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Japan prime minister’s program doesn’t work for everybody, writes Asia Sentinel’s Todd Crowell

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new economic policy, dubbed “Abenomics,” has been generally considered a success in the first year in which it was implemented. But, as in other endeavors, there are winners and losers.

The winners so far are Japan’s big exporters, which have benefitted hugely from the weakening yen, having lost about 20 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year. Even such trouble-prone electronics companies as Sony have been able to eke out a small profit due to the yen’s devaluation. People who have invested in stocks have also scored. But there are losers, and one of them is conveyor belt sushi, which ironically was one of the few Japanese industries that thrived during Japan’s decades-long period of stagnation and deflation.

So far, relatively little of the economic benefits of Abenomics have trickled down to the average working man, and thus industries like revolving sushi that are dependent on consumers are suffering in the wake of flat demand and the soaring costs of imported ingredients due to the weakening yen and increasing global competition for fish.

In a conveyor belt restaurant the customer sits at a brightly lit counter as the sushi glides by, two pieces of fish on rice to a plate. No words are necessary. You see what you like and reach out and grab it. You pay based on the number of plates that you accumulate.

Conveyor belt sushi was actually invented in 1958 by Yoshiake Shiraishi (ironically the same year that another great Japanese food innovator, Ando Momofuko, invented instant ramen noodles). Supposedly he got the inspiration for moveable belts of sushi by watching beer bottles moving on a conveyor belt at a brewery. It was introduced to the world at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair.

However, it really got started in the 1990s and beyond. At first it was seen as a kind of gimmick. How could it compete with established sushi restaurants, which often charged US$100 or more for a sushi meal? It was like McDonald’s competing with a Kansas City steakhouse. But before long they were responsible for a third of all sushi sales in Japan.

It fit in with the times. The extravagant years of the Bubble Economy, which ended in the1989 crash, had given way to more frugal times. Diners tightened spending, patronage of regular restaurants slumped, bankruptcies in the food trade exploded. The conveyor-belt sushi shops were a good deal in the times. They charged only about ¥100 (about a dollar) per plate.

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