The Japan News/Asia News Network
Conveyor belt, Kaiten sushi restaurant in Dotonbori district taken Oct. 2, 2009 in Osaka (Shutterstock/bluehand)
Higashi-Osaka, Osaka Prefecture, has a high concentration of small and medium-sized companies and is a fierce battleground for restaurants offering cheap and delicious dishes loved by factory workers and others.
The locals’ expectations that restaurants will be “cheap, quick and interesting” brought about the invention of conveyor belt sushi, or kaiten zushi, here 60 years ago. This dish invented in Higashi-Osaka is also popular overseas such as in Asia and North America. It is still in good shape as it rotates around the world.
Cheap, quick, interesting
In front of the main store of kaiten zushi chain Ganso Mawaru Genroku Zushi Honten in Higashi-Osaka, there is a stone monument inscribed with the word “hassho” (meaning “birthplace”). This monument introduces the fact that Yoshiaki Shiraishi (1913-2001), the founder of the restaurant chain, invented kaiten zushi. Hiroshi Shiraishi, 69, Yoshiaki’s eldest son and the president of the chain’s operating company, explained how the invention came about.
In 1947, Yoshiaki opened a small eatery in Higashi-Osaka, which had many small and medium-sized companies and was also known as a student town. Hoping workers and students with large appetites would be able to eat sushi easily and casually, he started a standing sushi restaurant soon afterward. The restaurant’s prices were about 30 percent cheaper than ordinary sushi restaurants so it soon became popular. However, it was so busy that its employees kept resigning, which was problematic for Yoshiaki.
He came up with the idea of the kaiten zushi system that would use a conveyor belt to carry sushi plates to customers to save on labor. He purportedly drew inspiration from conveyor belts carrying beer bottles in beer factories. In April 1958, he opened the first kaiten zushi restaurant near the current main store, and the sushi plates going around and around one after another drew attention. The restaurant also opened a store at the 1970 Osaka Expo and received favorable responses.
The development of the conveyor belt for kaiten zushi was achieved thanks to manufacturing techniques found in Higashi-Osaka. The structure containing the belt was shaped like a half moon so that the sushi plates could follow the curves smoothly, and stainless steel was used because it is resistant to rust, even when vinegar gets on it. Yoshiaki overcame challenges one by one while receiving advice from people around him.
The city’s characteristics are also a major factor in why the kaiten zushi restaurant soon became popular. “Kaiten zushi was accepted seamlessly because the city was a town of ordinary people where there were many small- and medium-sized companies and their workers,” Yoshiaki said while he was still alive. His successor, Hiroshi, said, “Thanks to the fact that only cheap, quick and interesting things are accepted by people in Higashi-Osaka, kaiten zushi could be invented and developed in the city.”
There are other dishes that appeal to ordinary people that were created in the city. The first outlet of the yakitori restaurant chain Torikizoku Co. was opened here, while House Foods Corp., which is known for such products as Vermont Curry and Kukure Curry, began full-fledged production of its curry products in Higashi-Osaka.
Rugby WC promotion
Hanazono Rugby Stadium in Higashi-Osaka is one of the venues for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which will be held in Japan. There are high expectations for kaiten zushi as “killer content,” or one of the attractive items of the city, which hopes to promote the dish to spectators coming from overseas.
Higashi-Osaka Mayor Yoshikazu Noda, 61, visited London in October 2015 for the preparation of the Rugby World Cup and other purposes. There, he promoted Higashi-Osaka as a “town of manufacturing where everything can be produced, from toothbrushes to Shinkansen bullet trains to satellites, and a place where the sushi restaurant that invented and developed kaiten zushi is located, so people can enjoy Japan’s food culture.”
The city and the Higashi-Osaka Tourism Association introduce Genroku Zushi Honten main store in the city’s tourism brochure, published both in Japanese and English. Masaaki Matsuo, 65, senior official of the Higashi-Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, proudly said, “The city has the birthplace of kaiten zushi, which is a great advantage in promoting Japanese food culture overseas.”
According to research company Fuji Keizai Co., the kaiten zushi market in Japan amounted to ¥632.5 billion (about $5.5 billion) in 2017. While Genroku Zushi lags behind more recently established conveyor belt sushi restaurants such as Sushiro and Revolving Sushi Bar Kurasushi in size, Genroku Zushi still has a strong presence.
Nov. 22, the birthday of founder Yoshiaki, is designated as “kaiten zushi memorial day” by the Japan Anniversary Association. “It’s cheap and delicious, so I come here whenever I want to eat kaiten zushi,” a 43-year-old homemaker who visited the Genroku Zushi Honten main store said with a smile. It is loved by local residents as a pioneering restaurant that is cheap, quick and interesting.
The Ganso Mawaru Genroku Zushi Honten main store is a one-minute walk from Fuse Station on the Kintetsu Osaka Line and Kintetsu Nara Line. The stone monument near the entrance of the store was built by the operating company in 1992. Some kaiten zushi lovers visit the store while tracing the roots of kaiten zushi.