed at least partly to the seemingly careless statements of Japanese leaders, I don’t know. Maybe.

  11. James A said

    The problem with anti-anything is that it just becomes an emotional insult-slinging tit-for-tat. There are valid criticisms for any country, including Japan and the US. But the line between sage discourse and relentless flaming out of spite is very thin.

    And lots of people tend to respect a product from another country, despite not liking the country themselves.

    Do Koreans also fill other restaurant jobs or just jobs at Japanese restaurants? Since there’s a sizeable Korean expat population in the US, moreso than Japanese. I’ve seen Mexicans running sushi places as well in the US. Then again, I’ve seen Mexicans work at almost any kind of restaurant.

  12. Aceface said

    From my own experience with Koreans in the States,Japan and Korea,
    I would say there is a strong love-hate psyche among Koreans.We here only discuss “hate” part mostly for that is the news of the day and active troll comments in the blogsphere make us feel we are at war of words.

    I was in Seoul for my busisness for about a week and spend very good time with warm local hospitality.Lots of people talk to me in Japanese,including those who spend their youth under Japanese rule.I’ve also seen Japanophile side of the society in places like Kyobo-Munko,sort of Barnes & Nobles of Korea,and found huge section of translated Japanese lit section and manga.

    Koreans do consume lots of sushi in their country for simply they were under Japanese rule for 36 years.Thus you find more Koreans open sushi bar aboroad.(Taiwan’s 50 years of Japanese rule did not
    leave the legacy of sushi eating that much,but who would want to eat raw fish in sub-tropics).

    Financial reasons are also important.Sushi is not only a global dish,but also a very profitable one.That is why whe best sushi bar in Ulaanbaatar,Mongolia is run by North Korean public servants.When I was there two years ago,there were waiters with Kim Il Song badge serving us hamachi(coming from Tianjin,China by daily air cargo).I believe the establishment was made by Pyongyang
    to collect hard currency from tourist and expats in Mongolia,a decade ago,and kept serving sushi even at the time they Have close down the embassy.(the current DPRK embassy is now housed in former Japan International Cooperation Agency building,which was
    also used as Japanese embassy until 1994).

  13. ampontan said

    James A: Back when I lived in the US (and still ate doughnuts), the shop I always patronized was run by Koreans. They made excellent doughnuts.

    But that’s America. The best cup of capuccino I ever had was made by a Chinese guy in San Francisco.

  14. bender said

    Pizza shops are often run by Turks and Greeks, I’ve noticed (in Australia). Italians seem to take note of that, too.

    BTW, about the melting pot thing, I asked some Italian guys how they think of Giuliani and some justices in the Supreme Court (like Scalia)- they said that they’re Americans, and that in Italy, such facts are rarely taken notice. I kind of like this attitude- and should be that way. Sometimes I see Asian medias all excited about their “brethrens” doing well in the US, but I like it better if thier ethnicity is marginalized and individual attributes are emphasized.

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