Photo/Illutration Lightly roasted flounder sushi at a Hamasushi restaurant (Provided by Zensho Holdings Co.)

Sushi restaurants in Japan are bracing for the possible impact from the economic sanctions imposed against Russia, a key supplier of salmon roe, sea urchin, crab and other popular toppings.

Major operators of convey belt sushi chains have stockpiled a large quantity of seafood and have so far not been affected by the sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But they said they could be hit if the punitive measures against Russia are widened and prolonged.

Some smaller operators are already feeling the pinch.

Japan imported 138.1 billion yen ($1.17 billion) worth of Russian seafood in 2021. About 80 percent of the total was red salmon.

Russia supplies 50 to 60 percent of Japan’s needs for crab and sea urchin.

Unlike huge sushi chains, smaller operators of sushi restaurants cannot easily stockpile months of supplies or diversify their suppliers or distribution routes to weather the crisis.

One operator of conveyor belt sushi shops in the Tokyo area was forced to take sea urchin off the menu because it can no longer import the coveted delicacy.

The operator also said it will likely be impossible for it to import salmon roe from Russia in autumn.

These smaller companies are already battling Chinese companies for seafood imports and dealing with rising costs of fishing and transportation due to the surge in crude oil prices.

Russia’s invasion has exacerbated their difficulties.
Larger Japanese sushi companies are closely watching the situation in Europe.

The Hamasushi chain relies on Russian shipments for many sushi toppings, such as salmon roe, flounder, whelk and cod roe. The Sushiro and Kurasushi chains also use salmon roe and whelk from Russia.

Kappa Create Co., operator of the Kappa Sushi chain, said it expects no immediate problem with its offerings of whelk, jumbo shrimp and other toppings at its restaurants in the coming months because it has inventory for half a year to a year.

But the company said it could face difficulties in securing supplies if economic sanctions tighten further against Russia and result in a disarray in supply chains.

Maruha Nichiro Corp., a major distributor of food to supermarkets and restaurants, including Russian crab and pollack, said it has sufficient inventory at the moment. But it is also closely watching how the economic and financial sanctions could affect supply chains.

The government-affiliated Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) said the international community’s sanctions against Russia over its Feb. 24 invasion are unlikely to have an immediate impact on seafood trade between Japan and Russia.

JETRO said Russia has more than 300 financial institutions and multiple distribution routes linking the Far East with Japan, including one that goes through South Korea.

A trading house based in the Tokyo metropolitan area that imports crab from Russia said it has experienced no major disruptions in settlements and distribution so far.

The fallout from Russia’s attack is not limited to marine products from that country.

Some food industry officials said salmon from Norway cannot reach Japan because Russia has banned aircraft from Norway and other European countries from flying over its airspace in response to the economic sanctions.

Choshimaru, a conveyer belt sushi chain operator based in Chiba Prefecture, has halted offers of salmon toppings from Norway at its restaurants after shipments were suspended.

It plans to offer coho salmon caught by Japanese fishermen instead.

(This story was written by Yuji Yamashita and Hideaki Sato.)