A Fishy Expedition

How sushi became a signature dish on the global menu.

The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

By Sasha Issenberg
Gotham Books/Penguin Group, May 2007
352 pp., $26


When you sit down at your local sushi bar, you may think you’re just having lunch. In fact, you’re immersing yourself in global commerce. Behind that toro nigiri are international networks of fishermen, brokers, shippers, chefs, marine biologists, ranchers, and even tuna pirates. The Sushi Economy is a fascinating account of the transformation of raw fish and vinegared rice from a Japanese street snack to an economic indicator of an emerging Western-style business culture.

Journalist Sasha Issenberg tells this story largely through lively profiles of players in the tuna trade, from Tokyo to Los Angeles to Madrid. It all began, he writes, with one man looking to solve a simple business problem: In the early 1970s, Japan Airlines planes flying to North America were delivering cameras, textiles, and electronics but returning home with empty cargo holds. Akira Okazaki’s job was to find a way to fill them. What he chose was Atlantic bluefin tuna caught off Canada’s Maritime Provinces. A new era was born.

Issenberg frames his story as a “celebration of globalism,” with New England fishermen selling fish on consignment in Tokyo and Australians adopting Japanese tuna-farming techniques, then exporting them to Croatia.

But globalization has its dark side, namely the uncontrolled spread of tuna ranches in the Mediterranean–“a sort of aquatic Wild West,” as Issenberg puts it. Unlike most aquaculture, tuna ranching involves capturing wild fish and towing them to pontoons for feeding. Given the dismal declines in natural fish stocks, Issenberg’s tone in the book is a bit celebratory. Although a Japanese company has managed to breed tuna artificially and an Australian entrepreneur has taken up the challenge, the sushi economy may bear the seeds of its own destruction.

For now, the globalization of sushi continues. Among other examples, the Taj hotel chain is launching sushi bars in India. “Consumption of sushi has become an indispensably conspicuous display of a modern economy,” Issenberg writes.