4 Big Differences Between Japanese and Western Sushi

Sushi has been around for a long time — likely since the fourth century.  

But it wasn’t until the 1960s that sushi took off in California, and it would take another two decades for it to catch on across the United States. To give the dish broader appeal, the first generation of American sushi chefs made some changes. Gradually, chefs across the Western Hemisphere followed suit.  

Here are four ways in which Western sushi differs from traditional Japanese sushi.   

Assortment of Sushi rolls available at Shogun Japanese Steakhouse.

1. Japanese sushi is simple by design. Western sushi, not so much.  

Rice. Nori (dried seaweed). Raw fish.  

These are the basic ingredients in sushi. Japan’s traditional chefs find beauty in simplicity, so most of their dishes use this winning combination and nothing else. Well, maybe a bit of wasabi, but we’ll get to that later.  

The Americas, however, have long been at the forefront of complex fusion cuisine.  

So, naturally, Western sushi draws inspiration from all over.  

Rolls served across the United States use lots of avocado (and Sriracha), a nod to American sushi’s SoCal roots. Chefs in San Francisco invented the sushi burrito, which uses big pieces of nori instead of tortillas. When the dish made its way to Hawaii, chefs got creative with Spam. And while imitation crab is a Japanese invention, it really took off in the U.S., making it easy for inland restaurants to serve their favorite rolls. 

The U.S. isn’t the only place in the Americas that has made sushi its own.  

British Colombia makes heavy use of its provincial fish, the Pacific salmon. Mexican sushi originated in the state of Sinaloa, where raw dishes like ceviche were already popular. As it spread to the rest of the country, however, cooked chicken and beef started taking the place of fish. Brazilian sushi is often deep-fried and served as street food.  

Western rolls are also more likely to incorporate vegetables and combine different types of fish. 

2. Western and Japanese sushi have very different looks.  

Because Western sushi uses a wider range of fillings, it tends to be more colorful than Japanese varieties.  

But it’s not just what’s inside that differs.  

A Japanese style sushi roll, where the Nori is the outermost layer of the roll.

In Japan, nori is typically the outermost layer in a roll. In the Americas, the rice often goes on the outside. This is a holdover from the ‘60s, when chefs worried that diners trying the dish for the first time would be turned off by the appearance of nori.  

It’s also important to note that rolls aren’t the most popular form of sushi in Japan. Rather, Japanese diners gravitate toward nigiri, hand-shaped rice balls topped with a single slice of raw fish and perhaps a strip of seaweed.  

And no matter what form sushi takes, in Japan, each piece is meant to be eaten with your hands in a single bite. As a result, Japanese rolls and nigiri tend to be much smaller than their Western counterparts.  

3. Cooked fish is more common in the West.  

Japanese sushi chefs generally only use cooked fish when safety is on the line, like when cooking with eel. Western chefs freely fire up their grills and deep fryers. This change has resulted in American classics like the Philadelphia roll (smoked salmon) and spider roll (crab tempura). The salmon used in British Columbia is usually grilled as well.  

Even when raw fish is used in American rolls, it isn’t ocean fresh. That’s because the FDA only allows restaurants to serve raw fish if it’s been frozen first.  

4. The condiments are different, too.  

Let’s go back to the use of wasabi in Japanese sushi. It is used abundantly — but only by the chef.  

Becoming a prestigious sushi chef in Japan takes years of training. Since these chefs are considered experts, it is assumed that they’ve garnished their food with just the right amount of wasabi. Those that add more run the risk of offending their chef.  

Likewise, diners in Japan use only small amounts of soy sauce to avoid tampering with the chef’s vision. 

The pickled ginger you’re used to seeing? You’ll still find it in Japan, but it’s not meant to be a topping. It is instead used as a palate cleanser between different types of sushi.  

Sushi for Everyone in the Heart of Orlando 

Sushi varies greatly from place to place. But as long as it’s tasty and lovingly made, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy it.  

Sakura Sushi, part of Orlando’s Shōgun Japanese Steakhouse, knows this well.   

Shogun Sakura Mexican Shrimp Roll.

At our International Drive restaurant, we honor the beauty of simplicity in items like our fresh-made nigiri. But we also love to get creative with rolls like the Lemon Drop, which combines fish and flavorful citrus. We proudly serve Western staples like the California and Philadelphia rolls. And through items like our Mexican shrimp roll, we celebrate the fact that food is truly a global language.