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The meaning of Sushi (and Japan)

Having eaten sushi in many different countries, most recently in Irkutsk, Russia, I’ve started thinking about what sushi means to different people and cultures.

In Japan, sushi is a traditional cuisine where freshness of the ingredient and the ambiance of the restaurant makes all the difference. Sure there are conveyor belt sushi restaurants trying to bring down the price of sushi so that those who choose can eat it more often, but the traditional sushi bar with the chef that knows your name is still at the heart of the culture.

Upscale sushi restaurant in Japan

Upscale sushi restaurant in Japan

Not surprisingly, there is little experimentation with sushi, because you don’t change tradition.

In the “West” (Western Europe, US, Canada, Australia), sushi is an exotic cuisine from the East. It’s what you go to eat when you want something different from the ordinary along side French, Turkish, or Mexican cuisine. Restaurants try to be authentic which at times could mean the ambiance is “too Japanese,” and almost always Asian people are working there even if they aren’t Japanese.

Sushi restaurant in New Jersey, U.S.

Sushi restaurant in New Jersey, U.S.

In up and coming and developing countries, sushi is not only exotic, it’s a new age cuisine. It’s a sign of the coming times and what’s important isn’t the authenticity but the idea of it. The restaurant in Irkutsk resembled a hip bar more than a Japanese restaurant, blaring MTV video clips and serving champagne.

Sushi Studio in Irkutsk, Russia

Sushi Studio in Irkutsk, Russia

The menu barely resembled sushi as well:

A page from the Sushi Studio Menu

A page from the Sushi Studio Menu

The only similarity between the sushi here and in Japan was that both rice and fish were involved, and you could use soy sauce as flavoring. I’ve seen this in other countries too:

Sandwich-inspired Sushi dish in Tel Aviv, Israel

Sandwich-inspired Sushi dish in Tel Aviv, Israel

Pizza-like Sushi dish in Marrakesh, Morocco

Pizza-like Sushi dish in Marrakesh, Morocco

In comparison, Califonia rolls look authentic

In comparison, California rolls look authentic

Even the dessert is somewhat sushi-like, although nothing like this exists in Japan:

Dessert menu at the Sushi Studio

Dessert menu at the Sushi Studio

Sushi-inspired Dessert in Marrakesh

Sushi-inspired Dessert in Marrakesh

The first reaction from anyone Japanese would be “what the hell is this…” but I don’t mind at all as long as they don’t claim to be authentic. I’m sure the same happened in Japan when it started westernizing after the war, and there are still plenty of Japanese infused western cuisines in Japan:

Mos Rice Burger from MOS Burger in Japan

Mos Rice Burger from MOS Burger in Japan

The bigger issue I see here is not how sushi is being treated outside of Japan, but the fact that most Japanese people, and more importantly companies, don’t see this at all.

Japan is cool.

It’s a tiny island nation in the corner of the Pacific with the world’s third largest economy. It was never colonized, and it went toe-to-toe with the Western powers since the late 19th century, first militarily then economically. Outside small nations like Singapore, Taiwan, and Israel, it’s really the only developed country that’s not historically European (i.e. White) (one more recent exception: South Korea).

It’s a country with virtually no natural resources that still has the largest electronics industry manufactures the thirds most cars in the world. It’s incorporated Western influences into its society while retaining its own cultural identity, and the people are incredibly humble.

When I travel to less developed countries, the local people often talk highly about Japan and its wonderful cars and electronics. Japan is an incredible brand, but Japanese companies don’t use it to their advantage.

It’s no secret that many Japanese companies are failing to globalize, not being able to keep up with American innovations or the wage advantages of China. Japanese companies operate outside of Japan in two ways. One is to provide high quality products at a fair price, because that’s how these companies helped the people and country develop from the ashes of war. This is still working for the automotive industry where quality is a key differentiator, but for other consumer goods where quality is becoming cheaper and good enough is good enough, it’s no longer working.

The other is to make products that fit the needs of the local consumer. I don’t argue against that, but what’s happening now is that Japanese companies end up copying the most popular brands in the country which is often American or European. There is very little differentiation as a result.

Maybe the operating mode for Japanese companies in developing countries should not be to blend in but to be more Japanese, to use the Japan brand and provide something people aspire to, not just need or want. It should be cool and different, something the parents never had access to. Advertisements should feature Japanese geishas and school girls with the Tokyo neon night scape as a backdrop, not blond models on the beaches of California or the Mediterranean. It doesn’t have to be authentic, but it should be exotic.

When I taught English in China during the summer of 2001, one of the key field trip was to McDonalds in a distant larger city. McDonalds for the Chinese at that point, was the future, no matter how depressing that may sound to the western trained mind. McDonalds means different things to different cultures around the world and they use it to their advantage. In Hong Kong, they even offer an in-house wedding service.

All this could sound too capitalistically imperialist to some people, but I do believe that with the cultural attention to detail and desire for mastery, Japanese companies make some of the best products in the world. What they need to get better at isn’t the end product itself but getting it to the people not just in the distribution but the story, creating a dream of a better future, something the Americans are incredibly good at. If not, like sushi, people will keep consuming their own version of Japan, even if Japanese people aren’t involved in it.

Deceptive Sushi Bar in Paris

Deceptive Sushi Bar in Paris

 

 

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One Response to “The meaning of Sushi (and Japan)”

  1. February 14th, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    Charlotte says:

    My favourite sushi place in the world is in Nagoya, in Oasis 21. They make similar things to the sushi in your photo and the BEST ever was the tenpura asparagus sushi with thick brown okonomi-yaki style sauce on top.

    The worst was in Osaka, where they had weird sushi like burger sushi, and chicken nugget sushi.

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