In its ninth installment of a series by investigative reporter Hirokatsu Azuma, Shukan Jitsuwa (July 14) relates some sleazy tales of his encounters with sushi.
The writer recalls eating at a sushi restaurant behind Koma Stadium in Shinjuku's Kabukicho. He was just about to turn 20 (this was about four decades ago). After eating his fill of sushi, washed down with three beers, he was horrified to be presented with a bill for 48,000 yen. Since the prices for each type of fish were posted on the wall, he asked for a "meisai-hyo" (itemized account).
"Elder brother, charges for sushi are tailored to your feelings, so please don't treat me like a dummy," the operator grinned maliciously.
"You've set the price based on your shop's feelings, not mine!" Azuma retorted.
"A shop employee with a square-shaped face came up behind me and introduced himself as a member of the Sumiyoshi-kai -- an unfamiliar name as I didn't know anything about yakuza in those days. He escorted me to his office where a guy with a missing pinky, obviously the boss, was waiting.
"I told him, I'm just a poor student, and tomorrow I'm traveling to the Soviet Union. If I pay 48,000 yen, I won't have enough funds for my trip."
"But you have to pay what's on the bill," the yakuza replied. "That's the way things work in Kabukicho. If you don't, it's the same as 'kui-nige' (running off without paying the tab)."
Then in a display of yakuza chivalry, he told Azuma, "But I'll tell you what: after you pay the full charge, I'll give you a 'senbetsu' (a going-away present) of 40,000 yen."
Azuma felt relieved, since 8,000 yen was probably a fair price for what he had eaten. "What's more, the boss then treated me to drinks at a nearby Korean barbecue restaurant. The next day, nursing a terrible hangover, I set sail for Russia aboard the Khabarovsk," he recalls.
Presently, Moscow is undergoing something of a sushi boom, with several hundred establishments in the city, and of late the number of "kaiten-zushi" shops have been increasingly rapidly. The four most popular varieties there are said to be maguro (tuna), salmon, ikura (salmon roe) and uni (sea urchin). With the exception of the tuna, the others are all sourced from Russia.
On the other hand, Russians tend to disdain varieties that appear oily, which go against their perception that to get the health benefits from sea foods one must avoid oily or fatty foods.
Unfortunately, supplies to sushi outlets may be threatened by turf wars between as many as eight competing crime syndicates, which are said to be deeply involved in the fishery firms operating on the island of Sakhalin.
"When I come to Japan, I'm a businessman, not a gangster," Azuma was told by a member of one such organization. "There's no conflict with Japanese, even with the yakuza. My main business is exporting sea food and Russian girls to Japan."
According to Azuma, Japan's kaiten-zushi chains are heavily dependent on imports for their ingredients. "I'd never even heard that salmon swim upstream in Vietnam's Mekong river," he says. "And the Atlantic salmon raised at fish farms in Chile are shipped to Vietnam for processing before export to Japan, obscuring the origin."
What's more, these fish are fed with Canthaxanthin, a substance that imparts a golden orange hue to human skin. Overuse is prohibited in the EU.
The Chilean/Vietnamese salmon are just one of many examples of foods supplied for consumption in Japan's kaiten-zushi shops. "About the only thing in here that's 'Made in Japan' any more is the soil on the soles of customers' shoes," Azuma writes. Even what passes as wasabi (horseradish) are imports adulterated with food coloring and artificial flavoring.
As if these aren't bad enough, he voices concerns that the rice harvested this autumn that will eventually be used in the sushi shops is likely to carry traces of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear accident.© Japan Today