Sasha Issenberg describes the effects that globalization and the onset of the tuna trade had on how sushi is made and its emergence in local cuisines around the world. He does this by giving the accounts of various people who are in some way or another connected to the global tuna industry; or in some cases, are related to the creation of sushi itself. Issenberg separates his book into four parts, containing eleven chapters in total. The first part is comprised of the first four chapters and is entitled “The Freight Economy.
” This section focuses on the creation of the tuna trade and acknowledges the areas of Japan that play the biggest role in this multi-billion dollar industry.
The red meat of the tuna was once completely disregarded by Japanese consumers because of its large fat content. In post-war Japan however, perhaps because of the American occupation, Japanese tastes began to mimic those of American diners. The Japanese started craving fattier foods.
By the end of the 1960s, the tuna, particularly the Bluefin tuna, was the fish that sushi consumers most sought after. The problem was, the Japanese market supply was unable to keep up with the growing demand for this once neglected fish. A Japan Airlines (JAL) employee named Akira Okazaki developed a solution to this problem.
Okazaki worked for in the cargo division of JAL. In the early 1970s JAL had a “one-way traffic problem.” ii When their aircrafts returned to Tokyo after an international flight their cargo holds were typically empty.
After learning of a port in Canada where every year fishermen pursue the bluefin tuna merely for sport, Okazaki was inspired to solve the airline’s problem by having the empty planes import tuna from the North Atlantic into Japan. This was deemed “Okazaki’s tuna project.”ili Eventually, after many experiments, Okazaki managed to successfully transport fresh bluefin tuna from the coast of Canada to the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. This was the start of the “transoceanic fresh-tuna trade.”iv The second chapter of Issenberg’s book is devoted to Tsukiji, “Tokyo’s primary market,” founded in 1923 and spanning across fifty-seven acres. Here individual tuna fish regularly sell for thirty thousand dollars or more, and six billion dollars in seafood exchanges hands annually.
Tsukiji tuna auctions play a large role in the global tuna trade. Purchases made here drive the prices of seafood in markets as far away as New York and Italy. Vi These auctions are incredibly competitive and one must have a special license in order to buy from the auction. In addition to describing what one generally sees at the market, Issenberg follows the daily routine of Haruo Matsui. Matsui is one of the four hundred intermediate wholesalers who specialize in tuna.
Chapter two also contains a section pertaining to the history of the seafood industry in Japan. The focuses of this subsection are the development and evolution of Japanese fishing techniques and the introduction of new types of fish to Japan. As technology advanced and as Japan’s global reach increased, Tsukiji saw the introduction of such fish as red snapper from the northwestern coast of Africa and the horse mackerel, and barracuda from New Zealand. In 1967, the first Japanese long-line fishing boats brought tuna (caught in American waters) back to Japan. As new sources of tuna became readily available, the fish’s image in Japanese society began to change in for the better and wholesalers began to shift their focus to tuna. vii Matsui for example, had originally worked with marlin (like his father had before him). However, after observing the seafood market in Japan, he determined that he would be able to make more money by working with tuna than with marlin. Matsui’s side story, along with the stories of various other players in the tuna industry, continues throughout Issenberg’s book.
In Tsukiji, a tuna auction can consist of tuna caught from various places in “every major body of water in the world. “vili The vast majority of these tuna arrived in Japan at the same spot, the Narita airport. The third chapter in the book is dedicated to the New Tokyo International Airport, opened in 1978 near Narita, plays a large role in the tuna industry. Tuna seems to emerge from nearly every plane that comes into this hub airport. Issenberg comments that freighters from airports around the world arrive at Narita, but no airline has been as committed to high-quality fish transport as JAL. Issenberg then goes on to follow up on his account of Okazaki and JAL. He tells of what this airline had done in the weeks following “the day of the flying fish,”ix the day that Tsukiji held the auction of the first fresh tuna flown in from Canada.
In the fourth chapter, Issenberg brings into light how sushi has changed over the centuries in Japan. Modern day sushi evolved from the process of fermenting fish in rice was once only done in order to cure and preserve the fish. Initially the rice used was actually thrown away and not eaten with the fish. It was not until the sixteenth century that people began eating the fermented rice along with the fish. During the Edo Period in Tokyo, a man named Hanaya Yohei came up with a method of creating sushi in which he quickly molded his rice and fish together, and served it on the spot. Yohei opened a restaurant and found an immediate customer base. In the quickly industrializing Japan, Yohei’s inexpensive haya-zushi (quick sushi) fit the needs of the emerging consumer class.
By 1852, sushi had become Edo’s preferred snack. Sushi stalls outnumbered noodle restaurants by nearly one hundred fifty to one. About the turn of the century, Western influence prompted sushi stalls to move indoors and to start serving alcohol. The world of sushi was once again affected by the Western world when at the 1970 Osaka Expo; restaurants such as McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken were introduced to Japan. Copying the growth strategies of restaurants such as these, entrepreneur and restaurateur Yoshiaki Shiraishi, opened a chain of restaurants in which the sushi is served on a conveyor belt. This form of sushi bar would come to be known as kaiten-zushi (turnover sushi). Shiraishi eventually opened 240 franchises all over Japan. As of 2006 there are estimated to be 3,500 kaiten-zushi restaurants in Japan, and the Japanese government even added their prices to the country’s consumer price index.
The second part of Issenberg’s book, designated “The Food Economy,” contains three chapters. This section is devoted to demonstrating how the Japanese love of sushi has spread across the globe and well as the effect that local cultures have on the making of sushi. Issenberg focuses on the coming of sushi to three areas in particular; Los Angeles, California, Paradise Island, Bahamas, and Austin Texas. In each of these chapters he draws heavily from the accounts of various restaurateurs and the accounts of people from the new industry of sushi bar supply stores, businesses whose primary function is to provide services to sushi bars.
This section also gives readers a good idea of the hierarchy that exists in sushi bars (more so in Japan, than anywhere else). Sushi chefs often train for years before ever actually cutting fish. Trainees often only perform menial tasks, working with fish more and more as they move up in rank. Many sushi chefs (even Japanese chefs) prefer working in America as opposed to in Japan because the ideals for making sushi are much less strict. The process of moving up in rank is much slower in Japan.
The third section entitled “The Fish Economy,” deals with various occupations within the tuna trade. Issenberg also makes multiple remarks about various natural disasters and epidemics (from Hurricane Wilma, to cyclones, to the avian flu) that had serious negative effects on the tuna industry. The first of the three chapters within this section, deals primarily with the fishermen who catches the fish, and the dealer takes the fish to the market. In the past, the fishermen would sell what they caught to dealers, who would then proceed to take them to market and keep all the profit that could be made off of each fish. However, nowadays, the dealers still take the tuna to market, but they work on consignment. The fishermen now pay the dealers five percent of the final-sale price and take the shipping costs, tariffs, and listing costs upon themselves. By doing this they stand to gain much more profit if a fish does well at auction (though they could also take a financial hit if the fish does poorly).
Chapter nine focuses on the development of tuna ranching. Initially done by catching small tuna and forcibly relocating them to a new location, tuna ranching is done by essentially herding small tuna into a “ranch” where it is grown for approximately three years and then sold.
As a result of tuna ranching, the town where this process was first started, Port Lincoln, Australia, has become “the richest town in Australia, “Xi and is home to more millionaires per capita than any other place in the country. Because this is such a lucrative business, many tuna farms have begun popping up, and not all are operating within the laws.
Chapter ten deals with lawbreakers who violate the laws of the tuna trade as dictated by the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT). This organization set quotas that limit the number of pounds of tuna that any given area is able to send to market, and these quotas are divided (unequally) between tuna ranches. Unfortunately this organization lacks the ability to enforce this quota, and as such, some tuna farms falsify records stating that less tuna is sold than is actually the case. In one case, Issenberg notes that a ranch managed to remained completely hidden and off the grid, until being discovered by a man contracted to reveal the misdoings and falsifications of tuna ranches. In this chapter, the accounts of this man, Roberto Mielgo Bregazzi, and of Arata Izawa are Issenberg’s two primary focuses.
The final section of the book only contains one chapter. The last chapter of the book primarily follows the story of Takamasa Ueno, a sushi mogul from Japan who owns the sushi chain Umai Sushikan. Following the Chinese government’s announcement in 2001 that foreigners would now be allowed to have full ownership of restaurants, he brought the chain to China. This was not the first introduction of sushi to China. The Chinese have long resisted eating the raw fish that constitutes sushi. However, Issenberg notes that their tastes are changing, and according to a quote from Tom Asakawa, a fisheries trade specialist; five years from now, one may have to go to China if they want to eat good quality sashimi.
Issenberg’s purpose in writing this book was to create a book that acknowledges the large role that globalization plays in the creation and beauty of sushi. He thoroughly accomplishes this goal. Every chapter in this book is riddled with references to international influence and the functions assumed by foreign countries concerning sushi production. In addition to serious facts about the subject, Issenberg includes anecdotes about characters such as a man known affectionately as the “Sushi Nazi.” In addition to these amusing side notes, the attention that the author pays to various characters in the sushi economy, cause the book to seem more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. Because it appears this way, this book is a fairly easy read that is quite capable of holding the interest of readers.
Unfortunately, this novel-like quality is something of a double-edged sword. Despite being entertaining, the tendency of the author to center stories around a multitude of individuals causes information to blend together, and an inability to correctly recall a number of facts that the book stated. Therefore, even though this book succeeds in communicates the idea that Issenberg wanted to get across, the writing style is such that the reader may not be able to completely retain the information that he presented. This one imperfection aside, The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy is a book that thoroughly covers the object for which it is written. And it is well worth reading.