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INTERVIEW | Sushi Hero: How a Tokyo Chef Saved the Art from Extinction

Kappamaki are a staple of the sushi trade. Sliced ​​cucumber surrounded by vinegared rice and wrapped in seaweed, these simple but delicious treats can be found at sushi restaurants throughout Japan, and in many other countries now, too.

But kappamaki were not always a member of the sushi family. In fact, they are a relatively new addition. And they were born in an unassuming sushi restaurant not far from Waseda University in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo.

In an exclusive JAPAN Forward interview, we spoke with Eiichi Yasui, the fifth-generation proprietor of Yahatazushi. He told us how kappamaki got their start at his family’s place of business — and how his father invented kappamaki to save the sushi trade from extinction after World War II.


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Fighting Back Against Cultural Destruction

“Using raw cucumbers in sushi was unheard of in the 1940s.”

So says Eiichi Yasui, the proprietor of Yahatazushi, a sushi restaurant within easy walking distance of Waseda University in Shinjuku ward, Tokyo.

It is a rainy weekday morning. Yasui has kindly agreed to meet us at his family’s place of business. We sit in an upstairs dining room sipping hot green tea and discussing the surprising history of kappamaki sushi.

“You have to remember that salad culture came in with the Americans,” Yasui continues. “Before then, nobody in Japan ate raw vegetables. There were invariably some insects on vegetables, even when washed. So, people boiled, steamed, or fried vegetables before putting them on a plate.”

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We in Japan in the twenty-first century have become so accustomed to kappamaki — and also to salads of all kinds — that it is easy to forget that these things are recent cultural phenomena.

In the case of kappamaki, the phenomenon was born of hardship, necessity, and the desire to preserve Japanese culture in the face of foreign oppression.

The League of Sushi Heroes Is Born

“The man who invented kappamaki is my father, Hiroshi Yasui,” Yasui explains. “It was in 1948. Eating sushi, and eating out in general, had been restricted during the war as part of the government’s campaign against extravagance (zeitaku). Under the American Occupation after the war, sushi restaurants continued to be suppressed. My father and many other sushi restaurateurs protested to General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. But to no avail.”

In the downstairs dining area of ​​Yahatazushi, above the counter where patrons sit and watch Yasui prepare their dishes, there hangs a row of wooden signs with names painted on them. Those names represent the sushi restaurants in Japan that resisted the Occupation summary restrictions.

Board in Yahatazushi bearing names of sushi restaurants that resisted GHQ’s anti-sushi measures during the Occupation. (©Kenji Yoshida)

We prefer to think of those cultural stalwarts like the League of Sushi Heroes.

And the leader of that intrepid group was none other than Yasui’s father.

“As part of the suppression of sushi restaurants, there was no fish available with which to make sushi,” Yasui explains. “But there were cucumbers. My father decided to slice up cucumbers and roll them in vinegared rice and seaweed as a way to have something to sell, some way to keep the sushi trade alive. His father, the third-generation owner of Yahatazushi, was angry about it. Putting cucumbers in sushi was unheard of.

“But my father saw no other way. He sold the cucumber rolls only in the summer at first when cucumbers were in season.”

He called them “kyurimaki,” “cucumber rolls” in Japanese.

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Sampling kappamaki at the place where the sushi creation was born. (©Kenji Yoshida)

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Sushi Culture across the Centuries

“There was a comic strip popular in Japan in the early postwar called Kappa Kawataro,” Yasui tells us. “The title character was a kappa, a Japanese wood sprite who lives in rivers and likes to eat cucumbers. Someone started calling Yahatazushi cucumber rolls ‘kappamaki.’ The name stuck, and kappamaki became a fixture in sushi restaurants thereafter.”

Such cultural vicissitudes seem to typify sushi culture in Japan’s capital.

“The founder of Yahatazushi was a warrior,” Yasui tells us, speaking of his great-great-grandfather. “He had been a member of the Shogitai, a special fighting force that found itself on the losing side of the Boshin War of 1868 to 1869. He took part in a battle here in Tokyo, the Ueno no Yama no Tatakai.”

From Dango to Sushi

Yasui continues, “When the war was over, my great-great-grandfather fled to the area around Ana Hachimangu Shrine,” he continues, referring to a shrine complex near Yahatazushi and closer to the Waseda campus.

“The name of our shop, Yahata, can also be pronounced Hachiman,” Yasui says.

“Many former samurai found employment selling dango (Japanese meatballs),” Yasui continues. “They were easy to make and sell. There are still a few old shops (shinise) in Tokyo that continue to sell dango just as their founders, former samurai, did during the early Meiji period.”

But when Yasui’s grandmother started helping with the family dango shop, the business model changed dramatically.

“My grandmother didn’t like sticky dango,” Yasui says, chuckling. “She liked sushi. She used to deliver dango as a girl to the home of Shigenobu Okuma, who was apparently very kind to her. Even so, she had had enough of dango. Her father, the second-generation proprietor of the business, started selling sushi because of her.

“Later, it was her husband, the third-generation proprietor, who was angry with my father, his son, when my father started making cucumber sushi after the war.”

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Facing New Challenges

Thanks in large part to Yasui’s father, Hiroshi, sushi restaurateurs were able to band together and overcome cultural suppression during and after World War II. But today, sushi masters like Yasui face new challenges.

“My son has been training for nine years,” Yasui says, his face assuming the expression of a stern father. “But he is not ready to take over the business.”

We ask why.

“Everything must be for the customer,” he replies. “One must approach every element of the work with gratitude, with the mind of a professional tradesman. One must submit one’s work every day to the evaluation of the customers, whom we serve. One must spare nothing in advancing one’s practice and in selecting the best ingredients.”

And then there are cultural headwinds in a changing Japan.

“My son is not ready, and neither are many others,” Yasui says. “I asked the director of human resources at a specialty college for training culinary professionals to send me students who want to be sushi chefs. But the director told me, bluntly, that there is not even one student at the school who wants to become a sushi chef.”

The Art of Sushi Mastery

“Sushi is a hard road to travel,” Yasui continues. “It takes discipline, sacrifice, and hard work. I work from nine am until two am, every day. During the pandemic, when there was no business, I sunk much of my life savings into the restaurant to keep it going.

“Also, there is increasing competition from chain stores and from Chinese firms.

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“I want the whole world to know what good sushi is. I want everyone to know the spirit and the soul of the sushi craft.”

Eiichi Yasui is carrying forward a vital part of Japanese culture into an uncertain future. His father was a sushi hero who helped save one of Japan’s signature culinary arts from extinction. But will there be anyone who wants to continue in the footsteps of the sushi heroes?

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Authors: Jason Morgan and Kenji Yoshida