If you google the best sushi places to try in Japan, you will find several articles, blogs and reels giving you a list of recommendations. Your mouth will start watering and you will not even realise you’ve spent an hour figuring best types of sushi.

If you had done this before the 90’s, the Japanese would have probably laughed at you.

Salmon, a vital ingredient in sushi, was regarded as a waste fish in Japan. The Pacific salmon was always consumed fully cooked. It was never eaten raw due to infection by parasites. It was a risky business when modern refrigeration was yet to infiltrate in Japan.

Additionally, the Japanese found the smell, taste and salmon’s head gross.
Meanwhile, some 8,908 kilometres away, people in Norwegians were finding it hard to store massive amounts of salmon. The overfishing problem got so bad, that they had to use industrial freezers to store tonnes and tonnes of salmon.

So the government’s solution was to find a country with high fish consumption and export all the salmon there. Thor Listau, the Norwegian member of the parliamentary shipping and fisheries committee, first became inspired by the idea of selling Norwegian fish to the Japanese following a trade delegation visit to Japan in 1974.

Besides him, Bjorn Eirik Olsen, an Aikikai Shihan and Chief instructor of the Norwegian Aikido Federation, also played an important role. He took it upon himself to change an entire country’s perception of salmon under Norway’s Project Japan (launched in 1985).

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The exterior of the performance halls has three shades – off-white, cream, and beige. Interestingly, the tiles imported from Sweden are triple-glazed, which means it is a self-cleaning structure. The dirt from its surfaces goes down in the drains every time it rains. The interior features pink granite, wood and plywood from New South Wales.


Sāmon Sushi: The Gamechanger of Culinary Habits of Japanese

Olsen took a flight in the mid-80s and travelled to Tokyo to meet Japanese fish industry executives and introduced salmon sushi. His selling point was that, unlike Japan’s salmon, Norway’s Atlantic salmon was parasite-free and had much fattier meat. This makes it suitable for raw consumption.

The Atlantic salmon was renamed “sāmon.”

In 1985, Listau brought with him a seafood delegation of close to 20 people representing Norwegian seafood exporters, ministers and organizations.
“When the delegation arrived in Japan, they sampled raw salmon at the Norwegian Embassy. The then ambassador Håkon Freihow had previously thought that it could be interesting to try Norwegian salmon as sushi, and he got positive feedback from Japanese guests who had tried this unusual combination. When the Norwegian delegation tried raw salmon for the first time, they turned their noses up, but were not opposed to the idea that there could be a future in it,” said Olsen in an interview.

He made ads and celebrity endorsements that promoted salmon from pure and fresh Norwegian waters. But nothing seemed to be working

So he did the next best thing and approached Nishi Rei, a company famous for frozen nuggets, squid and dumplings.

The company agreed to sell 5,000 tonnes of salmon at a very low cost. This changed the history of salmon forever in Japan. Seeing a gigantic company advocate for salmon in cheap sushi restaurants, people gradually started trying it.
From kaiten-zushi restaurants (sushi served on a conveyor belt) to family restaurants, salmon sushi was everywhere by 1995. People loved its soft texture and creamy taste. This campaign also worked in Japan’s favour. The country had been self-sufficient in terms of food for decades. However, the country was able to supply only 50% of its total fish demand in the 1990s due to unregulated fishing policies.

The Norwegian government spent a decade and 30 million NOK (3.75 million USD in today’s dollars) the make the project successful. Norway was exporting 1.8 billion NOK worth of salmon to Japan. As of 2023, Norway’s global export of salmon stood at a1.2 million tonnes of farmed salmon, worth NOK 122.5 billion.
“Every good project has a portion of luck,” said Olsen. “In regards to timing, we were lucky. The Japanese market was a good seafood market.”

The campaign also opened doors for the salmon sushi markets in China, Hong Kong and Singapore. Between January and August 2023, China imported USD 501.5 million worth of chilled seafood from Norway.
Culinary and travelling histories are filled with fascinating trivia. I mean who would have thought a project would have such a profound effect on the culinary habits of Japanese who did not like raw salmon?!