Yoshiaki Shiraishi, an innovator who made Japan's most famous cuisine affordable and accessible to the masses with his conveyor belt sushi technology, has died. He was 87.
Shiraishi died Wednesday of cirrhosis of the liver at a hospital in Osaka after a protracted battle with the disease.
Shiraishi, chairman of Genroku Sangyo Co., got the idea for his revolving-sushi restaurants--known as kaiten zushi, literally "turnover sushi"--while watching beer bottles rattle through a brewery's assembly line.
At a time when Japan was becoming obsessed with efficiency and production technology, he worked with a small machinist to apply similar technology to the raw fish and rice trade. In 1958, his first revolving-sushi restaurant opened in Osaka.
The idea of mass-produced sushi was anathema to many traditionalists in a field in which sushi masters often take a decade or longer to refine the subtleties of their art.
But by rotating the sushi past customers' chairs in no-frills fashion and allowing them to grab it for themselves, Shiraishi saved on waiters and fancy chefs, increased patron turnover, cut prices and helped turn the once-luxury food into an affordable, healthy fast food.
"Shiraishi made a great contribution in an area of popular culture that Japan can be proud of," said Toyoo Tamamura, a food writer and author of a book on kaiten zushi. "The sushi world had been very closed, and he really helped change people's mind-set. And he also added an amusement element to eating that fits the modern mind-set."
Shiraishi was able to revolutionize sushi delivery in tradition-bound Japan in large part because he was not from the guild of sushi masters. While many in the old guard sniffed at the outsider's invention as a travesty and a depersonalization of the sushi experience, consumers loved it.
At its peak, Genroku Sangyo had a chain of 240 franchise restaurants across Japan, a number since reduced to 11. Along the way, Shiraishi sparked a host of imitators, and last year there were more than 2,400 restaurants in Japan's $2.1-billion revolving-sushi industry, according to the Tokyo-based research firm Fuji Keizai.
Japan's decade-long recession has only expanded the concept's attraction and driven prices lower. Sushi at a kaiten zushi spot can cost as little as 82 cents for two pieces, a fraction of the price at a high-end sushi bar. A meal at a ritzy sushi bar in Tokyo's fashionable Ginza district, for instance, can set diners back $500 or more apiece.
Kaiten zushi has also spread overseas--Shiraishi found it very amusing that his humble idea could go so far--with outlets found in nearly a dozen countries, including the United States, England, Australia, France, China, South Korea and the Netherlands. Back in Japan, meanwhile, the conveyor belt idea has been adopted by those purveying other cuisines, with some chains even offering sushi by day and Korean barbecue by night.
Shiraishi was born in Ehime on the island of Shizuoka and early on displayed a restless spirit and curiosity that would serve him well. As a young man, he borrowed a fishing boat, loaded it with his belongings and set sail for Osaka, the nearest big city.
After the Japanese colonized China, he headed off to Manchuria and worked in a tempura shop before being drafted and posted to the China-Russia border. When World War II ended, he went back to Ehime almost penniless, made some money in the black market and returned to Osaka in 1947 to open a small restaurant.
Shiraishi had a taste for innovation, and during his lifetime he secured patents for several ideas--including a portable toilet, long before the camping craze caught on, and a robot sushi maker, though he never actively marketed the latter.
His son recalls him as a generous man able to brave skepticism and ridicule for something he believed in.
"Many people thought he'd never succeed with this invention," said Hiroshi Shiraishi, president of Genroku Sangyo. "But he was always saying, 'I'm not going to be defeated.' "
After Shiraishi's tour of the Asahi Brewery and his mid-1950s epiphany that the conveyor belt system could be applied to the sushi business, he drew up a rough drawing of his idea and took it to a number of machine shops. But with the economy booming, most turned down the work. Finally, he found a shop with just 20 employees willing to give it a try.
He considered making the belt itself out of natural materials, but he soon realized that frequent washing would rot wood or thick paper while iron would rust, so he settled on stainless steel. Early plans also called for a conveyor shaped like a baseball diamond, but he eventually chose a modified horseshoe.
One of his most difficult problems was figuring out how to make his rattletrap contraption turn corners. Watching people hold playing cards one day gave him an idea. He would use crescent-shaped pieces of steel that fanned out much the way the cards fan out in a player's bridge or poker hand and then contracted around corners.
Shiraishi decided the device should revolve clockwise, since most people hold chopsticks in their right hands and prefer to grab plates with their left. After much trial and error, he settled on a speed of 8 centimeters, or a little more than 3 inches, per second. Anything faster and the fish dried out even as the plates were at risk of flying off. Anything slower and people, particularly impatient Osaka types, got irritated.
By April 1958, after four years of preparation, Shiraishi was ready for his debut. His first outlet was named Mawaru Genroku Sushi and had no chairs, which forced its 10 or so customers to eat fast and clear out. But its prices, 30% less than competitors', quickly gained attention, and before long there were long lines of customers waiting to get in.
The Sputnik satellite had been launched the previous year, so Shiraishi adopted the advertising slogan "Satellite-Turning-Around Sushi." He named the restaurant Genroku Sushi after a late 17th and early 18th century samurai era when mass culture flourished.
"Chairman Shiraishi is a man who changed Japanese food culture," said Tomohiro Ueyama, a Genroku Sushi spokesman. "He is an idea man."
In 1970, Genroku Sushi put an outlet in an international exposition in Osaka, and that helped popularize the conveyor belt idea across Japan. As it turned out, Shiraishi was in good company. The expo saw the introduction to Japan of several other innovative food distributors, including Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's. In retrospect, this was the dawning of the fast-food industry in Japan, and kaiten zushi had secured a place at the table.
Genroku Sangyo headquarters and its restaurants were closed Friday for his funeral, which was organized by his son.
Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this story.