Look at the menu of any sushi shop in Japan and you will almost certainly see salmon: fatty, tender and bright orange. And for good reason, in a 2017 survey by the seafood company Maruha Nichiro, the fish was found to be the most popular neta (topping) for the sixth year in a row, ranked far higher than the more traditional tuna and halibut.
But salmon is a relatively new addition to the sushi menu making its rise to popularity remarkable, a story that is both an allegory of shifting taste trends across Japanese demographics and the opening of one of Japan’s most iconic cuisines, sushi, to the world.
So swift has been salmon’s success that there is a stark generational divide when it comes to which neta is preferred. Many older Japanese start with lean white fish and work their way up to tuna, while younger generations prefer salmon.
“20 years ago was when everything changed,” says Hideki Koike, the head chef at Masukomi Sushi Bar in Yurakucho, Tokyo. “There are still some restaurants without salmon,” he says. “But the demand is too great. You just have to serve it.”
Behind salmon’s rise to popularity is the lesser-known story of a carefully executed Norwegian marketing campaign: Project Japan.
“We set out to ‘inject’ Norwegian salmon into Japanese sushi,” says Bjorn Eirik Olsen who, in the late 1980s, was responsible for market research for Project Japan. He is now the general director of the Culture Business Development Foundation based in Tromso, Norway.
In the 1970s, Norway began commercial salmon farming but, with decreasing seafood consumption at home, salmon was soon filling industrial freezers across the country. By the late 1980s, Norway was in desperate need of a new market for its fish.
Japan, meanwhile, had been overfishing its waters to meet high consumption and, with Japanese fishermen told to remain within their exclusive economic zones by the United Nations, Japan began opening up its once nearly self-sufficient seafood industry to foreign suppliers.
The country stood out as an ideal market for Norwegian salmon. When Olsen landed in Tokyo in 1986, he took one look at Japanese seafood consumption habits and knew his target market.
“We had to target the raw consumption market,” he says. Fish in Japan aimed for the grill market was cheap and plentiful, but fish meant for sushi or sashimi could be priced up to 10 times higher.
This was no easy task, however, and breaking into the raw fish market proved far more formidable than anticipated. When Olsen introduced Norwegian salmon to representatives from the Japanese seafood industry, he says it was met with a uniform response: “We don’t eat salmon in Japan.”
Raw salmon that is. The Japanese have eaten salmon for hundreds of years, but locally caught Pacific salmon contains parasites and must be cooked or cured for its lean meat to be edible. Farmed Atlantic salmon, on the other hand, is fatty and parasite-free. But the image of salmon as a cheap fish unsuitable for raw consumption was not easy to overcome. “We couldn’t just say that our fish doesn’t have parasites,” Olsen says.
And, parasites or not, Japan just wasn’t quite ready for raw salmon. The complaints from chefs and seafood representatives included just about everything. “They’d say the meat had the wrong color,” Olsen says. The smell had a “river-like” quality to it that was unsuitable for sushi, or the taste wasn’t right or the head was the wrong shape, people told Olsen.
Yet raw salmon had been considered a delicacy at the Norwegian Embassy in Tokyo for years, and Japanese visitors to the embassy seemed to enjoy it. The problem was not with the fish, Olsen concluded, but with people’s conceptions of salmon.
And so Olsen set out to differentiate Atlantic salmon from Pacific salmon, starting with the name. The Japanese word for salmon is sake, like the alcohol but with stress added on the first syllable. Olsen instead turned to English, and decided to use the katakana “sāmon,” the name now used in virtually every Japanese sushi restaurant.
Still, a name change and advertisements depicting clear arctic waters were not enough to convince skeptics in Japan and, at home, pressure was mounting. As Norwegian consumers turned to red meat and poultry, the Norwegian seafood industry found itself “on the brink of collapse,” says Olsen.
“There was a lot of pressure to give up,” he says. Many in the salmon farming industry pushed for him to let his sushi ambition go and sell the fish to the cheaper grill market, where buyers were lining up.
Olsen reisisted and, in 1992, he got lucky. A company he had been dealing with for years, Nichirei, took him up on an offer to buy 5,000 metric tons of salmon for next to nothing. The only condition was that it could only be sold as sushi. “If we could just get people to try it,” Olsen says, “I knew it would be a success.”
With raw salmon now on the market for consumption, the ball began rolling. In the 1990s, the Japanese cooking show “Iron Chef” and enterprising celebrity chefs like Yutaka Ishinabe began endorsing Norwegian salmon on national television. With its dewy, smooth texture and tasty fat, salmon began to catch on and people began to demand the Atlantic fish in restaurants across the country.
The demand became so extreme that, in Norway, the industry suddenly had to play catch-up. “It took 10 years for the Japanese market to take off, but 20 years before the industry understood what was happening,” Olsen says.
The industry wanted one standardized product that could be sold in Japan as easily as it could in Denmark. “Raw salmon was seen as a curiosity,” he says. “No-one was going to put extra resources into the Japanese market.”
It was not until 2007 that Norway’s Leroy, the second largest salmon and trout farming company in the world, soft launched a product aimed specifically at the Japanese consumer: Aurora Salmon.
“For raw salmon, you want to have an extra high fat content,” says Keita Koido, the President of Leroy Japan. Looking to maximize the salmon’s fattiness, Leroy looked north of the Arctic Circle. That far north, “there’s clean, cold water and a stable temperature throughout the year,” Koido says. The cold weather makes the fish grow more slowly, and brings more fat into the meat.
For fish that is farmed halfway across the world, “the most important thing for the Japanese consumer is the freshness,” he says. Every week Leroy, with a market share of upward of 20 percent, sends three full flights of Norwegian salmon to various airports across the country.
Meanwhile, Olsen reflects back on the moment he realized his marketing campaign had been a success. “The moment I knew salmon sushi had caught on,” Olsen says, “was when I went to Tokyo and suddenly saw small plastic salmon sushi in shop windows.”