How Tokyo Invented Sushi


“Sushi is fleshy, decadent, an erotic experience,” said professor Jordan Sand, Georgetown University, at the Food & The City symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. Asking us to close our eyes and imagine our first experience with this delicacy, Sand described his own (he was on a date in New York City in the early 1980s). He then told the crowd how sushi, an ancient food, became modern in Tokyo, eventually changed the landscape of that city, and then conquered the world, becoming about as exotic as pizza.

The sushi best known in the U.S. is actually Nigirizushi or “grasped sushi,” given it’s often cupped by the sushi chef and crafted into bite-sized pieces. Invented in Tokyo in the beginning of the 19th century, Nigirizushi came out of the “broad, ancient category of sushi foods,” which describe any with salted, vinegared, slightly fermented rice. Sushi, in fact, just means “pickled rice” and really describes a cooking process.

Before Tokyo was called Tokyo, it was Edo, the capital of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a feudal militaristic regime ruled by Shoguns with their armies of Samurai warriors. Edo was a military encampment that grew rapidly into a city of about a million by 1700. At the time, said Sand, it was probably the biggest city in the world (and today it’s still very near the top). Samurai, who could be rich or poor, made up about half of the city’s population and consumed a lot, driving the growth of agriculture and demand for fresh fish. Given the city was basically a military base, women and children were left at home in the countryside so there were lots of single men. Prostitutes appeared for the soldiers, and sushi as the West knows it came into being.

Fresh fish used to be cut for the ruling classes in special rituals where nothing but the blades touched fish flesh (always white flesh). Carefully arranged, the dishes were incredibly fresh, elegant constructions. With the need for “fast food,” usually eaten on the run by Samurai and their short-term mates out on the town, new variations of sushi came into being. To fit the need, “restauranteurs first made street food fancy and then they made it fast,” said Sand. By the 1820s, these early innovators stopped the pickling process and Nigirizushi (or sushi as we know it in the West) became a “hit” among the Samurai and commoners alike. What made sushi interesting, and perhaps transgressive, was that it combined elite foods of the Samurai and street foods of the common classes, creating a new form. On the same plate, the white-fleshed fish that the ruling class preferred was mixed with “vulgar” common fishes like tuna, anything red in color. Another thing that made the food common: it could be eaten with your fingers.

Tokyo Bay itself had always been central to sushi. Fishermen, in contrast to farmers, were seen as “buckaneers,” adventurers. Watching the fire-lit boats trawling at night became a major tourist attraction. “The waterscape of the bay also captured the imagination of artists” like Hiroshige (see image above). But beyond being beautiful, this waterscape was highly productive. Agricultural runoff into the bay actually attracted more fish, making it easier for the fishermen. In addition, human waste was almost always recycled into urban farms so little of it polluted these key waterways. “The bay was a cultivated landscape,” said Sand. Then, with the application of paper manufacturing processes to making Nori, the seaweed wrap we all know was invented. Tokyo Bay itself became home to a flotilla of Nori farms, with the farms at their highpoint taking up more of the bay than reclaimed land would years later.

To facilitate the trade in fresh fish, Tokyo’s main fish market was established, interestingly at the exact center point of Japan. Fish merchants became increasingly wealthy, with their wives dressed in the latest fashions. Until 1939, street stalls served sushi, then the regime shut them down due to health concerns. 

By the 1840s, tuna had become so popular that Japanese fishermen had to leave Tokyo Bay and head to the South Sea to find more. Then, in the 20th century, Japanese fisherman entered the Pacific Ocean, freezing fish in hulls to bring back to the mainland. By the early 1980s, prize tuna caught around the world were being FedEx-ed back to Japan at a cost of up to $100,000 a fish. Today, because of the ever-increasing demand for sushi, many of the world’s natural fisheries, even in the Atlantic, are under incredible stress. Sadly, the Western Atlantic Bluefin tuna, one of the grandest fishes, is down to about 25,000 in the wild, estimates one international group. Perhaps sushi needs to become less common again.

This is the second in a series of posts about Food & The City, a symposium at Dumbarton Oaks. Read the third A City Among the Villages.

Image credit: Fishing Boats at Tsukuda Island  by Ichiyusai Hiroshige II (1826-1869) / Richard Ukiyo-e

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