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Sushi and Rev. Moon

How Amer­i­cans’ grow­ing appetite for sushi is help­ing to sup­port his con­tro­ver­sial church

By Mon­i­ca Eng, Del­roy Alexan­der and David Jack­son
Tri­bune staff reporters
Pub­lished by The Chica­go Tri­bune April 11, 2006 [1]

On a mis­sion from their leader, five young men arrived in Chica­go to open a lit­tle fish shop on Elston Avenue. Back then, in 1980, peo­ple of their faith were cas­ti­gat­ed as “Moonies” and called cult mem­bers. Yet the Japan­ese and Amer­i­can friends worked gru­el­ing hours and slept in a com­mu­nal apart­ment as they slow­ly built the foun­da­tion of a com­mer­cial empire.

They were led by the vision of Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the self-pro­claimed mes­si­ah who sus­tained their spir­its as they played their part in ful­fill­ing the glob­al busi­ness plan he had devised.

Moon found­ed his con­tro­ver­sial Uni­fi­ca­tion Church six decades ago with the procla­ma­tion that he was asked by Jesus to save human­i­ty. But he also built the empire blend­ing his con­ser­v­a­tive pol­i­tics, savvy cap­i­tal­ism and flair for spec­ta­cles such as mass wed­dings in Madi­son Square Gar­den.

In a remark­able sto­ry that has gone large­ly untold, Moon and his fol­low­ers cre­at­ed an enter­prise that reaped mil­lions of dol­lars by dom­i­nat­ing one of Amer­i­ca’s trendi­est indul­gences: sushi.

Today, one of those five Elston Avenue pio­neers, Takeshi Yashiro, serves as a top exec­u­tive of a sprawl­ing con­glom­er­ate that sup­plies much of the raw fish Amer­i­cans eat.

Adher­ing to a plan Moon spelled out more than three decades ago in a series of ser­mons, mem­bers of his move­ment man­aged to inte­grate vir­tu­al­ly every facet of the high­ly com­pet­i­tive seafood indus­try. The Moon fol­low­ers’ seafood oper­a­tion is dri­ven by a com­mer­cial pow­er­house, known as True World Group. It builds fleets of boats, runs dozens of dis­tri­b­u­tion cen­ters and, each day, sup­plies most of the nation’s esti­mat­ed 9,000 sushi restau­rants.

Although few seafood lovers may con­sid­er they’re indi­rect­ly sup­port­ing Moon’s reli­gious move­ment, they do just that when they eat a but­tery slice of tuna or munch on a morsel of eel in many restau­rants. True World is so ubiq­ui­tous that 14 of 17 promi­nent Chica­go sushi restau­rants sur­veyed by the Tri­bune said they were sup­plied by the com­pa­ny.

Over the last three decades, as Moon has faced down accu­sa­tions of brain­wash­ing fol­low­ers and per­son­al­ly prof­it­ing from the church, he and sushi have made sim­i­lar if unlike­ly jour­neys from the fringes of Amer­i­can soci­ety to the main­stream.

These par­al­lel paths are not coin­ci­dence. They reflect Moon’s dream of revi­tal­iz­ing and dom­i­nat­ing the Amer­i­can fish­ing indus­try while help­ing to fund his church’s activ­i­ties.

“I have the entire sys­tem worked out, start­ing with boat build­ing,” Moon said in “The Way of Tuna,” a speech giv­en in 1980. “After we build the boats, we catch the fish and process them for the mar­ket, and then have a dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work. This is not just on the draw­ing board; I have already done it.”

In the same speech, he called him­self “king of the ocean.” It proved not to be an idle boast. The busi­ness­es now employ hun­dreds, includ­ing non-church mem­bers, from the frigid waters of the Alaskan coast to the icon­ic Amer­i­can fish­ing town of Glouces­ter, Mass.

Records and inter­views with church insid­ers and com­peti­tors trace how Moon and mem­bers of his move­ment car­ried out his vision.

In a recent inter­view Rev. Phillip Schanker, a Uni­fi­ca­tion Church spokesman, said the seafood busi­ness­es were “not orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly or legal­ly con­nect­ed” to Moon’s church, but were sim­ply “busi­ness­es found­ed by mem­bers of the Uni­fi­ca­tion Church.”

Schanker com­pared the rela­tion­ship to suc­cess­ful busi­ness own­ers-such as J. Willard “Bill” Mar­riott, a promi­nent Mor­mon who found­ed the hotel chain that bears his name-who donate mon­ey to their church.

“Mar­riott sup­ports the Mor­mon Church but no one who checks into a Mar­riott Hotel thinks they are deal­ing with Mor­monism,” he said. “In the same way I would hope that every busi­ness found­ed by a mem­ber based on inspi­ra­tion from Rev. Moon’s vision also would be in a posi­tion to sup­port the church.”

LEADER’S SEAFOOD STRATEGY

But links between Moon’s reli­gious orga­ni­za­tion and the fish busi­ness­es are spelled out in court and gov­ern­ment records as well as in state­ments by Moon and his top church offi­cials. For one thing, Moon per­son­al­ly devised the seafood strat­e­gy, helped fund it at its out­set and served as a direc­tor of one of its ear­li­est com­pa­nies.

Moon’s Uni­fi­ca­tion Church is orga­nized under a tax-exempt non-prof­it enti­ty called The Holy Spir­it Asso­ci­a­tion for the Uni­fi­ca­tion of World Chris­tian­i­ty. The busi­ness­es are con­trolled by a sep­a­rate non-prof­it com­pa­ny called Uni­fi­ca­tion Church Inter­na­tion­al Inc., or UCI.

That com­pa­ny’s con­nec­tions to Moon’s Uni­fi­ca­tion Church go deep­er than the shared name. A 1978 con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion into Moon’s busi­ness­es con­clud­ed: “It was unclear whether the UCI had any inde­pen­dent func­tions oth­er than serv­ing as a finan­cial clear­ing­house for var­i­ous Moon orga­ni­za­tion sub­sidiaries and projects.”

UCI as well as its sub­sidiaries and affil­i­ates such as True World are run large­ly by church mem­bers, Schanker said. The com­pa­nies were “found­ed by church mem­bers in line with Rev. Moon’s vision,” he said. “It’s not coin­ci­dence.”

Some­times the links are more direct. The boat­build­ing firm US Marine Cor­po­ra­tion shares its head­quar­ters offices with the church and lists the church as its major­i­ty share­hold­er, accord­ing to cor­po­rate records.

SERVING THROUGH BUSINESS

A por­tion of True World’s prof­its makes its way to the church through the lay­ers of par­ent cor­po­ra­tions, Yashiro said, adding: “We live to serve oth­ers, and this is how we serve by build­ing a strong busi­ness.”

Moon pre­dict­ed in 1974 that the fish­ing busi­ness would “lay a foun­da­tion for the future econ­o­my of the Uni­fi­ca­tion Church.” In fact, while Moon and busi­ness­es affil­i­at­ed with him report­ed­ly have poured mil­lions of dol­lars into mon­ey-los­ing ven­tures includ­ing The Wash­ing­ton Times news­pa­per, the seafood ven­tures have cre­at­ed a prof­it-mak­ing infra­struc­ture that could last-and help sup­port the church-long after the 86-year-old Moon is gone.

Much of the foun­da­tion for that suc­cess has its roots in Chica­go. True World Foods, Yashiro’s whole­sale fish dis­tri­b­u­tion busi­ness spawned near Lawrence and Elston Avenues, now oper­ates from a 30,000-square-foot com­plex in Elk Grove Vil­lage.

The com­pa­ny says it sup­plies hun­dreds of local sushi and fine-din­ing estab­lish­ments. Even many who might have reli­gious reser­va­tions about buy­ing from the com­pa­ny do so for one sim­ple rea­son: It depend­ably deliv­ers high-qual­i­ty sushi.

“We try not to think of the reli­gion part,” said Haruko Ima­mu­ra, who with her hus­band runs Kat­su on West Peter­son Avenue. “We don’t agree with their reli­gion but it’s noth­ing to do with the busi­ness.”

Like Moon him­self, who served a 13-month prison sen­tence for tax fraud in the 1980s, the seafood com­pa­nies have at times run afoul of U.S. laws.

In June 2001, True World Foods’ Kodi­ak, Alas­ka, fish pro­cess­ing com­pa­ny plead­ed guilty to a fed­er­al felony for accept­ing a load of pol­lock that exceed­ed the boat’s 300,000-pound trip lim­it. The firm was fined $150,000 and put on pro­ba­tion for five years under a plea agree­ment with pros­e­cu­tors.

The com­pa­ny also has been cit­ed for san­i­ta­tion laps­es by the Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion. Last year, after repeat­ed FDA inspec­tions found “gross unsan­i­tary con­di­tions” at True World’s sub­ur­ban
Detroit plant, the facil­i­ty man­ag­er tried to bar inspec­tors from pro­duc­tion areas and refused to pro­vide records, accord­ing to an FDA report. The plant man­ag­er told the inspec­tors that his True World super­vi­sor was “a great man, that he was a part of a new reli­gion, and that if we took advan­tage of him, then ‘God help you!’.”

Lat­er, accord­ing to that FDA report, an employ­ee wear­ing a ski mask approached one female inspec­tor, put his thumb and fore­fin­ger in the shape of a gun, point­ed at her and said: “You’re out of uni­form. Pow!”

Say­ing they had been “hin­dered, intim­i­dat­ed and threat­ened,” the FDA inspec­tors took the unusu­al step of secur­ing a court order com­pelling True World to let them inspect the facil­i­ty. Yashiro, chief exec­u­tive of True World Foods, said in a writ­ten state­ment that the “iso­lat­ed instance ..... arose from a mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” The plant is now closed; Yashiro said its oper­a­tions were con­sol­i­dat­ed into the Elk Grove Vil­lage plant in Jan­u­ary, adding: “We main­tain the high­est stan­dards of food safe­ty.”

THE OCEAN KING’S VISION

In the late 1970s, Moon laid out a plan to build seafood oper­a­tions in all 50 states as part of what he called “the ocean­ic prov­i­dence.”

This dream of har­vest­ing the sea would help fund the church, feed the world and save the Amer­i­can fish­ing indus­try, Moon said.

He even sug­gest­ed that the church’s mass wed­dings could play a role in the busi­ness plan by mak­ing Amer­i­can cit­i­zens out of Japan­ese mem­bers of the move­ment. This would help them avoid fish­ing restric­tions applied to for­eign­ers.

“A few years ago the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment set up a 200-mile lim­it for off­shore fish­ing by for­eign boats,” Moon said in the 1980 “Way of Tuna” ser­mon. But by mar­ry­ing Japan­ese mem­bers to Amer­i­cans, “we are not for­eign­ers; there­fore Japan­ese broth­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly those matched to Amer­i­cans, are becom­ing ..... lead­ers for fish­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion” of his move­men­t’s busi­ness­es.

Sushi’s pop­u­lar­i­ty had flow­ered enough by 1986 for Moon to gloat that Amer­i­cans who once thought Japan­ese were “just like ani­mals, eat­ing raw fish,” were now “pay­ing a great deal of mon­ey, eat­ing at expen­sive sushi restau­rants.” He rec­om­mend­ed that his flock open “1,000 restau­rants” in Amer­i­ca.

In fash­ion­ing a chain of busi­ness­es that would stretch from the ocean to restau­rant tables across Amer­i­ca, Moon and his fol­low­ers cre­at­ed a struc­ture unique­ly able to cap­i­tal­ize on the nation’s grow­ing appetite for sushi and fresh fish.

Some of the busi­ness start-up funds came from the Uni­fi­ca­tion Church. In a sev­en-month peri­od from Octo­ber 1976 to May 1977, Moon signed some of the near­ly $1 mil­lion in checks used to estab­lish the fish­ing busi­ness, accord­ing to a 1978 con­gres­sion­al report on alle­ga­tions of impro­pri­eties by Moon’s church.

After acquir­ing an ail­ing boat­mak­ing oper­a­tion, Mas­ter Marine, Moon and his fol­low­ers turned their atten­tion to estab­lish­ing the next link in the net­work. Church mem­bers who saw fish­ing as their call­ing took to the seas, many pow­ered by Mas­ter Marine boats. Moon’s Ocean Church would bring togeth­er mem­bers and poten­tial con­verts for 40-day tuna fish­ing trips every sum­mer in 80 boats he bought for his fol­low­ers.

Many of the tour­na­ments took place off the coast of Glouces­ter, Mass., by no coin­ci­dence one of the first homes to a church-affil­i­at­ed seafood pro­cess­ing plant. Moon proud­ly declared in his “Way of Tuna” speech that “Glouces­ter is almost a Moonie town now!” (The church has since reject­ed the term Moonies as deroga­to­ry.)

FROM ANGER TO ACCEPTANCE

Some­times work­ing sur­rep­ti­tious­ly, Moon affil­i­ates and fol­low­ers bought large chunks of the key fish­ing towns–in each case ini­tial­ly spark­ing anger and sus­pi­cion from long­time res­i­dents.

The church and its mem­bers cre­at­ed an uproar when they bought a vil­la that had been a retire­ment home run by Roman Catholic nuns. Moon was hanged in effi­gy in the local har­bor.

Even­tu­al­ly, such resis­tance with­ered away. In Bay­ou La Batre, Ala., Rus­sell Stein­er was among com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers who clashed with the new­com­ers. But like many in the town, Stein­er has mel­lowed con­sid­er­ably since the church’s arrival. “They have been very active in the com­mu­ni­ty and are very nice peo­ple, actu­al­ly,” he said.

The Alaba­ma shrimp busi­ness is among the largest in the Gulf of Mex­i­co, and the near­by boat-build­ing plant has not only built more than 300 boats, but also done repairs on the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy ships, accord­ing to fed­er­al doc­u­ments.

And the fish busi­ness­es have thrived. Com­pa­ny offi­cials say the whole­sale dis­tri­b­u­tion arm, True World Foods, had rev­enue of $250 mil­lion last year.

Accord­ing to True World Foods, its fleet of 230 refrig­er­at­ed trucks deliv­ers raw fish to 7,000 sushi and fine-din­ing restau­rants nation­wide. Dozens of those trucks leave each day from the Elk Grove Vil­lage ware­house, one of 22 dis­tri­b­u­tion facil­i­ties around the coun­try.

True World Foods’ Alas­ka plant process­es more than 20 mil­lion pounds of salmon, cod and pol­lock each year, the com­pa­ny says. Its Inter­na­tion­al Lob­ster oper­a­tion in Glouces­ter ships monk­fish and lob­ster around the world from a 25,000-square-foot cold stor­age facil­i­ty that is among the largest on the East Coast.

And it is again in an expan­sion­ist mood. True World recent­ly opened up shop in Eng­land and estab­lished offices in Japan and Korea, set­ting its sights on the world’s biggest mar­ket for sushi.

AN EMPIRE’S CHICAGO ROOTS

When Takeshi Yashiro arrived in Chica­go in 1980 to help set up one of the ear­li­est out­posts of the fish­ing empire, the area had just a hand­ful of sushi joints. That num­ber has bal­looned to more than 200 restau­rants statewide, and Yashiro’s fish house has flour­ished.

The son of an Epis­co­palian Japan­ese min­is­ter, he immi­grat­ed to the U.S. and joined the church as a stu­dent in San Fran­cis­co. On July 1, 1982, Moon blessed Yashiro and his bride along with more than 2,000 oth­er cou­ples in one of his mass wed­ding cer­e­monies, in New York City’s Madi­son Square Gar­den.

The Rain­bow Fish House that Yashiro and fel­low church mem­bers found­ed on Chicago’s North­west Side has become not only the city’s dom­i­nant sushi sup­pli­er but also the nation’s. The fish house became True World Foods, which buys so much tuna from around the world that it has sev­en peo­ple in Chica­go sole­ly ded­i­cat­ed to sourc­ing and pric­ing the best grades.

One of True World’s advan­tages is that its sales force speaks Chi­nese, Kore­an and Japan­ese, mak­ing it easy for first-gen­er­a­tion eth­nic restau­rant own­ers to do busi­ness with them.

“It’s kind of tough to com­pete in this indus­try with a com­pa­ny that is so glob­al, has a major pres­ence in almost every mar­ket and that is dri­ven by reli­gious fer­vor,” said Bill Dugan, who has been in the fish busi­ness for almost 30 years and owns the Fish Guy Mar­ket on Elston Avenue, near the orig­i­nal Rain­bow shop. “We should all be so blessed.”

But not all of True World’s employ­ees are church mem­bers. Tuna buy­er Eddie Lin recent­ly left True World for For­tune Fish Co., a local rival. Lin said his for­mer work­place was not overt­ly reli­gious, but he added that as a non-church mem­ber he felt his abil­i­ty to advance was lim­it­ed. “You can feel the dif­fer­ence between the way they see mem­bers and non-mem­bers,” Lin said.

FAITH-BASED BUSINESS CULTURE

While dis­put­ing such asser­tions, Yashiro not­ed that new employ­ees “have to know that the founder is the founder of the Uni­fi­ca­tion Church. It’s a very clear dis­tinc­tion between join­ing the church or not join­ing the church. There’s no dis­crim­i­na­tion, but I think our cul­ture is def­i­nite­ly based on our faith.”

It’s that faith that makes some uneasy. Wang Kim, a Chica­go-area youth min­istry direc­tor and M
oon crit­ic, was cer­tain he could find local Kore­an Chris­t­ian sushi restau­ra­teurs who did­n’t use True World because they might con­sid­er his views hereti­cal. As Kim said, Moon “says that he is the Mes­si­ah, and we hate that.”

But Kim called back emp­ty-hand­ed. “I checked with sev­er­al of my friends,” he said, “and they know it is from Moon but they have to use [them because] they have to give qual­i­ty to their cus­tomers.”

The sheer suc­cess of the ven­ture has left lin­ger­ing ques­tions even in the minds of Moon’s ded­i­cat­ed fol­low­ers. Yashiro, the Chica­go pio­neer who now heads True World Foods, remem­bers ded­i­cat­ing his career and life 26 years ago to achiev­ing Moon’s dream, which includ­ed solv­ing world hunger.

But that part of Moon’s grand vision has yet to mate­ri­al­ize. “I was won­der­ing if we are real­ly here to solve the world’s hunger,” Yashiro said. “Every day I ..... pray on it.”

He still hopes True World Foods even­tu­al­ly will help end hunger. But until then, he said, his role will be to grow the busi­ness and make mon­ey.