Japan’s ‘Sushi Terrorism’ Prompts Changes at Conveyor-Belt Restaurants

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Yomiuri Shimbun file photo

The threat of “sushi terrorism” – carried out by pranksters who spit on other diners’ food or otherwise tamper with food and dishes – is prompting big changes in Japan’s kaitenzushi restaurants, where customers choose their food from dishes that travel to them on conveyor belts.

Choshimaru, a chain with dozens of locations in Tokyo and the surrounding area, this week said that it is switching over to a system in which customers order their sushi from an employee or a touch-screen monitor instead of the traditional style of picking it off a slow-moving conveyor. The change, which will take place by the end of next month, was prompted by a video in which a man put a cigarette butt in a dish of pickled ginger as it passed him by, according to news reports.

The company hopes that will make it harder for anyone to engage in what has come to be known throughout the country as sushi terrorism, usually portrayed in videos shared over social media in which people lick communal soy sauce bottles, spit in food or touch others’ sushi. The trend has alarmed those who value the tradition of kaitenzushi – and it has hit the industry hard.

“The loss of confidence in the cleanliness of Japan’s revolving sushi restaurants poses a threat to a unique part of modern Japanese food culture,” reported Sora News 24.

Choshimaru’s decision to halt its conveyor belts follows a similar move by Sushiro, which claims to be the biggest such chain, after a video circulated showing a boy licking cups and soy sauce bottles and touching other diners’ food after licking his fingers. The incident, which was viewed millions of times, drove customers away, the company said, causing its parent company’s stock price to plummet by 5 percent, according to Japanese news outlet TV Asahi.

Such stunts “have set off a national wave of revulsion in Japan, known for its exacting standards of both hygiene and politeness,” Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma wrote in a report about the phenomenon in The Washington Post.

Sushiro will also require patrons to place their orders, which will be delivered on a quickly moving “express lane” it hopes will thwart would-be troublemakers, it informed customers in a notice posted on its website.

Kura, another popular chain, is taking a different tack. Last week, the brand upgraded its AI-assisted cameras – which were already being used to track how many dishes customers ate – to detect suspicious activity, like if a customer removed a single-serving plate from the conveyor belt and then put it back. Such an incident would prompt an alert to be sent to the company’s regional office, where employees can view the footage and contact the restaurant where it happened, according to Sora News 24.

“It would have been nice if we didn’t need to rely on this sort of system,” a Kura Sushi spokesperson told the news organization, “But it’s become necessary because of the inconsiderate actions of a small number of people.”

On social media, fans lamented the changes to the iconic sushi trains, the first of which was opened in 1958 by a Japanese restaurateur and have spread all over the world. “One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how fragile social order really is,” one person tweeted. “A staple of Japanese culture, invalidated overnight by a few TikTok troublemakers.”