Fishy sushi gets pressed into trade battle over rice


September 15, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO — An article in yesterday's Sun about sushi in Japan referred to "the late Craig Claiborne." The New York Times reports that its noted food writer "is very much alive."

The Sun regrets the error.

TOKYO -- The Japanese have been eating sushi since before the French had champagne and certainly centuries before the development of the crab cake -- to mention only two delights whose proper ingredients can cause national debate.

In this century, the Japanese have made sushi their defining national dish, put restaurants that serve nothing else on every city street corner and battled European environmentalists who said it endangered the Atlantic bluefin tuna.


After all that, a mere foreigner might be forgiven for assuming that by now the Japanese would know what sushi is.

Indeed, a foreigner as informed as the late Craig Claiborne, guru to two generations of U.S. gourmets, hazarded his own definition: "an assortment of small morsels of freshest raw fish and seafood, pressed into cold rice lightly seasoned with vinegar."

But now, almost nine centuries after the first record of anyone's dining on the stuff, Japanese are publicly debating just what, legally speaking, sushi is.

And on the answer could hinge the settlement of one of the bitterest of the scores of disputes that inflame relations with the United States, Japan's No. 1 trade partner.

The debate started with Sushi Boy Inc., an Osaka-based company that mass-produces the national delicacy and sends it out for customers to take from chain-link conveyor belts in each of its restaurants.

Starting in November, Sushi Boy plans to manufacture Japan's national dish in Escondido, Calif., freeze it and import it into Japan to put on conveyors at the company's 44 shops all over the country.

Not so fast, said bureaucrats at Japan's National Food Agency. On Sept. 4, they instructed Sushi Boy to give them samples of the proposed new import.

Only with a sample in hand, the bureaucrats said, could they properly weigh a question this country's government has never before had to confront: Under Japan's import-control laws, what is sushi?

It is as sensitive as any question they will ever handle.

Behind it lies a bitterly contested law that says nobody can import rice into Japan.

Two years ago, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries called the police and came a diplomat's phone call short of arresting Americans who publicly tested that law. They had put U.S. rice on display at an exhibition hall -- not to sell, just to let Japanese see foreign rice.

The phone call was from the U.S. Embassy. It persuaded delegates from the U.S. Rice Miller's Association that they'd already won the publicity battle and need not let themselves be hauled away.

This is what the bureaucrats want to decide: Is sushi a fish product, and therefore legal to import? Or is it a rice product, and therefore banned?

"It's a fish product," says Fujio Matsumoto, president of Sushi Boy. "We make sushi with 10 grams of fish and 23 grams of rice, and under the law that's enough fish to make it a prepared fish product."

Maybe, a food agency spokesman said yesterday, but also maybe not.

"One of the requirements of a prepared product is that the fish and the rice be inseparable," he says. "In some kinds of sushi, they can be separated, and then the rice portion might legally be rice. That's why we want to see the actual product."

The question thus might turn on architectural differences between the two most popular kinds of sushi.

Nigiri, the most popular, has a layer of raw fish or seafood on top of a layer of rice. Maki, the second-most popular, has a core of fish or vegetable surrounded by rice and wrapped in seaweed.

On one central question, there is no disagreement.

Sushi is a lot cheaper with California rice than with Japanese rice.

"We buy California rice at a sixth of the Japanese price, and it's very similar to what we get at home," Mr. Matsumoto says.

Even after freezing the sushi, shipping it to Japan and thawing it, he says, "we can sell a three-piece serving for 100 yen (about 80 cents), compared with two pieces for 200 yen (about $1.60)."

Given how much sushi Japanese put away every day, that's precisely why the idea quickly became so controversial. Newspapers are already dubbing it "The Great Sushi Debate."

For if Mr. Matsumoto is right, and imported sushi is a prepared fish product, Japan's powerful farm lobby could find its last big wall of protection has sprung a gaping leak.

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