Japan's restaurants fight back vs 'sushi terrorism'

Deutsche Welle

Posted at Feb 24 2023 06:05 AM

Takaya Takita is conflicted. As a father, he does not want the teenager who has caused outrage in Japan after his antics in a sushi bar — including licking his fingers and touching another customer's order — to blight his entire future. As the manager of a busy sushi restaurant, on the other hand, he insists something has to be done to stop other young people misbehaving to attract social media applause.

That is precisely what the operator of the Sushiro chain of sushi restaurants is doing, with police in Gifu Prefecture putting together a case against the youth, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

The incident first came to light in late January, when footage of the youth was posted on social media showing him touching another customer's plate of sushi as it passed his table in a "kaiten-sushi" restaurant, where plates of food pass by on a conveyer belt until they are selected. The footage, taken by a friend who is also facing charges, also showed the boy licking a soy sauce bottle and mugs for green tea ready to be used by other diners.

The behavior was quickly described as "sushi terrorism."

Social media clip goes viral

When the 48-second clip went viral on social media, Akindo Sushiro Co issued a statement saying it had taken thorough measures to clean the restaurant and would be introducing new hygiene rules, including requiring customers to collect condiments and chopsticks from a serving point before they sit down.

In a press release, the company also pointed out that its shares had fallen 4.8% in the space of 10 days and that it would be taking legal action.

The boy and his legal guardian have returned to apologize to the store and the company, but the firm says it has declined the apology as it intends to pursue damages through the courts.

"It is the right thing to do," said Takita, who manages the Tetsu Ryubo sushi restaurant in the Honmoku district of Yokohama, south of Tokyo.

"The footage showed the boy's face and lots of people will know who he is, so something like this is going to change his life for ever," he told DW. "And that makes me a little worried for him. But at the same time, he is old enough to know that what he was doing was very wrong.

"The operator of that restaurant is taking a stance,” he added. "Similar problems have happened in the past and they and all other restaurants want to make sure this does not happen again. That is why it is important to go through the police and to make an example of him."

Zero tolerance policies

Other restaurants are following Sushiro's example and adopting zero tolerance policies towards anyone found interfering with their operations.

Zensho Holdings Co, owner of the Japan-wide Hamasushi chain, has filed a similar complaint after footage was found online of someone adding large amounts of powerful "wasabi" to another customer's sushi before returning it to the conveyer belt. Other clips have emerged of a customer licking a spoon used to serve green tea powder.

The problem is not confined to sushi restaurants, with yet another clip from a "yaki-niku" grilled meat restaurant showing a diner using a toothpick and then returning it to the holder on the table.

Takita said his restaurant has had to introduce countermeasures, with chopsticks, soy sauce bottles and tea mugs now delivered to the table only after a diner has sat down.

"We are lucky because we have loyal customers and we have been quick to change the way we do things to protect them," he said. "We have not seen a decline in customers, but I know other restaurants have."

"And after all the problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant industry in general really did not need this problem."

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Immediately after the incident was reported, there was an immediate backlash, with many Japanese saying they enjoyed eating out but no longer wanted to go to the sushi chains identified in media coverage. That attitude, however, appears to be changing.

Sushi shop support

Takako Tomura was enjoying a sushi lunch with her family at Tetsu Ryubo on Sunday and said she wanted to show her support for a restaurant that she has visited countless times in the past.

"I was shocked when I saw the footage," she said. "Something like that can really damage a business and I wanted to show our support for our local sushi restaurant. They are doing some things differently now and I feel safe."

Tomura added that she "cannot understand" why the youth in the video footage had behaved in such as way.

"For me, as a Japanese person, we have respect for other people around us," she said. "I just cannot understand why someone would touch someone else's food just so they could be popular on social media. I think the restaurant is doing the right thing by taking their complaint to the police."

Edited By: John Silk