The Man Who Brought Sushi to America, Part II

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How Yul Brynner and “Shogun” Made Sushi Popular

TJ: Can you tell us what you did before you became involved with Mutual Trading?
KANAI: World War II was a very big shock to me. So after the war I read about philosophy. I was very interested in Robert Owen, a famous English philosopher. I took his philosophy, which taught me many good things, and decided to make my own life to improve myself.

During the war, the U.S. was Japan’s enemy but during the Occupation they did very good things to help build Japan back up. We could not imagine that the U.S. would do so many good things for us. At that time, I met Mr. Chuhei Ishii, who was a food supplier to the U.S. before the war. He had been in the U.S. for 30 years in Santa Maria doing food distribution, but he went to China during the war to take care of the Peking Grand Hotel – a large, famous hotel owned by the French. Mr. Ishii bought the hotel and moved to Peking. At the end of the war, I met him in Japan. As his wife and my mother were friends in Japan, my mother told me, “If you do business with the United States, go see Mr. Ishii and ask him questions.” So I visited Mr. Ishii. Although he wanted to return to the States, he lost his U.S. permanent residency when he went to China. He said to me, “I am thinking of making a business exporting food to the United States because there are many Japanese immigrants who cannot get Japanese food conveniently. Why don’t you help me?” So I joined him.
“ Shogun really launched Japanese culture in the U.S.”

TJ: And that company was?
KANAI: Tokyo Mutual Trading Company. It was founded in 1952. Mutual Trading Company had already been established in the U.S. in 1926 by Mr. Hoshizaki.

TJ: Were they separate companies?
KANAI: Yes. Mr. Hoshizaki came to Japan to buy food to import to the U.S. and made relations with Tokyo Mutual Trading Company. We did business for 10 years and I visited the United States during that time until Mr. Ishii regained his permanent residency. He then went to the United States to buy Mutual Trading Company as Mr. Hoshizaki was very old. Mr. Hoshizaki sold the company to Mr. Ishii but he still held a stake in the company. So his son is still one of the directors of my company now.
Mutual Trading’s business became very active. Over the next 10 years, I travelled to the U.S. many times. However, I was concerned about the future. I thought the number of Japanese people in the U.S. was very small and we could not expect to sell a lot of Japanese food. So to keep expanding the business, we had to create a Japanese food market among mainstream Americans. After the first sushi bar, Kawafuku, opened, Mr. Kubo, the owner of a landscaping company, wanted to get into the sushi business, but he didn’t want to stay in Little Tokyo. He was the first person to take the sushi business out of Little Tokyo to Century City, just outside Century Fox’s studios. He made a pretty big restaurant named Osho. The actor Yul Brynner started coming with his entourage and he would eat there every single day. So sushi became fashionable – not elite, but a fashionable food.

TJ: So Yul Brynner helped to make sushi popular?
KANAI: Yes, that’s right! From there, every other month, these little shops would open – every other block all the way from Century City to Santa Monica and we called it “Sushi Row.” I’m sure they’ve changed ownership, but even now you can still see these sushi shops. They all started because of Osho Sushi. A non-Japanese artist started Teru Sushi. I think it’s on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. It’s still there but the ownership has changed. She was the first westerner to open her own sushi bar. Another pivotal point was in 1977 when Shogun was aired on ABC. It was a week-long miniseries. When Shogun aired, no Japanese restaurant was open because during that week anyone connected to anything Japanese stayed at home. Right after the show ended, Japanese businesses boomed. Shogun really launched Japanese culture in the U.S. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #272. Click here to order from Amazon

Written By:

Anthony Al-Jamie

Anthony Al-Jamie lived and worked in Japan 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 and Executive Editor. He currently serves the Tokyo Journal as Editor-in-Chief.


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