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The Surprising History of Japanese Sushi

Sushi is the quintessential Japanese food, enjoyed the world over as the perfect representation of the sophistication and delicacy of the country's cuisine. Nowadays this fish and rice dish has an upmarket culture surrounding it, studded with countless Michelin stars; the guide lists over 30 restaurants in Tokyo alone! But where did sushi come from, and did it always hold such a high status?

The short answer is: no, not in the slightest! Sushi actually came from very simple beginnings, and its status as a premium dish (with a premium price tag) is relatively new. Over the past two millennia, the dish has undergone endless transformation. Starting out as a simple food for poor Southeast Asian farmers, it became a world-conquering dish celebrated by gourmands all the way from Hokkaido to Helsinki. 

Let’s take a look then, at how this humble fish dish first came to be, and how changes in Japanese culture throughout history led to the cuisine we know today. 

In the Beginning

As with all ancient matters, you’ll find that the early history of sushi is as much a subject of myth and legend as fact. For those who prefer the former, the story goes that an old Japanese woman was sick of thieves making off with her pots of rice, so she hid them in the nest of a bird of prey. After leaving them there for a while, she found that the bird had accidentally dropped some of its leftover fish into the pots, and the mixture had fermented to create a well-preserved and delicious meal. 

Pictured: a plate of osprey scraps and spoiled rice.

The Facts Behind the Fiction

The old lady of this Japanese legend is rarely credited with inventing sushi nowadays, mostly because there’s a 99.9999% chance she never even existed. The reality is that sushi was born on the riverbanks of Southeast Asia, far from the shores of Japan. 

In the stifling heat and humidity of the countries cut through by the Mekong River, fish spoiled incredibly quickly. Around 2300 years ago, some of the fishermen of the region realized that they could preserve their catches wit the use of salt and rice. They first rubbed the fish in salt and dried it for about a week, then removed the salt and packed the fish with rice before storing them in weighted barrels. 

The result was something more similar to Scandinavian fermented fish than modern sushi. Nowadays, it’s known in Japan as nare-zushi. Anyone who has tried Sweden’s surströmming (fermented herring) will be able to attest to how downright awful this kind of dish smells. 

This fermented fish and chili dish from Laos has more in common with the original 'sushi' than anything you'll find at a modern Japanese restaurant.

However, for the struggling sustenance farmers of ancient Asia, eating a pungent but edible meal was a far better fate than going hungry. The rice was another story altogether. After months years of fermentation, it was completely inedible, not even fit for livestock. For that reason, the very first sushi wasn’t actually eaten with rice.

Despite the loss of a little rice, large hauls of fish could now be fermented in barrels for anything from a few months to over a year, set aside for a rainy day. Over the following centuries, the practice spread throughout Southeast Asia, all the way up to China, then over to Japan. 

That’s why some sources will incorrectly state that sushi is originally a Chinese dish. Although, this might be a result of propaganda rather than a simple error (modern China has developed a bad habit of falsely claiming to be the origin of everything from domesticated dogs to soccer!).

Early Sushi in Japan

Nobody can state with exact certainty when sushi found its way to Japan, but it’s safe to say that it was roughly around the beginning of the 8th century. A document from 718 AD named the Yōrō Code is the first recorded mention of its existence in the country. 

It’s thought that, since the upper classes could comfortably afford fresh food, this fermented fish dish remained in the domain of the poor farmers and laborers of Japan. Often living hand to mouth, members of impoverished communities couldn’t afford waste, but had access to plenty of rice from their paddy fields with which to stuff the fish.

One of the very first types of Japanese sushi was funa-zushi. This was a style of nare-zushi made with the crucian carp of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture, fermented for several months. The dish is a point of pride for locals even today, so if you want a chance to try some of the original, fermented sushi of centuries past then this is the place to go. 

Seta no Sekisho (1835) by Utagawa Hiroshige. Japan's biggest freshwater lake is famous for its original fermented sushi.

The Start of Modernization

It wasn’t until the Muromachi Period (1338 to 1573) that something reminiscent of the sushi we know today took form. It was discovered that waiting for the fermentation process to finish wasn’t really necessary. In fact, cutting it short actually removed much of the pungent odors. In addition, people began to add extra weight to the barrels and boxes of fish, which sped up the process with added pressure. Now sushi could be produced in a matter of weeks rather than months.

This faster form of partly-fermented sushi was known as han-nare. An added benefit was that the rice used in the process wasn’t rendered inedible as in the ancient styles. Actually, it had a pleasantly acidic taste which matched the fish, so people began eating the two together as one dish.

The shift in sushi between the days of nare-zushi and han-nare wasn’t only gastronomic, but cultural too. Now that the stench had been largely removed from the dish, it didn’t offend the sensibilities of the upper classes quite as much. Thereby, sushi made its way from the huts of villagers to the tea rooms of nobles.

Innovation was instrumental in the development of sushi, like the nori seaweed wraps added in the mid 18th century to create the makizushi style.

Edomae Sushi

With the dawn of the Edo Period (1603 to 1868) Japan entered a time of relative peace and prosperity. Without any major wars to disrupt supply chains and empty villages of their fighting-age men, food was suddenly in abundance! Why then bother at all with the labor of preserving fish for many months, when you have fresh catches coming into the harbors every day?

A new style of sushi developed as a result, which was far fresher than its historic counterparts. This was haya-zushi (literally: ‘fast sushi’). At first, it was generally only pressed for a few days at most. However, even this preparation step soon disappeared, as since there wasn’t time for the fish to ferment, there was no need to block out the air. This was the start of Tokyo style sushi, or Edomae

This 1919 print by Ryūryūkyo Shinsai shows the cuisine taking on its clearly-recognizable modern forms.

The Birth of Nigiri

So sushi became fresher and fresher, with red rice vinegar added in order to give the dishes a taste reminiscent of the old, fermented styles. In the middle of the Edo Period, the most popular style of modern sushi was invented: nigiri. These are the iconic rectangular rice cakes, topped with slices of fish. With the population of Japan’s capital exploding, this sushi became a fast-food staple sold from carts around the city. That’s right — one of the most refined and sophisticated foods of modern gastronomy actually began its life as the 19th century Tokyo equivalent of a Big Mac. 

The iconic nigiri sushi began as a simple street food, usually eaten with fingers rather than chopsticks.

The most popular origin story traces this style of fresh, fast sushi back to the stall of one man named Hanaya Yohei, who lived from 1799 to 1858. Whether he really was the originator, or his fame is a miracle of marketing, it’s undeniable that he was one of the top exponents of the cuisine in those days. He traded in his cart for a full-on sushi restaurant (sushiya) in Ryogoku, leading a wave of such establishments that saw their numbers reach the thousands within a few decades. 

Although the nigiri served by Yohei and his peers bore a great resemblance to modern day sushi, there were a few key differences. They were much bigger than the modern-day equivalent, and the fish was usually rubbed in salt or marinated in vinegar before serving. After all, without refrigeration, vendors still needed to make sure their fish could last through the day.

Sushi in the 20th Century

The metamorphosis of an ancient Southeast Asian peasant dish into the darling of the Michelin Guide was almost complete. It just took few major events throughout the 20th century to finish the job. 

Natural Disaster

The first was the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. This tragic event forced many people from their homes, and caused a plummeting in the price of real estate in Tokyo. As a result, many sushi chefs now found that they could afford to rent their own sushiya premises, causing a rise in the number of stores in the capital. On the other hand, some were even forced to leave Tokyo behind altogether, and as they spread out across Japan they took the Edomae sushi craze nationwide. 

Around Ueno (1926) by Takashima Unpō. The Great Kanto Earthquake wreaked devastation on the city and forced thousands from their homes.

Modern Innovations

The second factor in the development of modern sushi was technological rather than natural. This was refrigeration. Suddenly, with access to modern methods of preservation, fresh raw fish became an even more viable ingredient for sushi. Moreover, the variety of fish which chefs could get their hands on vastly widened. 

Types of seafood which don’t take well to marination or fermentation could now be served totally fresh. Chief among them was fatty bluefin tuna, which is now an indispensable sushi staple and a favorite of most serious sushi gourmands. With increased variety, and an image of freshness and modernity, the contemporary sushi of the 20th century had begun its transformation into a luxury cuisine.

Advances in refrigeration and transportation meant that the seafood industry could scale up vastly, establishing huge industrial wholesale hubs in major cities.

Manmade Disaster (and the Recovery)

The third and most important event which shaped the path of modern sushi was World War 2. There’s hardly a part of Japanese culture which wasn’t touched by the seismic, absolute shift in culture between the pre-war and post-war days, and the culinary domain was no different. 

One smaller change was the shift from red to white vinegar. In the wake of the devastation wreaked on Japan during the war, the country found itself with a deficit of food and other essential supplies. As in the days of ancient wars, the farming villages had been emptied out to fill the army barracks!

This meant that Japan now had to import much more of its food than before, and the cheap rice brought in from China and Korea gained a bad reputation for its brownish color and low quality. As a result, top sushi restaurants took to using white rice instead of red — the idea being that red vinegar might be used as a way to hide the color of poor quality grains, whereas using clear-colored white vinegar let them show that they in fact still used high-grade, white-colored rice. Nowadays some traditionalist restaurants make a point of going back to the old style. 

This photo of Ginza in 1946 from the Theodore Akimoto Family Collection (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) shows just how much work needed to be done to rebuild the nation.

The economic effects of the post-war period also caused another big shift in sushi culture. Suddenly, with the backing of the Western nations with which it was now aligned, Japan found itself experiencing an economic boom in the mid 20th century, of a magnitude unheard of in its largely isolationist history. As their country was now a hub of technology and trade (and the second largest economy in the world), the pockets of the Japanese were now lined with a healthy amount of yen!

Sushi restauranteurs were keen to get in on the action. In order get their hands on the some of the giant wads of cash in the wallets of the new Japanese middle class, they developed a culture of high-end sushi dining, with its epicenter at the business and shopping district of Ginza, Tokyo. The results can still be seen there today, with more Michelin-star sushi restaurants in that area than anywhere else in the world.

Nowadays glitzy Ginza is probably the best place in the world to enjoy upmarket sushi culture (provided you have the budget for it).

Heading Stateside

The influence of America upon post-war Japan was largely to thank for this economic boom, but America also gained plenty in return — including sushi culture! Japanese immigration to California, along with an increasing number of Americans traveling to Japan, meant that The Golden State was the first to enjoy the full benefits of authentic sushi culture in the 1960s. 

While the Beat Generation of Ginsberg and Kerouac had their heads stuck into Zen Buddhist writings, their businessman neighbors had their heads stuck into platters of delicious nigiri. A trans-Pacific partnership of Japanese-born Noritoshi Kanai and US-native Harry Wolff were at the head of the movement, opening up the mega-popular restaurant Kawafuku in 1966. Within 4 years they had opened a Hollywood branch, and the status of sushi as a fancy food for fancy folks was well and truly cemented.  

Californian sushi at first sought to replicate the traditional Edomae dishes of Tokyo, but soon became its own thing entirely. If you’re a sushi fan, you probably already realized that ‘California rolls’ don’t sound particularly Japanese. Nonetheless, the dish has come full circle back to the homeland; you can find it on the menu at some restaurants in Japan.

Strict traditionalists might shun the innovations of American sushi culture, but history shows that the cuisine is nothing if not adaptable.

Modern Days

The story of sushi after its transmission to the West is relatively simple: people discovered an exotic, healthy, delicious dish and decided to open up restaurants in pretty much every major city worldwide. Meanwhile, in the sushi motherland, the cuisine is thriving more than ever. 

Big Business

All around Japan you’ll find high-class restaurants which represent the craft in a vast range of different ways: celebrating unique regional takes on the cuisine, getting back to their roots with aged and fermented sushi, or pushing the cuisine into the future with mad innovations like using a microscope to literally remove every sinew from their fish! Because of the artisan craftsmanship behind the cuisine, meals at these places can run up into the hundreds of dollars.

In 2011, the documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi generated fresh interest in this elite and exclusive culinary world. The film followed chef Jiro Ono as he went about his business managing and cooking at one of the best sushi restaurants the world, his self-named Sukiyabashi Jiro (which has since been stripped of its three Michelin stars for reasons shrouded in mystery and rumor). For an insight into the world of Japanese sushi, this movie is a great place to start.

Another great way to learn more is with a visit to Toyosu Market in Tokyo. This gigantic trade hub is the beating heart of the Japanese seafood industry, having replaced the aging Tsukiji Market in 2018. It’s here that the famous tuna auctions take place.

Since fatty tuna is one of the most prized kinds of sushi fish, they often fetch astounding prices in the morning auctions. The first tuna the year is the most expensive, as it presents a great PR opportunity for the capital’s top restaurants. In 2019, the head of the Sushi Zanmai chain of restaurants paid over three million US dollars for a single fish! 

A trader inspects his purchase from the frozen tuna auction at Tsukiji Market. Fish wholesaling is a big money business, especially in Japan.

Budget Bites

It’s not all about Michelin stars and splashing the cash, however. The fast-food sushi ethos of old Edo is still alive too. Modern conveyor belt sushi — in which the dishes are placed on a conveyor belt which carries them around the restaurant for guests to choose from — is a permanent fixture of every city in Japan and many beyond. 

This style was invented in 1958 by restaurant owner Yoshiaki Shiraishi to make up for a lack of staff at his restaurant. If you visit Japan yourself, you’ll also have the chance to try restaurants where sushi is ordered on tablets, then delivered to your table by robotic trays riding on rails!

The dishes at a typical conveyor belt sushi restaurant range from about 80 yen to a few hundred.

These mad, mechanized, modern sushiya are a galaxy away from the humble beginnings of the cuisine as a fermented fish dish for impoverished farmers. However, if there’s one thing to take away from this article, it’s that sushi is a dish which has long been defined by endless change and adaptation to the times. 

You can expect this to continue long into the future, when sentient robot super-chefs will serve us synthetic fish on genetically modified UltraRice (TM). I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited to see what the future of this fascinating fish dish brings.

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