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American tuna trader shares passion born in Tsukiji with the world

by Mami Maruko

Staff Writer

American David Leibowitz admits to having been virtually clueless about Japan before coming here for the first time 21 years ago.

“I thought all the men were samurai and the women were geisha. I knew that the girls were beautiful — and that was enough, really, for a 25-year-old guy,” he says with a chuckle.

But soon enough, he was hooked, charmed by “how everything was structured, how people were kind to each other, how everything was new.”

A year later, he was to discover his calling, and his stoic samurai, in his adopted homeland — but not where he’d expected.

“I found the last samurai in Tsukiji,” Tokyo’s famous fish market — a very “masculine world,” says Leibowitz, who recalls being the only foreigner working at the site, where he spent a year and a half from 1994 to 1995. “It was the last place of Bushido, the last foothold of not-perfect tailored suits and hairdos,” he says, where “hierarchy was clearly defined, where feelings did not matter.’

“People don’t ask, ‘Are you OK?’ No one gives a sh-t. You just get up early in the morning and get on with work. It’s nice, I felt proud of myself to be a part of it,” he says.

Now 45, Leibowitz is the owner of DML Venture Enterprises, which he started after leaving his job at Tsukiji. Headquartered in Miami and with offices in Japan, the U.S. and Canada, DML exports fresh and super-frozen tuna to North America, where it is sold under the Itsumo brand, which he established in 2000.

As for the brand name, Leibowitz says, “I wanted to make it Japanese. It means, ‘always consistent, always the best, always fresh.’ “

The tuna is caught by fishermen using hand lines on boats plying the coasts of the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries. The catch is immediately immersed in chilled, oxygen-saturated brine to preserve its quality.

According to Itsumo, the tuna is then cut into loins at a processing plant under strict food-safety conditions designed to prevent bacteria spoilage, reduce enzymatic degradation and prevent the loss of its red color and quality. The fresh cuts are then sent overseas by air.

The company also exports super-frozen tuna, which is kept at minus 60 degrees Celsius, from Yamabishi Fisheries, based in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

While the company’s tuna jerky is already sold online, protein capsules containing EPA, an omega-3 fatty acid taken from the tuna, are also about to be released onto the market in a collaboration with Sendai-based supplement and fitness firm BodyPlus International.

Leibowitz’s journey to this point hasn’t all been plain sailing, he admits. There were times when he was broke and the business wasn’t turning a profit. But he never gave up, in large part because of his strong-willed nature, but also thanks to support from his family.

“My wife would say, ‘I’m OK with eating just noodles,’ ” he recalls. “Failing is a great thing. How else do you learn?”

Born in Manhattan into a Jewish family, with a Hungarian-German mother and Polish-Russian father, Leibowitz and his family moved to Miami when he was 4. He spent most of his childhood there until he entered university in South Carolina, where he became a successful college football player.

Upon graduation, a neck injury prevented him from taking up football professionally, so he started a clothing business in Miami, selling officially licensed sportswear and products.

Although he was successful in the clothing business, he gave it up. Doing the same thing for life, he says, was “boring” and he craved a new challenge.

“I love having a goal and creating something new with hard-working, smart people,” he says, adding with a laugh that he sometimes challenges himself too much.

Leibowitz first came to Japan in 1993, sparked by his interest in karate.

Before that, he traveled for about a year in Australia, India and Thailand.

“I always wanted to travel in Asia,” he remembers, but his last destination, Japan, seemed like “the most exotic, unique place.”

When he first arrived in Japan, he sold Asian jewelry to shops and stalls. He got married and started a used-clothing business, which he says was “very successful.” This was when he got to know about tuna for the first time.

Tetsuo Adachi, the landlord of a building that housed one of the stores Leibowitz ran in Kyushu, was an executive at Nakamatsu Bussan, a wholesale tuna distributor. He is now the CEO of another distributor, Pesca Rich Japan. The American says he owes a lot to Adachi, who taught him the ABCs of the tuna industry, and whom he still refers to as “Papa.” He also singles out Nobukazu Kobayashi, the manager of Nakamatsu Bussan at the time, for praise.

“Adachi-san is like my father of tuna. He opened up the whole company to me. And Kobayashi-senpai taught me everything about Tsukiji, from cutting the fish to learning the different grades of tuna,” he says, using the Japanese suffix that denotes a workplace superior.

In Miami, Leibowitz had always fished, but he had little interest or idea about the deep, complex world of tuna back then.

“It was amazing how there were 150 different grades of tuna,” he recalls. “It was a closed, secretive tuna world at Tsukiji. I was accepted into — and became part of — that world.”

By working at Tsukiji, he says he slowly learned about the Japanese mentality.

“You slowly get out of your preconceived notions. I didn’t know how majime — how serious, hardworking, thorough, complete, well thought-out, nothing left to chance, all of that — Japanese were,” he says.

In Tsukiji, “They were holding the fish like a baby. I remember thinking, ‘Why are they doing this?’ I came to find out that if they bruise the tuna, that would degrade the fish,” he says. “That’s so beautiful and elevating! It’s one of the ways that Japan elevates humanity.”

Leibowitz said he feels that especially when it comes to food, Japanese handle everything very carefully, and he was struck by that “bit of sophistication” in Japanese cuisine.

“You know it’s been lovingly taken care of — even how rice is washed and how nori (dried seaweed) is put on,” he explains.

Leibowitz met his wife, Mayumi, in Tokyo in 1995, and they married soon after. The couple moved to Miami, partly to look after his mother. There, Leibowitz started DML Venture Enterprises, which began life as a jewelry and clothing company. All the while, he was interested in starting a tuna business, so he began looking for a U.S. distributor.

Leibowitz also wanted to learn about tuna fishing first-hand, so in 1997 he went to work in the industry in the Philippines for three months, at a Pesca Rich processing factory and on one of its boats.

“The days that I worked in the factory, I would cut 1,000 tails of fish a day — till my hands were bleeding,” he remembers. “The more challenging it was, the more I wanted to learn.”

After returning to the U.S., by trial and error, he eventually found a suitable distributor for his tuna, and he established the Itsumo brand in 2000.

Over the next decade, he ran his wholesale seafood business — mainly dealing in tuna — from Manhattan. He traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Japan during this period as he tried to expand the business in both countries. Three years ago, after his mother died, the family moved back to Japan.

While two of his three children were born in Tokyo, the youngest was born in the U.S. All three are now being educated in Japan.

Leibowitz says that every Jew he knows here loves Japan, and he says that he sees many similarities between the Japanese and Jewish peoples.

Japan and Israel, he says, “are two old, old cultures rooted in education, family values, communal service to each other . . . and the woman is the boss of the house! Of course there are differences, but many more similarities.”

He says that things the Japanese take for granted, he cherishes.

“The things that they think are routine, I think are just phenomenal. The Japanese are very unique and special. Every day, I take a taxi and think, ‘Wow, it’s clean.’ I like the culture, and I fit in very well in Japan.”

Through his company, Leibowitz says he wants to spread the word about the beauty of Japanese cuisine and culture.

“I want to roll together the beauty of the history and culture of Japan into a quality tuna product and export that to the West. I want the West consuming that and having it become part of them.”

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