The official history of Japanese food in the United States says that Americans didn’t get a taste of raw fish and vinegared rice until the late 1960s, when groovy Hollywood stars and trendy Buddhist humbugs began turning the squares onto the best thing since sliced bologna: sushi.
But that’s wrong. The truth is that two generation earlier, in the first two decades of the 20th century, Americans knew all about Japanese food and enjoyed it so much that labor unions and American restaurant owners conspired to run the Japanese out of business and out of the country. Worse, these angry agents of change were mostly successful in that effort, launching a thirty-year-long campaign of hysteria, intimidation and misinformation, one that ended in 1924 with the passage of the Japanese Exclusion and Labor Act.
And, xenophobia rears its ugly head:
On May 20, 1907, however, things blew up. A group of union men caught four of their fellow unionists eating at the ten-cent Horseshoe Restaurant at 1213 Folsom Street. Beatings were handed out to the two men who were foolish enough to exit the restaurant through the front door. A crowd of Barbary Coast hoodlums, who had gathered to watch, turned it into a genuine donnybrook, rushing into the restaurant armed with crowbars, bats, fist and feet, bashing everyone and everything inside.
When the police declined an invitation to become involved, the fun spread to a Japanese bathhouse across the street. The demonstrations resumed again the next night, with less vigor, and four more nights after that, until the police, led by the Japanese counsel, Kazuo Matsubara, stood watch at the edge of Japantown.
Thus, began the decline of Japanese food in America. The story of the first sushi in America is worth reading as well.