Salmon sushi isn’t a Japanese invention

Sake (salmon sushi)

Salmon (鮭) is a saltwater fish that spawns in fresh water. It’s a fish commonly eaten in North America and Europe, from salmon steaks and smoked salmon to lox. That perspective is why we find it surprising that salmon hadn’t always been eaten as sushi. The Japanese didn’t have a taste for salmon until after about the 90’s.

Not fit to eat

Whether we find a fish fit to eat, depends not just on taste, but on perception of palatability. For the Japanese before the 90's, salmon was part of the diet, but widely regarded as a garbage fish that you only ate cured or fully pan-fried or grilled that was used to fill out cheap meals.

It was never used in the traditional Edo-mae style of sushi and eaten raw, because of the Pacific salmon’s propensity for infection by parasites. Before modern refrigeration and aquaculture techniques were available, it’d be pretty risky to consume salmon raw.

It was the Norwegians that came up with the concept of salmon sushi, and spent the better part of a decade marketing and selling it in Japan. In fact, you could say salmon sushi is a Norwegian invention.

Seeing a need in the market

In the 60's and 70’s, Norwegian entrepreneurs started experimenting with aquaculture farming. The big breakthrough was when they figured out how to raise salmon in net pens in the sea. Being farm raised, the salmon had no parasites, and could be grown with higher fat content. With government subsidies and improved techniques, they were so successful in raising salmon, they ended up with a surplus. The country of Norway has a small population and limited market, therefore they looked to other countries to export their salmon.

In 1974, a Norwegian delegation traveled to Japan to strengthen relations between the two countries. Among them was Thor Listau, a member of Norway’s fisheries committee. He noticed how tuna was a prized fish, demanding high prices, while poor quality salmon was being fried and dried in high volume, at low prices. To him, it seemed like the parasite-free Norwegian farmed salmon would find a market as salmon sushi in Japan.

Norwegian 1974 delegation to Japan. Source

In the 70’s, Japan was self-sufficient when it came to seafood. But due to overfishing, rising population, and rising incomes with the economic boom of the time, Japan needed to start importing fish.

Though the first Norwegian salmon was imported into Japan in 1980, it was for grilling, and not for sushi. However, it was considered an important early beach head into selling into the Japanese market.

It wasn’t until 1985 that Listau returned to Japan with a delegation riding twenty deep, representing Norwegian seafood exporters, ministers and organizations to explore market potentials for Norwegian seafood. Convinced it was a viable market to sell the glut of salmon piling up in Norway, they launched “Project Japan” the following year in 1986, to help promote Norwegian seafood in Japan.

Bjørn Eirik Olsen was one of the people to work on Project Japan, and he explains:

“When the delegation arrived in Japan, they sampled raw salmon at the Norwegian Embassy. The then ambassador Håkon Freihow had previously thought that it could be interesting to try Norwegian salmon as sushi, and he got positive feedback from Japanese guests who had tried this unusual combination. When the Norwegian delegation tried raw salmon for the first time, they turned their noses up, but were not opposed to the idea that there could be a future in it.”
source

Against Japanese sensibilities

However, the Japanese had objections to consuming salmon raw. Olsen again:

OLSEN: And [the Japanese fish industry executives] say, it’s impossible. We Japanese do not eat salmon roll. They say, it doesn’t taste good. They say the color is wrong also; it should be redder. It has a smell. And they say that the head has the wrong shape.
source

The problem was, the wild Pacific salmon fished near Japanese waters were unsafe to eat raw due to parasites. The Norwegians needed to convince the Japanese consumer that although Norwegian salmon is the same species as the salmon around the waters of Japan, the Norwegian salmon is free of parasites because they’re farmed. However, it’s hard to market something as “free from parasites”. It’s like writing on your Tinder profile that you’re “not an axe murderer”.

A decade long campaign

So what do you do if you don’t want to mention parasites? They tried a lot of things, such as the typical advertising campaigns targeting importers, distributors, supermarket chains, stores and restaurants, as well as individual campaigns. But they also pulled out all the stops, such as having the Norwegian ambassador serve salmon to all his guests and a promotional visit by the Norwegian Crown Prince and Princess.

Norwegian aquaculture

One of the marketing tactics that Olsen tried was to advertise how pure and fresh Norwegian waters were. That didn’t work. They also tried to get top of the line hotels and restaurants to serve salmon sushi, and get endorsements from celebrity chefs:

“Together with Hiroshi Niwa, who headed the Norwegian Export Council at the embassy in Tokyo, we developed a strategy to get Norwegian salmon into this high-paying segment. What was new, was that we performed in-depth market analysis. We obtained statistics on the market and were able to analyze trends and user preferences at a detailed level. These insights formed the basis for the marketing project.
Then, we rolled up our sleeves and made a frontal assault on Japan. Going via Japanese importers would have been a waste of time, as they thought the fish was the wrong color, shape and smell. Project Japan contacted chefs instead. One of them was TV chef Yutaka Ishinabe, also known as “The Iron Chef.” The thinking was that if professionals of the caliber of “The Iron Chef” spoke favorably about salmon, this would help influence popular perception.”
source

According to Olsen, the turning point was when he got a single big sale from the supermarket chain that sells frozen foods, Nichi Rei. He had managed to finally strike a deal, after negotiating with them for years.

Bjorn[Olsen] told them, I will sell you 5,000 tons of salmon for cheap. All you have to do is sell it in the grocery stores as sushi; just try it. Nishi Rei said yes. Bjorn[Olsen] had his deal.
OLSEN: It was a day of happiness. I remember that, and there was a feeling of making history.
JIANG: Once Nishi Rei started selling salmon for sushi, it somehow seemed more normal.
source

Once eating salmon sushi was more normalized, it began to spread. At first, salmon sushi was primarily served at kaiten-zushi restaurants (sushi served on a conveyer belt), because it was cheap. Then as people had repeated exposure, they found it to have a soft texture and a creamy, mild taste — which is the sort of thing that becomes popular with the kids. Enterprising sushi chefs found the Norwegian-raised salmon to have more fat content, and more fitting for sushi than the locally fished counterparts.

By 1995, salmon sushi was commonplace enough that restaurants began to have plastic replicas of salmon sushi in their store-fronts to lure in customers.

Plastic sushi to lure in customers in storefronts

It took the Norwegian government close to 10 years from the start of Project Japan to change the minds of the average Japanese consumer to eat salmon sushi. They spent a total of 30 million NOK (3.75 million USD in today’s dollars) over the life time of the project on marketing. And it’s paid off handsomely. It brought Norwegian salmon exports to Japan from 400 million NOK to 1.8 billion NOK in the second half of the 80's. It poised Norway to tackle an even bigger market in China for salmon in the recent decades. Nowadays, Norway exported 233,000 tonnes of salmon for 16.1 billion NOK in the first quarter of 2017.

Norwegian salmon campaigns are still going

There are still concerns by some Japanese about foreign imported salmon. When you search for “Norwegian” and “Salmon” in english google, you see mostly food related terms in the autocomplete.

Searching for “norwegian salmon” in english and seeing what autocompletes

But in Japanese, the top two autocompletes are “false rumors” and “anisakis”, a type of parasitic worm.

Searching for “norwegian salmon” in japanese and seeing what autocompletes

There was an entire hubbub in 2016 over a Huffington Post article in Japan about “Why Chilean locals don’t eat salmon sold in Japan”, along with rebuttals saying it’s false, and the subsequent backlash.

On a different note, Monterey Bay Aquarium has a reputable Seafood Watch List that tracks the sustainability of different kinds of fish around the world. Its recommendations for salmon from Norway are currently “Avoid”. The reason being about the overuse of certain types of antibiotics.

“Atlantic salmon farmed in Norway in marine net pens is on the “Avoid” list. While total antibiotic use is considered low, 30% of the antibiotics that are used are listed as critically important for human medicine by the World Health Organisation, and the remainder are considered highly important.”
- Monterey Bay Seafood Watch

The exception for Norwegian salmon are those from Blue Circle Foods — which is considered a good alternative.

Salmon is big business for Norway. Non-fillet fresh fish is 7.2% of Norway’s exports. As one can imagine they want to control the message about Norwegian salmon, and they’re still going strong with their advertising campaigns and disseminating their own information about their aquaculture and farms. It shows up as articles with titles that start with “The truth about“ and “salmon” somewhere in the title.

Amusingly, they haven’t given up on off the wall campaigns, such as the Norwegian Fisheries Council sponsored PR campaign through interpretive dance.

Given the long history of sushi, salmon sushi surprisingly didn’t exist until about 20 years ago. It didn’t seem like there were any short cuts or growth hacks. Norway simply spotted a market opportunity for their product and backed it with an incessant and repeated exposure of a single marketing message over the course of a decade to change the minds and eating habits of an entire culture with strong culinary traditions.


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