The gig: Noritoshi Kanai, 92, is chairman of Mutual Trading Co., a distributor of Japanese foods and restaurant supplies based in downtown L.A.'s Little Tokyo. But more famously, Kanai is widely credited with introducing sushi to the U.S. more than 50 years ago. Founded in 1926 by several small retailers, Mutual Trading now provides 3,000 restaurants in the United States, and others around the world, with several thousand items such as sake and sushi knives. Kanai dedicates himself to training the next generation of company leaders, maintaining relationships with corporate suppliers and fostering ties with communities and governments.
Very risky business: Kanai didn't set out to become a sushi pioneer. After studying the export business in his native Japan, he decided to bring Japanese food to the United States for homesick transplants and their descendants. But he soon eyed a bigger market: Americans. In 1963, long before the California roll landed in supermarkets, this was "very risky." Kanai had to persuade a Little Tokyo restaurant operator to take the gamble. "Sushi is no good, American people don't like," Kanai recalled the owner protesting. Kanai pressed his case for six months before winning approval to construct a counter where customers could watch chefs slice raw cuts of fish. As curious eaters caught on, Kanai realized "unknown culture … has a future." The sushi bar he opened inside Kawafuku, a restaurant that no longer exists, was among the first in the United States.
Keeping soldiers fed: Kanai developed his culinary expertise during World War II, when he was drafted out of college and assigned to provide meals for Japanese soldiers. The war, which he said killed three-fourths of his fellow soldiers stationed in Burma, was "miserable." But the work was instructive. When the war ended, Kanai decided to go into business for himself. "I think food is the most important merchandise in human living," he said. He completed his business studies in Tokyo and joined a colleague to create the Japanese branch of Mutual Trading Co. In 1964, he came to the U.S. to help run the company. Mutual Trading now employs 300 people with operations in several cities.
No more imitations: One of Kanai's first exports to the U.S., a Japanese biscuit, almost dashed his hopes for success. "I traveled all over the United States, visited every state, and people say, 'Oh that's a very wonderful, very good, crispy and very delicious cookie,'" Kanai recalled. "At that time, I thought export is very easy." But sales dropped off within three years. Kanai realized that Taiwan and Korea had won the market by imitating the cookies. He became determined to sell a unique product that no other country could duplicate.
Culinary liaison: "In this kind of business, food is culture." That philosophy has guided Kanai's vision for the company, which he views as an ambassador of Japanese values and traditions. To maintain the integrity of Japanese cuisine abroad, Kanai opened the Sushi Institute of America, which draws more than a dozen people each year to learn the precise craft of rolling fish and rice. The school represents Mutual Trading's attempt to tackle a big challenge: training new generations to bring innovation into the company while preserving tradition.
Family bridges: After Kanai moved to Los Angeles with his wife, Fusako, and children Scott and Atsuko, he often looked to his son and daughter to bridge cultural divides, thinking, "I have to know the way to associate with American people more." Kanai asked his son to succeed him in the business, but Scott, 62, opted for dentistry. Atsuko, who is in her 50s, had earned an MBA at the USC and joined the firm. She is now vice president. "My hope is for her to … create [an] American company," Kanai said.
The next sushi: Despite Kanai's faith that raw fish would be a hit in the U.S., sushi isn't his favorite Japanese food. That distinction goes to the thin, buckwheat noodles called soba. "Sushi is good, but soba is … better" in Kanai's opinion, and he believes soba could be the next Japanese staple that Mutual Trading makes popular in his adopted country. Kanai, a wiry man whose work uniform is a suit and tie, said he doesn't know if he'll live to see that day. But he has no plans to retire. "Working is very good for me," he said. "It is proof of living."