People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Nick Sakagami: When something fishy makes great business

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Tetsuya “Nick” Sakagami has an interesting anecdote about first moving to America during the height of the Japanese bubble economy in the late 1980s, when Japan was booming and confidence was in high supply.

All through junior high school and high school in Tokyo, Sakagami was a basketball fanatic. When playing, Sakagami, close to six feet tall, was a key player his teammates fed the ball to, confident that it would end up in the net and get points on the board.

One of the major draws of America for Sakagami was the opportunity to play more basketball, not necessarily professionally, but at least on its home turf. So once stateside, he quickly set about getting in on a game, and possibly forming a fraternity.

Except, when Sakagami, then in his early 20s, brazenly introduced himself on to the storied courts at Venice Beach in Los Angeles, he realized he was no longer one of the tallest and most adept guys on the court. He was suddenly a nobody trying to muscle in on a game full of “pretty boys” and dunkers.

“In LA, of course nobody cared about me, I was that little Asian kid — virtually nothing,” Sakagami recalls laughing. “I was basically ignored.”

To overcome this first major “cultural challenge,” he says, “I had to get the ball, to show them that I wanted the ball.” But he knew that gaining possession of the ball wouldn’t be enough to impress. He had to be able to something with it, too, “or they’d never give me the ball again.”

Sakagami watched the other players and observed the games, looking for an opportunity to help him join in. He noted that everyone wanted to play offense.

“They wanted to be the prima donnas scoring points, and nobody wanted to play defense,” he recalls.

So, he set about making himself known as “the guy who plays defense.”

Sakagami was born in Tokyo, but grew up in Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture. His father, the oldest child of seven siblings, moved the family from the capital to Shikoku, so that they could look after his aging grandfather.

At the age of 8, however, Sakagami returned to Tokyo where he attended Kaisei Academy, a famous all-boys private secondary school in Japan, notable for the number of its students that earn entry to the University of Tokyo each year. Sakagami, though, had different plans.

“I don’t know what happened with me,” he says, “but I didn’t want to go to Japanese university.”

After graduating high school Sakagami worked “a bunch of different jobs,” including construction work. His plan was to save money and head to the U.S., where he hoped to attend an American university. There was, however, no financial support coming from his father, who was, to say the least, not impressed with his son’s decision to forego a university education in Japan. Especially since Sakagami had been offered two university scholarships on the back of his basketball skills.

But headstrong Sakagami persevered and headed to California. He first attended community college in Santa Monica. In less than two years, once his TOEFL score improved, he was ready to transfer to the University of Southern California, where he studied urban and regional planning.

“I studied hard, really,” Sakagami says laughing. He had to, he says, because he was on his own.

Back home, though, his father was taking note of his son’s efforts. When Sakagami was ready to transfer to USC, he agreed to pay for his son’s tuition — with one caveat: Sakagami had to graduate by the age of 25.

Ultimately, however, Sakagami never graduated. Unable to complete his degree before the deadline, he had to leave university with a semester to go in his final year.

Sakagami acknowledges that his father was pretty strict, but adds, “I’m glad he was.”

Like how he found a niche in basketball, Sakagami carved himself a business role in the U.S. importing and exporting sustainable fish. Currently he is the only certified osakana meister (fish master), residing outside of Japan. Being awarded the certification by the Japan Fish Meister Association requires having the equivalent knowledge and expertise of fish that a sommelier has of wine. Sakagami is able to identify hundreds of fish species and their quality by taste, smell, touch and sight.

By the time he was awarded the title, which was given to him at Tsukiji Fish Market in 2009, Sakagami had more than two decades of experience working with fish, having cut his teeth at a Korean fish market in downtown LA before opening his own business.

The Korean company wanted a Japanese-speaking salesperson to help them break into the sushi restaurant market in the city.

Sakagami’s start in the business was not glamorous. He was in the market at 4 a.m. descaling fish, cutting fish.

“Whatever needed to be done,” he says. “But I really, really enjoyed it.”

Though his father took him on regular fishing trips when he was a young boy, Sakagami says that, other than that, he was a novice to the fish world. He remembers that there were doubters when he was hired.

“‘A Japanese guy at a Korean company — not going to last,'” he recalls people saying.

Hardworking and charismatic, he proved to be a quick learner and stayed with the company for four years, before deciding to set up his own import/export and consultancy outfit. To this day, he also maintains a close relationship with the Korean father and son team where he started out.

Sakagami is now particularly concerned with world fish stocks and sustainability. In the U.S. he supplies sustainable fish such as the tuna bred at Kindai University’s aquaculture research farms in Wakayama Prefecture to Iron Chef Masuharu Morimoto in New York, as well as Wegmans, a supermarket chain on the East Coast.

Fundamentally though, Sakagami wants environmentally friendly practices and good-quality sustainable food made more accessible to a wider audience. It’s this thinking that also informs some of the recipes in his book, “Sushi Master,” which will be published this summer.

Sakagami lists off nigiri (hand pressed) sushi, salmon onigiri (rice balls) as he explains that there are many dishes that can be made from a single salmon. Then he lists what can be done with leftovers: ochazuke, a rice porridge dish made with green tea, or perhaps salmon candy, a sweet made with whiskey and sugar.

For more pro tips from a sushi master you’ll have to wait until the summer when Sakagami’s first book comes out.

Profile

Name: Tetsuya “Nick” Sakagami

Profession: Fresh seafood importer and consultant

Hometown: Tokyo

Age: 51

Key moments in career:

1989 — Moves to Los Angeles and enrolls in Santa Monica College

1991 — Transfers to University of Southern California

1997 — Works for a Korean fish wholesaler in Los Angeles

2001 — Establishes his fresh tuna import business in Los Angeles

2001-06 — Establishes a fresh tuna import business in Los Angeles, then another operation in New York, and moves to Cincinnati, Ohio, to cover Midwest region

2007 — Becomes the first to export Kindai tuna out of Japan by importing it into the United States

2009 — Becomes certified as an osakana meister (fish master)

2014 — Moves back to Los Angeles

2017 — Is featured in a New York Times article on fish sustainability

2019 — Publishes his first book, “Sushi Master”

Things I miss about Japan: “My parents.”

Best advice I ever received: “‘Be No. 1, regardless of the industry,’ from my late father. ‘You’ll have to learn to compromise as you grow up,’ from my mother.”