Tokyo’s most famous sushi restaurant, Ninja Sushi, has its origins in an unlikely place: a former Japanese military base.
Here, a collection of Japanese culture and food history from the Japanese military, from the early days of Japan’s occupation to the present day, are revealed in a new book, The Ninja Sashi: Japanese Food from the Military and the Japanese Military from World War II to Today.
In the book, author Tomohiro Tanaka traces the history of the Tokyo sushi bar from the humble beginnings to its current prominence.
“Ninja Sushi is really the culmination of my quest to understand how the Japanese have evolved over the past 100 years,” says Tanaka.
“Its purpose was to understand the role of food and the role food plays in our culture and society.”
Ninja Sashimi at Ninja Soya.
Photo: The Ninja Shiba, courtesy of the author.
In this context, Tanaka says, the name of the bar was coined in 1945 when it was just a few tables away from a former military base at Nagasaki, which had been abandoned due to a fire.
The name was adopted, Tanaka explains, “as the Japanese had never eaten sushi in Nagasaki and the name ‘Nagasaki’ meant ‘to have sushi’.” It was this name that prompted the restaurant’s founders, former officers and enlisted men, to start the business, and the story behind the name has been told in the film Sushi Axiom, which follows the rise and fall of the Samurai class.
“I think it has a certain connection to my interest in Japanese food, Japanese history, and Japanese food culture,” Tanaka says.
“The restaurant has a connection to the military and Japanese history.
Its purpose was also to understand who is in charge of the military, the military’s role in Japan.”
The Japanese military took over the Nagasaki base in the late 1970s and early 80s.
“From that time, the Japanese food and food culture in Japan has become very modern,” says Tomoharu Okawara, a sushi historian and author of The Sushi-Maiden.
“For the first time, a Japanese restaurant has come to Nagasaki to offer a Japanese cuisine that is Japanese, in which there is a Japanese flavour, Japanese flavour in a Japanese setting.
And it was the same with the restaurant that became the Ninja Saya.”
Okawaro, who has written about the history and culture of Japanese food in Japan, says that, in the 1980s and 1990s, the sushi bar was also used to serve other Japanese cuisine, such as ramen.
“It’s a Japanese food that has always been present in Japan,” Okawaras says.
He says that the bar, which is now a popular spot for those wanting a tasty meal of ramen, has evolved through time, but that the history behind it has not.
“There is still a very strong connection to what the military did in the Japanese society, which was to destroy the Japanese culture,” he says.