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Intercultural Communication Through Sushi

(The photo is for illustration purposes.)

A Variety of Sushi Chefs

As a writer based in the United States, I’ve interviewed quite a lot of sushi chefs. Some came to America after finishing their training or gaining experience in Japan, and others became sushi chefs after they came to America. Some had pride in sticking with the traditional Edo-style, and others were more free from traditions and flexible in making the sushi that their customers would request, the different style of sushi such as rolls that Americans love. There is a whole variety of experiences and beliefs on sushi, depending on who you talk to. Maybe we should call those who stick with traditions “sushi artisans” or itamae (skilled cook), not sushi chefs.

Personally I like the traditional sushi (written in the kanji that is specifically used to refer to the tasty sushi made with fish). I don’t seek those creative ones such as California rolls. Even though I prefer to eat more traditional types, it doesn’t mean at all that I intend to talk badly of sushi rolls that the majority of Americans love.

Working at the Creative Sushi Place

Now I want to talk about my daughter Nina, who is in college. Once the summer break started, she looked for a part-time job at places within walking distance of home, like a shop, a café or a restaurant, and started working at a carryout-only sushi shop called “Y Kitchen” where she had her very first interview and was hired on the spot. Y Kitchen is a popular place and has another shop in the neighboring town. It seems like the place is run by a Korean person, not by a Japanese, which is pretty common in this country.

And I was a little surprised when Nina, after being told by the shop manager that she had to memorize all items on the menu by the first day of work, handed me the flashcards with all 60 items of the sushi menu, saying, “Test me on these.” That’s because most of the sushi had sauce on them. In other words, this sushi place was obviously a unique type, not a traditional one. This is not something that should surprise us, as we could say that most popular sushi restaurants in America are this type.

She was further told by the manager to come to work in non-slip shoes, not to fall over on the floor, and she bought new shoes with the gift card she received from this person who has looked after her for a long time. To thank her and tell her about Nina’s new job, I wrote her an email, saying, “Nina used the gift card you gave her to buy a new pair of shoes for her new part-time job at a sushi shop.” Then she replied to me, “Nina-chan is shy, so I’m worried that she might have a hard time serving people. Where is the shop?” In fact, her husband is a traditional type of sushi chef who has worked in Japan as well. Seeing the phrase “sushi shop,” she must have pictured a “Japanese-style” sushi restaurant.

Respect for the Japanese Chef

Nina’s first day at work happened to be Father’s Day. The already popular shop received orders of party trays one after another, and Nina had to pack sushi in the kitchen nonstop. She was exhausted when she got home.

It was a busy day, but she said she “had fun” at the same time. The reason is, according to her, that everyone at work is good to her and treats each other like family. “In the kitchen, we have a Japanese chef we call Y-san. Y-san is the only person everyone calls with the honorific ‘san.’ I can see that the manager has so much respect for Y-san as well,” said Nina.

It’s been nearly a month since her first day of work, and now she handles other tasks, too, such as taking orders on the phone and working the cash register. As a mom who can’t stop being curious about her work (talking about myself), it has become my routine to ask her, “So how was your work today?” when she gets home from work.

From what she has told me, the shop manager “J” is a man in his late 30s. He loves Japanese pop culture and has been to Japan as well. It sounds like he was born in South Korea. Another person whom we call “T” often works the same shift as Nina, and he is in his mid-20s and is also of Korean descent. She mentioned that he was saying, “I wonder why Curry House (Japanese curry restaurant operated by House Foods Corp.) was closed. I loved it so much. I had my birthday parties at Curry House when I was little,” so it’s likely that he is a Korean-American born and raised in America.

Then there is this white girl whom we call “S.” She is Nina’s senpai (senior) at work because she started earlier than Nina, but she has just finished the same high school where Nina graduated two years ago, making her Nina’s kohai (junior). And Y, a staff member who works in the kitchen and is also of Korean descent, always asks her, “Have you eaten? Are you hungry?” when catching Nina’s eyes. That’s the exact set phrase I hear in Korean dramas that I watch very often.

Valuing Traditions and Having a Bias

So this is how I’ve come to like the people at Nina’s workplace, even though I’ve never seen them in person. And what draws everything in is Japan-originated sushi. There is nothing more delightful than the people at Y Kitchen, who love sushi, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity and age, taking a liking to Japanese people through Nina.

At one time, I pushed myself to eat the California tempura roll with sauce from Y Kitchen. It tasted better than I thought. I thought to myself once again that while traditions should be valued, we shouldn’t have a bias against something simply because it’s unfamiliar to us.


* * * * *

Our Editorial Committee selected this article as one of his favorite Itadakimasu 3! Nikkei Food, Family, and Community stories in Japanese. Here is their comment.

Comment from Masayuki Fukasawa

I once asked a chef, who had just come from Japan, for his opinion on the “creative” sushi that was popular in Brazil, and I was caught off guard by his blunt response: “I wouldn’t call it Japanese food. That’s food of the Pacific Rim.” So to me, this story doesn’t sound like something that happened in a foreign country. There is even a new type of sushi restaurant called “Temakeria” (one that specializes in hand rolls), which is not originally from Japan, and it was reported that Brazilians brought it to Italy.

Because there is no cold current flowing in the waters around Brazil, the fish they get for sushi have little fat, which is why they need to supplement with cream cheese or sauce to make it taste good. Given that they make sushi in a place where they have no access to the food that is used in Japan, of course they have to adapt.

What’s remarkable about this story is that it shows how the mind of an immigrant changes, when not only the local situations surrounding Japanese food but also different cultures get mixed, as new generations are born, and even older generations of people gradually come to accept the fusion.

Just like Japanese cuisine changes in foreign countries, people also change when they move to different places. On the other hand, having been away from Japan for over 20 years, living in a place where it’s not easy to make frequent visits back home, I often get overwhelmed by just how fast things change in my home country. I feel like I’m being left behind. I’ve come to realize that it’s not always the migrating one that changes.


© 2022 Keiko Fukuda

Nima-kai Favorites

Each article submitted to this Nikkei Chronicles special series was eligible for selection as the community favorite. Thank you to everyone who voted!

32 Stars
communication food Japanese food multiculturalism sociology sushi
About this series

The theme of the 11th edition of Nikkei Chronicles—Itadakimasu 3! Nikkei Food, Family, and Community—takes a look at several questions, such as: How does the food you eat connect your Nikkei community? What kinds of Nikkei recipes have been passed down from generation to generation? What is your favorite Japanese and/or Nikkei dish? 

Discover Nikkei solicited stories related to Nikkei food from May to September 2022. Voting closed on October 31, 2022. We received 15 stories (8 English; 1 Japanese; 6 Spanish; and 1 Portuguese) from Brazil, Canada, Peru, and the United States, with one submitted in multiple languages.

An editorial committee chose a favorite story in each language. In addition, a Nima-kai favorite was determined by online community voting. Here are the selections!

Editorial Committee’s Favorites

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About the Author

Keiko Fukuda was born in Oita, Japan. After graduating from International Christian University, she worked for a publishing company. Fukuda moved to the United States in 1992 where she became the chief editor of a Japanese community magazine. In 2003, Fukuda started working as a freelance writer. She currently writes articles for both Japanese and U.S. magazines with a focus on interviews. Fukuda is the co-author of Nihon ni umarete (“Born in Japan”) published by Hankyu Communications. Website: 

Updated July 2020

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