Innovation: Why Tokyo Executives Never Eat Alone

In its Saturday "Power Tables" column, the Wall Street Journal recently highlighted the sushi bar at Kyubey in Tokyo's Ginza downtown. I can say from experience that the sushi there is exceptional: I recall fondly a lunch whose highlights inlcuded a piece of botan-ebi shrimp taken from a tank under the bar, and killed and served so swiftly that it continued to writhe in my mouth. (A surprising touch was an amuse-like sandwich of shiso and plum paste between slices of daikon radish, a hint of English-tea service at the sushi bar.)

I didn't recognize anybody sitting aside me that day, but I feel that if I were a more astute reader of the Nikkei, Japan's top business daily, I would have recalled the day's company as keenly as its food. As the Journal notes, Kyubey (also written frequently as Kyubei) the bar's regulars include Tokyo's corporate elite, including top executives from Toyota, Canon and Sony.

This is important for reasons beyond people-watching. As I learned while exploring sushi's rise from Tokyo street snack to global luxury dish for my book The Sushi Economy, Japanese corporate executives were key in expanding sushi's reach. Kyubey opened in the 1930s, by the father of current chef Yosuke Imada, one of the first of the old sidewalk vendors to set up a bar indoors. Unlike many Tokyo restaurants, it managed to remain in business during the war and the famine that followed. When Japan's economy began to modernize in the 1960s -- creating not only advanced industry, but a new, hierarchical corporate culture to oversee it -- sushi bars became the preferred venue for business meetings and power lunches. If you ask a middle-aged Japanese person now about the sushi-eating habits of his or her youth, you're likely to hear that visits to a sushi bar were reserved for special occasions like birthdays; only politicians and businesspeople went more than a couple of times a year. (In this respect, I think the sushi bar has filled a role in Japanese culture much like the steakhouse's in the United States.) Kyubey not only had a reputation for the quality of its food, but a perfect location: in south Ginza, squarely in the neighborhood that would become, by the heights of Japan's Bubble economy in the 1980s, the world's leading business district, and one of its most expensive. Sushi bars that opened around the world -- in Los Angeles, in New York, in Amsterdam, in Hong Kong -- tended, too, to be near the offices of Japanese business interests, where expat managers and visiting executives wanted to power-lunch the way they did at home. The inexpensive sushi bars that today litter many of our city blocks and suburban strip malls followed the high-priced places: trickle-down eat-onomics at work.

I thought of all this as the book Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi, becomes one of the season's popular pieces of business advice. The book's title refers to the business lunch as an opportunity for networking and connection, but Kyubey's invaluable contribution to sushi's expansion suggests we all benefit if you make plans to go out for lunch. Most of us probably wouldn't be eating sushi today if it hadn't moved around the world incubated in clubby, expensive bars subsidized directly by Mitsubishi and Ricoh budgets. In heeding Ferrazzi's advice, you might be advancing not only your own career, but spreading the world's next great cuisine. Make sure your expense accounts are ready for the challenge.

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

Add New Comment

1 Comments

  • Conchita Sierra

    Dear Mr. Issenberg,
    I would like to include your article "Why Tokyo Executives Never Eat Alone" on our website, in our Opinion Aritcle section, obviously mentioning your book "The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy - By Sasha Issenberg".
    Kindly let me know if this would be ok with you.
    Thanks and best regards,
    Conchita Sierra
    Conchita@atuna.com
    www.atuna.com