Japan’s conveyor belt sushi industry takes a licking from an errant customer : NPR

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Customers dine at a Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Tokyo on January 22, 2020.

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

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Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

Customers dine at a Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurant in Tokyo on January 22, 2020.

Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

SEOUL — Japan’s conveyor belt sushi restaurants are struggling to regain customer trust, after the industry took licking from one customer, whose viral videos of him soiling utensils and sushi with his saliva have earned him descriptions ranging from “nuisance” to “sushi terrorist.”

The reaction of the Japanese public suggests that it is a blatant attack on two things that the Japanese are very proud of, their sushi and their manners.

With a furtive glance and an imish grin, the young man in the video licks the rim of a teacup before returning it to a pile in front of his seat, where unsuspecting customers can collect it. He also licks bottles of soy sauce and smears his freshly licked fingers on pieces of sushi making their rounds of the conveyor belt.

Sushi conveyor belt restaurants were around (and around) in Japan since the late 1950s, and since then they have spread all over the world. They are a cheaper and more anonymous alternative to ordering directly from a sushi chef, who makes the food to order, while sitting behind a counter.

In the conveyor belt sushi restaurants, the sushi plates are rotated by passers-by who can choose what they like. Many sushi emporia also have tablets or touchscreens, where customers can place an order, which travels on an express conveyor like a train and stops right in front of them. Plates, chopsticks, bottles of soy sauce, boxes of pickled ginger and green tea sit on or in front of the counter to be grabbed.

Reports of several abuses in other conveyor belt sushi restaurants have emerged, including pranksters filching sushi from other diners’ orders, or dosing other customers’ food with the spicy green condiment wasabi.

In an effort to repair the damage, the Akindo Sushiro a company that runs the restaurant where the video was filmed, says it changed its soy sauce bottles, cleaned its glasses, and centralized utensils and tableware in one point. All of the chain’s restaurants will provide disinfected tableware to customers who request it.

The chain also says that on Tuesday it filed a complaint for damages with the police and received a direct apology from the man who made the video, although his motives are still unclear.

Some experts are blaming restaurants for trying to save money on labor costs. Fewer restaurant staff means “there will be more chance of fraud,” argues sushi critic Nobuo Yonekawa at ITMedia report. “It can be said,” he concludes, “that the industry itself has created such an environment.”

Takehiro Masutomo contributed to this report in Tokyo.

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