Print this page

The Man Who Brought Sushi to America

|  
(1 Vote)
The Man Who Brought Sushi to America

The Man Who Brought Sushi to America By Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie

This is the first in a series of interviews with Noritoshi Kanai, President of Mutual Trading, the man who coined the phrase “sushi bar”.

TJ: When did you become President of Mutual Trading?
KANAI: 1976.

TJ: Who was the original founder of Mutual Trading?
KANAI: Sadagoro Hoshizaki in 1926. He was a merchant in Little Tokyo from Odawara, Japan. At the time, it was difficult to bring Japanese food from Japan, so he created a co-op with other Japanese people in the area to import Japanese food to the U.S. When the war broke out in 1941, all Japanese had to go into internment camps. Most merchants in Little Tokyo were hawking their businesses and belongings, but near Mutual Trading on First Street there was a school called Maryknoll Catholic School that had a lot of Japanese students. The administrators said, “Just bring in all of your belongings and we’ll keep them in the basement.” The people at Mutual Trading were very lucky. However, the majority of the other people came back to Little Tokyo and found nothing. They had to rebuild and they needed utensils and cooking ware. So Mutual Trading had a purpose and was able to get back into business right away by helping many families in Little Tokyo get started with their lives again. I came into the business from the Tokyo side, with Tokyo Mutual Trading, which was the Tokyo-based export arm of Mutual Trading in Los Angeles (the import arm). I started Tokyo Mutual Trading in 1952.

TJ: So as I understand it, you were looking to open a niche business. Is that correct?
KANAI: That’s right. I met a Jewish-American man in his fifties or sixties in the house wares business. We travelled to Japan and Asia a number of times looking for a good business model. One time, I suggested we try sushi and Mr. Wolff enjoyed it. When we returned to the U.S., he said,“When Jewish people first came to the United States, they were very poor but they focused on culture. When foreign people come to the United States, the best way to do business is to stand on your culture. You have to stand on your culture! Why don’t you start with sushi?”.

TJ: How did you start?
KANAI: When I first said I’m going int the sushi business, people told me Americans don’t eat raw fish by hand! “It’s dirty.” But I followed Mr. Wolff ’s suggestion.
I had two choices.
1) Introduce Japanese food culture through the supermarkets,which I thought would take a hundred years before American housewives began buying Japanese food products.
2) Do it through restaurants. At the time, American housewives were starting to get jobs, so they had no time to cook at home and many families were eating out at restaurants. So I thought I would start bringing Japanese sushi chefs to the U.S. We found a Japanese investor and started the Japanese food business in 1963. The first restaurant to serve sushi was a huge Japanese restaurant in Little Tokyo called “Kawafuku” owned by Mr. Nakajima. It served Japanese food – tempura, sashimi,and sukiyaki. I said to Mr. Nakajima, “I’m going to supply raw materials for sushi.Why don’t you make a sushi bar?” At the time, there was no name for “Sushi Bar” in English, so I made up the term.

TJ: Was Mr. Nakajima eager to start?
KANAI: Not at first. He said, “Mr. Kanai,sushi will never be popular with Americans.” Whole fish was not sold in supermarkets at the time. Fish was cut and frozen and you never saw the head, tail or eyes. So he thought sushi could never be sold and if we started selling sushi, American customers would run away. I said to him, “If you want to make this Japanese restaurant successful, you have to get American customers. Americans are open minded, and if they like sushi, it will
become a good market.” He did not agree,but his wife finally helped me convince him and the first sushi bar in America opened.Mutual Trading helped bring in the ingredients,supplies and a sushi chef from Ginza– Chef Saito, America’s first sushi chef. Some ingredients we didn’t have, so I sent people to get shellfish from the shores of Korea and asked them to freeze it. Shellfish wasn’t frozen at the time, but I got them to freeze it in little ice cube trays.

TJ: When did sushi start to take off?
KANAI:In the 1960s. Many Japanese businessmen from Toyota, Nissan, etc. started coming in, and they brought their American colleagues. Several of their American friends loved sushi and they introduced more Americans to the restaurant. That’s how it grew and how the first sushi bar started in the U.S. After four years, Chef Saito, a middle-aged man, had made a small fortune so he took it back to Tokyo and opened a sushi bar in the middle of Ginza. Needless to say, he was an instant celebrity, as in those days sushi chefs normally had to apprentice until they were in their sixties before running their own shop. tj

 

The complete article is available in Issue #271. Click here to order from Amazon

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Dr. Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked as an educational administrator and journalist in Tokyo for over 20 years. His in-depth understanding of Japanese language and culture has allowed him to carry out interviews with many of the most renowned individuals in Japan. He first began writing for the Tokyo Journal in the 1990s as Education Editor, later he was promoted to Senior Editor, and eventually International Editor. He currently works in higher education publishing and serves the Tokyo Journal as Executive Editor.



Latest from Anthony Al-Jamie