On Eating Foreign Sushi in Japan


I turned on the TV in a Thai hostel last year, and compared international news broadcasts. Fox and MSNBC were covering the shootings in Colorado; Al Jazeera was reporting on what nations could buy with the tax revenue they lost to Swiss Bank Accounts. The BBC veered between both; NHK, the Japanese broadcaster, had an hour long television program about Sushi being eaten in Norway.

Japanese people can look at variations on sushi the way Americans compare a McDonalds in Kentucky to one in Malaysia. You can trace cultures more explicitly within the confines of those golden arches. Sushi, like McDonalds, is marked by the differences in its local incarnations: Globalization in a maki roll.

Consider China’s Peking Roll, which includes Peking Duck. The Netherlands have a herring roll; Mexico offers “Tampico” sushi with hot chilis.

The American idea of sushi is practically a different food. Japanese sushi is typically a small oval of white rice with raw fish on top. Sometimes it’s cooked, sometimes it’s cooked with a blow torch. Mayonnaise is more prevalent than wasabi. Wasabi is generally added by the chef, tucked under the fish, though some is available to dissolve into your soy sauce, which very few people actually use.

Americans prefer the seaweed rolled into a long tube and then cut. This is reserved mostly for egg and cucumber varieties of the food in Japan. Americans also designed a lot of sushi for people who don’t like sushi.

For example, uramaki rolls, in which the sticky rice is on the outside of the seaweed, is American (historically, a handful of examples exist in Japan, but it’s rare) and aimed at people who don’t like seaweed. The obvious examples, such as the Philadelphia Roll (Salmon, Avocado and Cream Cheese) and California Roll, are American, but so are Spider Rolls (crab legs) and Caterpillar Rolls, which have avocado and eel; note that the first drafts of American sushi had veggies or cooked fish.

Avocado in sushi still freaks my students out.

Ginger and Dissonance
The Japanese reaction to foreign sushi explains a lot about Japan’s relationship to foreign things.

On the one hand, books and magazines about foreign sushi emphasize how effing cool sushi is, from trendy Ivy League neighborhoods to Hollywood bistros to models in Italy. Sushi is cool, so Japan is cool.

But it’s baffling, too. Avocado in sushi? Rice outside? Stop the madness. Foreign sushi reads like a cool book that needs editing. Japan thinks the foreigners are getting it all wrong.

“Using the trope of original vs. copy, authenticity vs. fake, the us/them boundary is constantly reinforced in contrasting ‘over-decorated’ foreign sushi vs. ‘simple’ Japanese sushi; foreigners’ preference for strong tastes vs. Japanese appreciation of delicate flavours; Japanese knowledge of fish vs. foreigners’ relative ignorance of it. Strongly implied in statements such as ‘those people who drink Coke with sushi will not understand Japanese aesthetics of wabi and sabi’ (Kato 2002, pp. 69–70) is the position of the writers from the ‘original culture’ which produced sushi, and linked with this is the idea that only Japanese ‘truly’ understand ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ sushi. The cultural superiority of such perceptions is unmistakable.” – Sakamoto and Allen

This point seems to be a rough criticism of the Japanese relationship to foreigners, but we may be reading too much into it.

Consider burgers gone abroad. Any American who visits a MOS Burger in Japan will feel a similar twinge of “this is not a proper burger” as they close their foreign maw around a ham and egg burger or some strange mash of pea and squid bits.

saseboburgerThe pride in sushi sets it apart. Americans see a Sasebo burger and are simultaneously astonished by its towering deliciousness and confused by the massive egg. But we do not look upon the burger with cultural pride. The distinctions are interesting, and sometimes bizarre, but they are never shocking enough to rattle us.

The same couldn’t be said for sushi.

The Teen Angst of Emperor Meiji
Japan’s inferiority complex dates back to the opening of the gates of Dejima, when the first foreigners came into the country.

The Emperor and most nobility dressed in white face makeup, dyed their teeth black, shaved their eyebrows and painted them into place an inch higher on their foreheads. A British diplomat described the 16-year-old Emperor Meiji:

“His complexion was white, perhaps artificially so rendered, his mouth badly formed, what a doctor would call prognathous, but the general contour was good. His eyebrows were shaven off, and painted in an inch higher up. His costume consisted of a long black loose cape hanging backwards, a white upper garment or mantle and voluminous purple trousers.”

In other words, he looked to Westerners like a terrifying clown:


This made Westerners feel a bit awkward, and so the self-conscious teenage Emperor went ahead and insisted that everyone just stop doing all that stuff.

In 1870, he banned nobles from shaving eyebrows or blackening their teeth. In 1871, the Emperor insisted that everyone start cutting their hair in Western styles, and traded the billowing MC-Hammer-pants and reverse-capes for suits and ties. Students would eventually dress like Prussians (and still do).

Soon the young kabuki juggalo would look like a “proper” Western general.


Japan’s traditions at the time came from China, then a huge agricultural backwater. The Emperor’s embrace of the more powerful West would distance Japan from China. Imposing Western standards across Japan, down to its peasants, was a move toward power and international respectability.

Japan has struggled with that sense of respect ever since; its gradual fadeout halted by failed attempts to prove itself during WW2.

The Respect Issue
The sense that Japan isn’t respected by cultures abroad comes from the belief that Europe and America are more powerful modernized cultures and that Asia is retro. Japan loves French, English and American culture but also finds them incomprehensible; it’s embarrassed on many fronts.

Sushi flips that around: Its appeal makes sense. That Japanese cuisine is popular in deliciously snobby culinary cultures like France is a source of tremendous pride.

This pride, however, is occasionally threatened.

In 2006, a Japanese bureaucrat visited Colorado and went to a Japanese restaurant where  sushi was served alongside Korean BBQ.

This demanded government mobilization. Around the world, “Asian Fusion” restaurants were serving Japanese food alongside nonsense foods like “Chop Suey” or “Crab Rangoon.”

The Japanese Government announced a new campaign to certify the authenticity to restaurants abroad claiming to serve Japanese cuisine, with one politician declaring, “What we are seeing now are restaurants that pretend to offer Japanese cooking but are really Korean, Chinese or Filipino. We must protect our food culture.”

And so was born a new mission for the “Intellectual Property Strategic Programme” of Japan (IPSP). This government agency is responsible for the “branding” of Japan and Japanese products abroad, and it took to the sushi-purity cause with zeal.

The agency declared that Japanese food was a cultural asset that contributed to “gross national cultural power” and was a tool for cultural diplomacy. To this end, it encouraged a certification and authentication process for restaurants abroad that sought to serve “Japanese food.”

Sushi Power
Sushi has since become a form of “soft power,” a way for a nation without a military to assert cultural power abroad. This may seem ridiculous: How could sushi, anime, manga and karaoke contribute to a greater diplomatic standing? But with a limited arsenal of tools, Japan has relied on cultural and economic power.

It works. Consider the connection one makes to the “Made in Japan” label vs the “Made in Taiwan” label on the back of a TV. Japan has a brand: Dedication to aesthetics, efficiency and quality control. By branding Japanese rice, seaweed, green tea and electronics with the positive association of “Japan,” the country can charge or export more.

In the case of sushi, take a look at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, the so-called “Fish Market at the Center of the World.” Look at the origins of the fish. You’ll find fish caught off the coast of Alaska and California alongside fish caught in the warm seas of Southeast Asia; you will also find buyers coming to Japan to buy fish from their own oceans. Catch a fish in Singapore, send it to Japan, and have a Singaporean restaurant owner buy the same fish, “from Japan.”

A Fortress of Rice and Tuna
The IPSP never ended up becoming the “sushi police,” instead becoming an agency that helps restaurants become “more delicious” and “more authentic.” But the first reaction was  to stop other cultures from coming in, to protect its reputation around the world and stop  alien practices from corrupting a “pure” Japanese food.

One Japanese book on Sushi abroad sums it up:

“Japanese tend to protect themselves by raising barriers, and rejecting the participation of outsiders saying that it is too difficult, or that outsiders do not understand” (Tamamura).

Such regulatory schemes on proper sushi were exactly the kind of wall Japan erects around itself when threatened by foreign influence, or presence: We really want them to get it, but they just don’t get it. Drink Coca-Cola with your sushi and you’ll never appreciate cherry blossoms or whatever.

Sushi was once an exception, a Japanese product traveling around the world unhinged, adapting to local tastes in ways Japan as a nation has struggled to comprehend. Is it still a “Japanese food” if it’s made from Chinese birds? More importantly, can Peking Duck Sushi solve the Japan-China island dispute?

Soft Power, Soft Solutions
Probably not. Soft power has its limits. Japan often bows to international pressure and criticism because it depends on soft power. Cultural exports are only as valuable as the country’s image.

This is one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Japanese soft-power strategy. The government seems to imagine that sushi and anime will be cool forever, that American consumers will keep looking at the “Made in” tag instead of the price tag.

On the contrary, anime hasn’t been cool since 1998, sushi really isn’t changing anyone’s opinions on whaling, and Wal-Mart exists. The sexier, edgier K-pop has replaced J-pop even in Japan. The cornerstones of soft cultural power in Japan are crumbling.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but I can’t help but notice that the new right-wing prime minister hopes to restore a Japanese military just as we’re all getting bored with the Wii.

I’m being facetious, but perhaps it has been clear for a while that Japan has found the pursuit of soft-power more constraining than liberating.

Exercise the softest of your special powers by gently caressing your way over to This Japanese Life on Facebook. 

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9 Responses to On Eating Foreign Sushi in Japan

  1. Catspaw says:

    “young kabuki juggalo” – ha ha, love it

    “it encouraged a certification and authentication process for restaurants abroad that sought to serve “Japanese food.” – There is nothing to prevent a certification program, what could be more beneficial than an assurance of high quality and a refined authentic style?

    “Japan has found the pursuit of soft-power more constraining than liberating.” – The reputation for quality and style isn’t built quickly. Japan has much to be proud of in her traditions and cultural excellence.

    • They should certify sushi restaurants. You can’t simply call it Japanese sushi when the roll is made by machine and fish pre-sliced by kroger workers. This is an insult to my hard earned american dollars. When I pay for sushi, i expect japanese sushi, not sushit.

  2. Anne Smitten says:

    Wow, globalising sushi! it seems so crazy but unfortunately it is like this. I have been taking Japanese cuisine cooking classes in Northwestern Culinary Academy of Vancouver which offers one of the best cooking classes in Vancouver and we were really doing it “the American way” as you are describing it in your entry. However, now I really feel like trying the proper Japanese one. Any suggestions where in Vancouver could I try it?

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  4. wen says:

    If French people reacted the same way to what they mistake for is french cuisine or even pastries… It would be so hilarious!
    Very very interesting blog and posts!!

  5. Archana says:

    i remember being congratulated by more than one owner of a sushi restaurant because i did everything correctly – i ordered green tea with my simple sushi (i dont drink alcohol and fizzy drinks – it was either green tea or water and i ordered both), using chopsticks adeptly and not using extra soy sauce or wasabi etc. it felt so patronizing – no one is the west would congratulate you on using utensils correctly or picking the right wine – but i have to say, after eating really fresh sushi at the fish market at 10am, every other kind of sushi is a little less impressive.

    i also rely on japan for quality – something as simple as soba noodles. if you buy the Korean and Chinese brands – it just doesn’t taste as good as the Japanese brands. and all the Japanese brands i have tried vary but they are all infinitely better than the others.

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