How Americans’ growing appetite for sushi is helping to support his controversial church
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.”
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 Moon 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.