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Japan Prepares to Send 'Sushi Police' on Worldwide Crusade to Improve Japanese Cuisine

Japanese cuisine has become popular around the world - perhaps too popular for some in Japan. Japanese traveling abroad are returning home with increasing complaints about soggy seaweed, limp noodles and sushi with most untraditional toppings. This is all too much for Japan's Agriculture Ministry, which is preparing to inspect and certify Japanese restaurants around the world.

Although isolated for many centuries, this island nation has been a gastronomic crossroads for decades. Some of the Italian and French restaurants located here are rated nearly as highly as any found in Europe.

But the Japanese also relish pizzas topped with corn or squid, hamburgers smothered in mayonnaise and wasabi, or chowder brimming with tofu - that is to say, fermented soybean curd.

Visitors from Rome or Boston may be appalled at such culinary interpretations. But the Japanese are obviously open minded in modifying the cuisine of other nations, just as they successfully did with automotive technology and consumer electronics.

However, Foreign Ministry spokesman, Tomohiko Taniguchi, phrasing things most diplomatically, explains that the Japanese have less tolerance for what, of late, is passing for their native cuisine overseas.

"In some countries, displaying what's called 'Japanese food' while maintaining something dramatically different from what you can see as

Japanese food can be observed as an increasing phenomenon," he said.

This is prompting Japan's Agriculture Ministry to convene a panel of food experts. They will establish certification standards for Japanese restaurants outside the country.

Just what the certification standards will be, or who the conclusions will be aimed at, has not yet been determined. A reporter calling the ministry for more information was told, politely, to call back next March.

Whatever the criteria, however, the Japanese regard preparation of their cuisine - which, for the uninitiated, includes far more than sushi - very seriously.

The exclusive Masukomi Sushi Bar on the 20th floor of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan is supervised by head chef, Issei Kurimoto. He has been serving sliced fish with vinegar rice for 30 years.

Kurimoto says the first test of a skilled sushi chef is how well he wields a knife and his skill at slicing raw fish. To reach the level here in Japan of not being an embarrassment in front of patrons can take six years or more.

After that comes the equally daunting task of excelling at communications with the customers across the counter from the sushi master. That, Kurimoto cautions, can also take years to learn.

The Agriculture Ministry says it is premature to comment on whether chef Kurimoto's criteria are the sort of items their inspectors will be noting.

Mily Togasa, whose father was Japanese, is a chef and owner of a Japanese restaurant on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. She says Japanese food inspectors should have an open mind about what is deemed authentic.

"The stickiness of the rice, the different kinds of vinegars used for the rice and also the seafood you get in the different local areas are going to vary - some of which you cannot even get in Japan," she said. "So it really depends on the criteria that they're thinking of."

But even Togasa has had experiences with so-called Japanese food that have tested her limits. She recalls one particularly unforgettable meal in New York City.

"I ordered something and it really was awful, so I did actually send it back," she said. "To apologize they gave me a free sushi roll, which was even worse than what I had ordered. I found out that the owner had nothing to do with Japan, neither did the chefs or anybody there. But the people in the neighborhood loved the place and loved the food - so what's wrong with that?"

The notion of Japanese inspectors setting cooking standards for soba in Sao Paolo, or teriyaki in Tehran - or sushi rolls in New York - has met with a certain amount of skepticism among international journalists here who were told of the plan.

So much so that Taniguchi, the Foreign Ministry's usually unflappable spokesman, finally abandoned all pretense of support for the idea.

"What's called 'sushi police' is not going to do good for the better image of Japanese food, I believe," he said.

The food bureaucrats across the street at the Agriculture Ministry, however, are undaunted by such criticism. They are forging ahead with their plan to police the world's sushi platters.

The ministry says its blue ribbon panel will unveil certification standards by the end of February. And, starting next April, their inspectors will spread out around the world, to begin what may turn out to be a most unappetizing assignment.