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Innovation: Role call

I reported here recently about the rise of sushi culture in China, and New York Times had a front-page story last week about fears of a tuna shortage in Japan. Prices there for high-quality fish, especially bluefin, are rising due to both declining supply (thanks to overfishing) and the increased willingness of diners in the United States, Europe, and China to pay top dollar for sushi. The Times talked to chefs experimenting with deer, horse, and whale as red-meat substitutes for tuna.

I just wrote for the Guardian about this shifting balance between Japan and China, and how Japanese consumers now agonizing over a lost of access to tuna are suffering a sort of blowback. One of the consequences of the country's Bubble-era trade gap is that the Japanese were exporting not only products, but also culture — things like fashion, product design, anime, and food. It is perhaps inevitable that, once diners in other countries developed a taste for sushi, some of them would be ready to pay as much for it as the Japanese could.

There is an important lesson in this about globalization: no role in the international economy will stay static for too long. Americans long saw China as only a producer of low-quality goods, but it quickly shifted into becoming a major consumer of the same goods; Ikea used to see China as a place to locate factories, now the Swedes are opening stores there. As I write in The Sushi Economy, China played a similar role in the sushi business. For a while, Chinese factories have been used to process seafood for fast-food-style sushi products headed to Japan and elsewhere — in many cases, this allowed traders to legally launder black-market fish — but over the last few years, that type of low-quality sushi has developed an audience in China's bigger cities. The demand for better fish, such as bluefin tuna, are evidence of maturing taste and wealth.

The other day, the Wall Street Journal had a superb story about how a number of factors, including rapid wage inflation in India, were leading some American tech firms to shut down their previously-outsourced Bangalore operations and reëstablish those jobs in the States. Those who want to successfully navigate the global economy need to be alert to radical changes in the roles of others, often over just a few years — who would have expected the Japanese to be priced out of the sushi market, or Silicon Valley to be insourcing jobs from India? — and to adjust their own moves accordingly. A good place to start might be to invent a new canon of call-center humor: the Journal suggested that savvy outsourcers were now looking at Eastern Europe. Ready your Polish jokes.

Read about Sasha Issenberg's The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy at Or buy it here.