The Man Who Brought Sushi to America, Part III

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Introducing Japanese Food Culture to America

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

TJ: Can you tell us about Rocky Aoki and Benihana?
KANAI: Rocky Aoki and I were introducing Japanese food to the U.S. almost at the same time, with me on the west coast and Mr. Aoki in New York. Mutual Trading’s idea was to introduce traditional Japanese food culture to Americans. However, Mr. Aoki combined Japanese and American food to create something brand new – the Teppan steakhouse. Since then, the spreading of the Japanese food business was based on two styles – Mr. Aoki’s Benihana Restaurant-style and my idea of traditional food, namely sushi. Mr. Aoki was a very personable man and a better businessman than me. Benihana grew through advertising and Mr. Aoki’s self-promotion. Finally Benihana arrived in California and I took my sushi concept to New York. At that time, I remember thinking to myself that sushi had a bright future due to its innate strength as a traditional culinary property, unique to Japanese foods.

TJ: You’ve told us about Mutual Trading’s history of introducing the sushi culture to the U.S. Can you tell us any other unique points about Mutual Trading?
KANAI: Introducing culture to other countries takes a long time. It took 50 years to introduce sushi into America and now I’m on a mission to popularize Japanese sake. It has already taken 20 years for it to start gaining momentum among Americans. However, I am 90 years old now and my working years are numbered. To carry on my mission, the longevity of the company is key. We need employees who can succeed my concepts and vision. With that in mind, I set out three corporate policies 50 years ago when I started this business in the United States:

    1. The health of individuals in the company is very important to the health of the company. Having seen faulty healthcare systems in place in the U.S., I created our own Mutual Trading Medical Plan. For the past 50 years, my company covered all premiums for quality care of each employee, with coverage of up to $3 million in medical expenses per person. We have already had two cases with employees needing in excess of $1 million each, covered in full.
    2. To foster long term employment at Mutual Trading, I rolled out an employee retirement system, started long before corporate America popularized the 401-K plans.
    3. Mutual Trading makes stock available to employees who desire a stake in the company and demonstrate strong dedication as an employee. This stock ownership policy has fostered long-term loyal commitment from our workforce.


TJ: You mentioned about introducing sake culture. Can you tell us about that?
KANAI: There is a lot of education that goes with introducing an item from another culture. Two years ago, we started the Sake School of America to teach fans of Japanese food and wine enthusiasts about sake. Just this past February, we lead three wine master sommeliers to Japan (there are only 129 of them in America), where they visited nine of the top sake breweries during the height of their brewing season. This helps wine professionals to better understand both sake and wine, which in the long term will help our industry. The Japanese government is promoting sake exports as well, however, their approach hasn’t been effective. They approach the market with creative programs and presentations, which leads to consumer interest, but it ends there. In contrast, we are in the import and distribution trade and handle products through the entire chain of logistics, from the brewery, across the Pacific, to the retailers and restaurants, and all the way into the consumer’s hands.

TJ: What other projects are you working on?
KANAI: We are focusing on sake and shochu now, but would like to begin focusing on warm foods. I’m investigating how they’re good for a healthy well-being. In Japan, there are various types of nabe cuisine: sukiyaki, shabu shabu, and oden. Oden tastes very good and is healthy, so I’d like to popularize oden hot pots. We still have to do product development from scratch so it’ll take some time. Another product we’d like to popularize is soba buckwheat noodles. It is healthy. Soba is the epitome of Japanese food. It is so humble and plain, yet it is so good for the mind and body. However as a business, soba is a hard sell because it is not as sexy as sushi . . . and there’s the slurping!

TJ: What about yakitori?
KANAI: Yakitori is popular, fitting right into the casual dining trend, which surged as a result of the bad economy. The younger generation, who can’t afford sushi, are exploring other Japanese foods among the more affordable casual dining category.

TJ: How is international growth going?
KANAI: It’s growing. We’ve invested heavily in Mexico and in Brazil, but Brazil is a hard nut to crack. In Mexico, there is a state north of Mexico City where Japanese auto manufacturers like Nissan, Mazda, and Suzuki have set up manufacturing plants, so many Japanese restaurants have been developing in the surrounding areas. I also have a growing business in Peru, and Chile.

TJ: Where is the trend for your company going in the next 50 years?
KANAI: Out of state and international markets. We’re anchored in New York and the West Coast, so now, we are going inland - Chicago, Denver, Houston, Dallas, and Miami. Most of the Japanese restaurants in those cities are not operated under Japanese management. So, it’s our duty as a leader in the Japanese food service industry to educate and share ideas. We also want to move into the retail business – not with the major supermarket chains, but rather with the specialty shops. tj

The complete article is available in Issue #273. 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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