Why had the Japanese government embarked on a policy to limit rice production, effectively paying some farmers to keep their paddy fields idle? For Suzuki, rice was the sacred heart of the country's economy. He started to think about how to make the staple food more popular, so that Japan had no reason to restrict the crop.
And that's when it came to him: he would use his firm's knowledge of candy-packaging machines to develop the robot. The idea, while off-the-wall in the mid-1970s, had a simple premise. If he could lower the cost of making sushi by mechanising parts of the process and reducing the need for highly paid chefs, he could bring the previously elite Japanese dish to the masses, and in doing so increase demand for rice.
Four decades later, Suzumo Machinery's robots are used by about 70,000 customers around the world, ranging from sushi chains to factories, and account for about 70 per cent of the market for the equipment at restaurants, according to Suzumo's estimates. Kaiten sushi, also known as conveyor-belt sushi, has become a $US6 billion ($7.6 billion) industry in Japan alone, partly thanks to Suzuki's invention.
Not surprisingly, those chefs were up in arms when they heard about Suzumo's plan. In their view, it took 10 years to train someone to make sushi. No machine could possibly do the job. Suzumo asked some of the very people it was trying to depose to give their opinions on the prototype. "They said, 'This is no good, this is terrible, I don't know what this is,'" said Oneda, 73, who became chairman of the company this year.
After three years, Suzumo was nowhere near its goal and running out of cash. We thought "the company would go down the tubes," Oneda said. "We thought about quitting."
Suzumo stuck with the task, and two years later the sushi chefs finally said the machine was usable. In 1981, the company completed its first robot, which formed sushi rice into balls called nigiri. These days, it offers 28 different sushi machines.
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