Although Japan’s cuisine is complex and diverse, for most Americans, Japanese food is synonymous with sushi. There are nearly 4000 sushi restaurants across the United States today, grossing over $2 billion annually. But 50 years ago, most Americans had never heard of sushi; if they ate Japanese food at all, it was more likely to be sukiyaki (beef and vegetables cooked hot-pot style in a soy-based broth) or tempura. If fact, many Americans would have thought the idea of consuming raw fish appalling. It took a smash-hit TV show and a boom in immigration from Japan to turn sushi into an everyday “American” food.
In the 1950s many Americans were somewhat resistant to Japanese food and culture, in part because they had lived through World War II and still perceived Japan as “the enemy.” But by the 1960s, the tide had started to turn: Food journalist and restaurant critic Craig Claiborne, writing for The New York Times dining section during that decade, was excited by international dining and kept tabs on the city’s numerous Japanese restaurants. He declared Japanese food a trend in New York after two establishments opened in 1963, noting that “New Yorkers seem to take to the raw fish dishes, sashimi and sushi, with almost the same enthusiasm they display for tempura and sukiyaki.” However, he admitted, “sushi may seem a trifle too ‘far out’ for many American palates" [PDF].
According to The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice by Trevor Corson, Los Angeles was the first American home of authentic Japanese sushi. In 1966, a Japanese businessman named Noritoshi Kanai brought a sushi chef and his wife from Japan, and opened a nigiri sushi bar with them inside a Japanese restaurant known as Kawafuku in LA's Little Tokyo. The restaurant was popular, but only with Japanese immigrants, not with American clientele. However, as more sushi spots opened in Little Tokyo, word got back to Japan that there was money to be made in America. Young chefs, tired of the rigorous and restrictive traditional culture of sushi making in Japan, struck out on their own in LA.
The first sushi bar outside of the Little Tokyo neighborhood popped up in 1970, next to the 20th Century Fox studio. Named Osho, it began attracting a fashionable, celebrity clientele—including Yul Brynner, a lunchtime regular. As Hollywood began to embrace sushi throughout the 1970s, the food also got a boost as Americans were encouraged to eat more fish for better health. According to Corson, “In 1977, the U.S. Senate issued a report called Dietary Goals for the United States, that blamed fatty, high-cholesterol foods for the increasing incidence of disease. The report recommended greater consumption of fish and grains. Around the same time, health experts also began to promote the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, abundant in fish. Many Americans discovered sushi as a healthful alternative.”
And then came Shōgun, an epic television event that would change America’s cultural relationship with Japan. Based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel, Shōgun is a work of historical fiction depicting the story of a British sailor’s rise as a political player in 17th century Japan. The Shōgun miniseries, which aired over five evenings in mid-September 1980, was a smash hit—watched by more than 30 percent of American households and earning three Golden Globes and three Emmys. The show was also notable because it was filmed entirely in Japan and all the Japanese roles were actually played by Japanese actors. (Previously in American films and television, Asian roles were often played by American actors in yellowface—think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) Shōgun depicted Japanese dress, culture, and food with a level of authenticity that was previously unparalleled on the American screen. A surprising amount of academic research has since been done of Shōgun and its cultural influence, and the series was required viewing in many high school history curriculums throughout the 1980s. Corson credits the show with sparking “a nationwide interest in all things Japanese, including sushi.”
The launch of the Shōgun series coincided with an economic boom in Japan that brought many Japanese businesses to the United States in the late ’70’s and early ’80s. This, in turn, encouraged a new wave of Japanese immigration. The combination of gastronomically homesick Japanese and Americans enraptured by Japanese culture created a wave of interest in Japanese food, particularly sushi.
In 1984, what is probably the oldest continually operating sushi restaurant in New York, Hasaki, opened. The eatery was founded on East 9th Street in the Little Tokyo section of the East Village by a Japanese immigrant named Bon Yagi, who wanted to avoid the unfocused, pan-Japanese restaurants that had been more common in America’s past. Hasaki was the result of the boom in Japanese immigration—it provided a comforting dose of home for expats. But it survived and thrived because of the growing American interest in Japanese cuisine.
Yagi capitalized on Hasaki’s success by opening over a dozen other restaurants within a few blocks, all focusing on Japanese specialties—including a soba noodle restaurant with soy-soaked dashi broths, a ramen joint, a casual curry place, and a small shop for takoyaki fried octopus balls, among others. His restaurants became the heart of the Little Tokyo neighborhood, which still attracts Japanese immigrants as well as curious Americans with roots in other cultures.
Outside of New York, it can be hard to find the varied Japanese specialties Yagi has brought to the East Village—but it’s very easy to find a sushi restaurant. Sushi has become as ubiquitous in America as Chinese take-out, and has experienced much of the same transformative evolution as Chinese-American food. It’s changed as a result of being made by Americans without Japanese heritage, and also while its creators focused on local, American ingredients.
Corson credits the invention of the California roll with making sushi accessible to Americans. The roll evolved in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and used local avocados paired with crab meat to replace hard-to-find fresh, fatty tuna. But its real innovation came many years later, when a chef decided to make the roll “inside out”—with the seaweed hidden in the middle. (The first genius to make an inside-out roll is unknown.) The California roll used ingredients familiar to Americans and hid the seaweed, which was seen as foreign and challenging.
Another classic example, the spicy tuna roll, was invented in Los Angeles in the early 1980s by mixing tuna scraps with chili sauce and rolling the result with seaweed and rice. Today, the tuna roll is usually sauced with sriracha, which is produced in the nearby suburb of Irwindale, California. The result is a mix of Japanese and “American” flavors.
In the past half-century, it’s not just Americans who have become fascinated with Japanese culture; the feeling is often mutual. As a result, American-style sushi has begun to make its way back to Japan. According to an article in The Asia-Pacific Journal, “The sushi that is served in these new-wave American sushi restaurants (mostly roll sushi with ingredients other than raw fish) is both similar to, and distinctively different from most sushi available in Japan.” In one restaurant in Tokyo, Genji Sushi New York, the signage and menu are partly in English and they serve California rolls; Philadelphia rolls with salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber; and Rainbow rolls, a variation on a California roll that is wrapped in multicolored sashimi. All are American creations. The Journal explains the Japanese consumption of these hybrid-sushi rolls is both playful and ironic, and seen as something cool and hip.
Today, meeting friends for sushi is almost as American as going out for a beer and a pizza. It’s proof positive that when we leave our hearts—and plates—open to other cultures, good things often come of it.