Technology and the Globalization of Taste

Theodore Bestor wrote an article entitled “How Sushi Went Global,” in 2000, and after reading it I felt it exemplified some ideals of technology that we have been discussing. Sushi has been at the top of Japanese cuisine for over a thousand years. It originally arose as a way of preserving food. Fish were placed in rice and allowed to ferment, which permitted individuals to keep fish edible for some time. Until the 1960’s there was little mention of Japanese food in the United States media, and when mentioned recipes included cooked shrimp on caraway rye bread rather than the customary raw fish on rice. As technology and innovation were developing post WWII, globalization gave Americans a new appreciation for traditional Japanese cuisine.

In 1972 the New York Times did a story on the opening of a sushi bar in the elite sanctum of New York’s Harvard Club. Sushi became an American fad partly because of the emergence of Japan on the global economic scene in the 70’s, partly because American’s were rejecting hearty red meat in favor of healthy cuisine like fish and vegetables, and partly because technology made the food more accessible to the American people. The rapid growth of the industry made American businessmen’s mouths water, they were dying to get their hands on a piece of the profits that came from buying and selling fish.

Japan’s demand for sushi boomed in the 1980’s and created new markets for tuna in other countries. “Total Japanese imports of bluefin tuna worldwide increased from 957 metric tons (531 from the United States) in 1984 to 5,235 metric tons (857 from the United States) in 1993. The average wholesale price peaked in 1990 at 4,900 yen per kilogram, bones and all, which trimmed out to approximately U.S. $33 wholesale per edible pound.” The most influential piece of technology that enabled the sushi market to spread so far and rapidly was the Boeing 747.

The jumbo jet allows tuna buyers to bid on bluefin tuna, in Maine, early Tuesday morning and turn around and sell them in Tokyo on Wednesday. The ability to use a jet to transport fish nearly eliminates the gap between the two countries. The market for Tuna has brought together individuals and communities in unexpected relationships. Japan has set up joint ventures with large-scale Spanish fishing companies off the coast of Cartagena, Spain. These ventures are a prime example of cultures meshing in order to utilize their individual technologies together in order to be most efficient. The tuna farms rely on French fisherman to capture the fish and tow them to the pens, financing comes mostly from the Japanese trading companies, Australians developed the aquacultural techniques, the vitamin supplements come from European pharmaceutical giants and are packed in herring from Holland, and finally, the computer models used for feeding schedules and tracking weight gains comes from Japan. This high-tech system used to develop the ideal tuna has enabled the business to go global.

Although other countries have increasingly become more involved in the sushi culture of Japan, the Japanese are still the puppet masters of the business. The best tuna from New England may eventually land in restaurants in New York or L.A., but it must first be stamped with a sign of approval in Japan. I would like to conclude by loosely linking the invention of the 747 to the matured American palate for sushi.

Bentor, Theodore. “How Sushi Went Global.” Foreign Policy 121 (2000): 54-63.

9 Responses

  1. I never would have linked a 747 to sushi. I like this post! Eager to read “How Sushi Went Global.”

  2. This is so interesting! Not to mention I’m a huge fan of sushi so I was excited to read it. It’s amazing how many innovations go on before our eyes that we don’t even realize or pick up on. This post makes me wonder what sushi and other fish companies are doing today to deal with mercury issues and the public’s concern about consuming too much fish. Are there more innovations they are currently working on to make up for this?

  3. I don’t know about the mercury thing but the article did discuss issues with the rapid depletion of bluefin tuna. There is need for international regulations on fishing, which could be considered necessary innovation in legislation, in order to decrease the chance of extinction.

  4. It is amazing the ways in which technology has allowed countries to come together. The increase in Japanese restaurants in Manhattan over the past 10 years is astronomical. Additionally, there are now restaurants that serve American cuisine also listing sushi on the menu as an appetizer before a hamburger and fries entree. I think its really interesting how Japanese food is becoming apart of American Cuisine…. and through this integration the Japanese language and other cultural practices are also being introduced.

  5. I love all the interconnections you describe. It is also points out the convoluted relationship between culture and technology.

    But, you describe all these “cultures” linking. Those sound like companies and nations. Where is the culture in Japanese financing of Spanish fishing?

  6. My mistake. I misused the word cultures. I simply meant the mixture of different companies from different nations — globalization, which now that I’m writing this could mean mixture of cultures, but I did mean countries technologies.

  7. This was a really interesting read. Just imagine the supply chain impacts in Japan if there is a major natural event in Maine that kills the fish. No fish in Maine means no sushi in Japan.

  8. How is it profitable to fly sushi halfway across the world? That’s a lot of jet fuel and a lot of effort. Upon hearing stories like this, it makes you wonder how silly globalization seems sometimes. And what happens if the system collapses…like in World War Z? Then we’ll be in trouble real quick.

  9. You must consider the Japanese are importing 5,235 metric tons of bluefin tuna every year and the wholesale price is about $33 per edible lb. ROUGH calculations means 10,470,000 pounds imported which is about $345,510,000. Obviously I am probably not accounting for the edible weight verse the natural weight of the bluefin, but I’m just exemplifying the potential profitability that is there.

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