Designs That Defined Modern Japan: Kaiten Sushi

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I attended an excellent webinar on the topic ‘Designs That Defined Modern Japan’ by Professor Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and the audience were set the challenge of coming with their own list of 8 Designs That Defined Modern Japan. I have already done seven posts (these are not in any particular order or ranking) on the shinkansen, Hello Kitty, the washlet (‘Japanese toilet’), emoji, the personal stereo/Walkman, the rice cooker, and the emergency exit sign. This time, in the final post in the series, I am covering kaiten sushi (conveyor belt sushi).

A kaiten sushi restaurant in Kyodo, Tokyo, Japan

First, let’s begin with the history of kaiten sushi, with the following information taken from Wikipedia:

Conveyor belt sushi was invented by Yoshiaki Shiraishi (1914–2001), who had problems staffing his small sushi restaurant and had difficulties managing the restaurant by himself. He got the idea of a conveyor belt sushi after watching beer bottles on a conveyor belt in an Asahi brewery. After five years of development, including the design of the conveyor belt and the speed of operations, Shiraishi opened the first conveyor belt sushi Mawaru Genroku Sushi in Higashiosaka in 1958, eventually expanding to up to 250 restaurants all over Japan. However, by 2001, his company had just 11 restaurants. Shiraishi also invented a robotic sushi, served by robots, but this idea has not had commercial success.

Initially in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant, all customers were seated to face the conveyor belt, but this was not popular with groups. Subsequently, tables were added at right angles to the conveyor belt, allowing up to six people to sit at one table. This also reduced the length of conveyor belt needed to serve a certain number of people.

A conveyor belt sushi boom started in 1970 after a conveyor belt sushi restaurant served sushi at the Osaka World Expo. Another boom started in 1980, when eating out became more popular, and finally in the late 1990s, when inexpensive restaurants became popular after the burst of the economic bubble. Recently, Akindo Sushiro became the most famous brand in 2010 in Japan.

A new variant of conveyor belt sushi has a touch screen monitor at every table, showing the menu of the restaurant and the customer can then order the sushi of their choice to their seating place which will arrive by the conveyor belt.

Although I still prefer to go to a proper sushi restaurant (see, for example, my post about Kashiwa Sushi, which appeared in my novel FOUR), there are times when kaiten sushi is more convenient or cheaper. Also my family enjoys going to the one where you can win prizes when you make an order or return your plates.

Why do I include this design in my list of eight designs modern Japan? There are two reasons. First, because kaiten sushi has become so ubiquitous around Japan. Second, because kaiten sushi has also become a popular form of having sushi and Japanese food around the world. This popularity may have fuelled many other problems (scarcity of certain fish and other environmental impacts), which may be a topic for another post one day, but it does point to the internationalisation of world eating habits as well as the greater popularity of Japanese food. While sushi (which is the vinegared rice not raw fish) may be the most well known Japanese dish, kaiten sushi has arguably become the most visible, universal Japanese culinary experience. This is why I believe the kaiten sushi design is so significant. That I have also now seen Chinese restaurants doing dim sum using the conveyor belt design points to the design’s evolution and impact may not have come to an end yet.

Although the rice cooker also appeared on my list, kaiten sushi is the only other food-related item. In many respects, instant noodles is also worth a mention, particularly as it has often topped polls in Japan (either that or the shinkansen) as Japan’s greatest post-war invention. But overall, I think kaiten sushi wins out.

Given my interest in symbolism, I am interested in what else kaiten sushi may represent. This may be something for me to address further in the update to Japan: The Basics as well as a further book that I am working on. In fact, in relation to Japan: The Basics, discussing the update with some of my students about the cover design, kaiten sushi (or some aspect of Japanese food) was one of the preferences, alongside emoji (there is an emoji for sushi, but not kaiten sushi at the moment) to replace the cherry blossom design.

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