As recently as 1980, according to old phone books, Portland did not claim a single sushi restaurant, or at least none that advertised as such. Today, there are more
than 50 restaurants in town—Japanese, fusion and otherwise—that boast menus with raw fish.
"That's an explosion," says David Lutjen, marketing manager at Pacific Seafood of Oregon, the local branch of one of the Northwest's largest seafood distributors, Pacific Seafood Group. "There's been a steady increase in interest here, because it's very healthy food."
It's hardly news that Portland has been an easy convert to the Japanese-style vinegar-flavored cold rice topped with fish or veggies. What's far less known, however, is that one company, True World Foods, not only dominates Portland's—and the nation's—sushi industry, but may have helped fuel it in the first place. True World told WW it provides sushi to 95 percent of Portland's sushi houses, and its website claims to sell its fish to more than two-thirds of the country's estimated 9,000 sushi restaurants.
It might surprise people that one vendor provides most of Portland's sushi joints with at least some of their mackerel, salmon and yellowtail. But there's more: A significant body of evidence suggests that True World Foods is secretly controlled by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, self-proclaimed "Messiah" and founder of the Unification Church. Moon, who has been investigated by the FBI, imprisoned for tax evasion, accused of megalomania and brainwashing, and criticized for hosting massive weddings for hundreds of couples in highly visible places such as New York City's Madison Square Garden, runs one of the most controversial—some say cultlike—religions in the world.
Officially, the church denies any involvement in True World. Others disagree.
"You can hardly buy a California roll in this country without getting their surimi [imitation crab]," says Monica Eng, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune who began investigating the ties between True World Foods and the Unification Church in 2004.
"It's like Al Capone," adds Larry Zilliox, a private investigator in Virginia who has been tracking Rev. Moon's movements for more than 20 years. "His name doesn't show up anywhere on paper, but if Moon says to do something, [his followers] do it."
Of course, it may not matter if Moon and his church have staked a major claim in the sushi industry. But this country—and this city—has a long history of voting with its checkbook. Many remember the Gallo of Sonoma wine boycott in the '70s that resulted in California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act, as well as the ensuing boycott, in 2005, over questionable labor contracts. In 1993 Snapple barely avoided a boycott when it was accused (with no proof) of funding anti-abortion clinics; Coors Brewing Co. could not avoid a boycott after it was accused in 2003 of supporting racist causes. Closer to home, New Seasons Market refuses to stock Rockstar energy drinks in part because the founder, Russell Goldencloud Weiner, is the son of the inflammatory radio talk show host Michael Savage, author of such books as Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder.
Will some be compelled to change their eating habits? "I wouldn't eat here again," said Donald Sook, a sushi fan on his way out of Mio Sushi on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard last week, after hearing of possible ties between True World and Moon. "That's nasty. Seriously. That brainwashing is ghetto."
Others couldn't care less. One woman waiting in line at Mio, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Moon is too far under the radar to cause concern. "If I were worried about conglomerates taking over the world, I'd worry more about Microsoft—or the Republican Party. For now I'm not going to stop eating sushi."
Nobody disputes that True World Foods—whose parent company, True World Group, is headquartered in Manhattan—has a major presence in the nation's sushi industry. True World Group, a private corporation, is actually a conglomerate with a role in at least four major industries: wholesale seafood (True World Foods), fleets of marine vessels (True World Marine), Japanese food restaurants (True World Restaurants) and grocery retailers (True World Market).
True World Foods alone oversees 22 satellite locations, stretching from Hawaii to Texas and Massachusetts, with revenue last year of $250 million, according to interviews with company officials. True World harvests and sells everything from salmon to pollock; its specialty is the high-grade sashimi that makes it to sushi houses across the U.S.—and it says it is the Portland area's only local distributor of the savory Spanish mackerel. (See sidebar, page 27, for a glossary of sushi terms.)
A WW survey of 23 sushi restaurants in the Portland metro area found that 21* say they are supplied by the company. Todai declined to comment, while Saburo's, in Sellwood, did not return numerous phone calls. True World says Saburo's is a major buyer.
While True World's sushi supremacy is undisputed, Moon's involvement is harder to nail down. Officially, the church denies any direct ties to True World Foods. Unification Church spokesman Rev. Phillip Schanker, contacted in Washington, D.C., says, "There's no direct connection." In the same breath, however, he admits that members founded True World Foods "in line with the vision laid out by the founder in terms of reaching out and developing things in the ocean."
The church does have an entrepreneurial reputation. Many years ago federal investigators found that it had invested in luxury hotels, a bank, a publishing company and farm land in Uruguay, and that it owned a South Korean weapons manufacturer and titanium firm, as well as newspapers in Montevideo, Cyprus, Tokyo, New York and Washington, D.C. (It is no secret that Moon founded the politically conservative Washington Times.)
And Larry Zilliox, who was the source for a Houston Chronicle story last week about the $1 million that he says recently made its way from the Washington Times Foundation into the elder George Bush's pockets, says Moon is running something much larger than the Unification Church.
"The church is just one small aspect of the movement," Zilliox says. "You've got to look at everything intertwined or interconnected. The for-profit companies exist to support the nonprofit entities. It's all a big brown wheel of fortune, essentially."
The evidence of the connection between the church and True World is pretty compelling.
True World Foods' parent company, True World Group, is a subsidiary of One Up Enterprises Inc., which, according to Zilliox, is in turn a subsidiary of Unification Church International Inc.
True World Foods' own website concedes that the company was incorporated by Rev. Moon's chief aide, Bo Hi Pak, in 1976. And one of its founders, Tasheki Yashiro, remains a church member.
Moon himself provides ample evidence of his involvement in jumpstarting the business. In 1980, Rev. Moon gave what is called the "Way of Tuna" speech in New York. The rambling discourse on the need to solve world hunger included Moon's calling for a revitalization of the sport, trade and commerce of fishing.
Moon said he already had "the entire system worked out, starting with boat building. After we build the boats, we catch the fish and process them for market, and then have a distribution network. This is not just on the drawing board; I have already done it."
In the speech he called himself "King of the Ocean" and hinted at more spiritual ambitions: "I knew that governments and religions would persecute us, but I always had an alternate plan for building the Kingdom of Heaven," he said. "I always thought that if people didn't like me then I would build the kingdom on the ocean first and then bring it to the land."
A few months later, in October 1980, Moon spoke again of his goals in a speech titled "Our Duty, Our Mission": "This ocean business is really reserved for Unification Church. How much income would this business generate? Roughly speaking, enough money to buy the entire world. That's true! It has unlimited potential."
One high-ranking church member, who spoke to WW on condition of anonymity, readily admits to the Unification Church's involvement with True World Foods—and that the goal of the church has always been to take charge of every part of the fishing process: "It's kind of the Korean chaebol [business conglomerate] model—try to control everything from production to distribution. The Unification Church applies that to fish. We have fleet-building plants, and fleets go out and catch the fish, and then truckers truck it to our fish-processing plants, and then we have wholesale marketers, and we even have our own sushi restaurants. So from production to distribution and sales, we try to link up the entire process."
The Unification Church and True World have some distinctly Oregon ties.
Galen Pumphrey, who, with his wife, Patty was one of the first half-dozen U.S. members, was also one of True World's original employees. A Eugene native who now lives in Roseburg, Pumphrey says he and his wife even played dinner host to Moon when he first moved to the United States in the '70s.
Contacted in Roseburg, Pumphrey told WW that in 1976, at the behest of the Rev. Moon himself, he moved his family to Norfolk, Va., to help jumpstart one of the first centers of what would later be named True World Foods. Many employees in Norfolk were Unification Church members, recalls Pumphrey, who retired from upper management in 1993. "We had other people working there, too, but we had a lot of members who were dedicated to getting the job done down in Norfolk."
Pumphrey's son Lloyd, who was "matched" by Rev. Moon with a Japanese wife, currently works at True World's regional distribution center in Vancouver, Wash., a two-story pole shed where sushi-grade fish is kept in superfreezers until it is driven to local restaurants. On a recent tour, Lloyd, soft-spoken and congenial as he pointed out the freezers at the modest facility near the banks of the Columbia, said True World has reached so many sushi restaurants in Portland because providing high-quality sushi fare year-round is difficult without a large and reliable supplier. While some restaurants rearrange their seafood menus according to season and availability, sushi restaurants are expected to have a ready supply of high-grade tuna, salmon, eel, etc., year-round.
Lloyd recalls a tough childhood as he moved with his parents, whom he describes as "mission pioneers," from Eugene to the Bay Area to Denver. He was ridiculed by classmates when, just as he was coming of age in the '70s, the church became highly controversial; "the Moonies" were often labeled a cult and accused of brainwashing young convert.
"I've had my ups and downs," Lloyd says. "I've had my times where I say I don't want to be associated with the church. People get messed up in attacking the church; they'll look at Rev. Moon and say he's a millionaire just using members. And I'll admit there's quite a few church leaders [who] have alternative motives, and they're the ones that ruin it for all the people who believe. But the main reason I keep coming back to the Unification Church is because the Divine Principle is true."
The Unification Church was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon in Korea in 1954. The "Divine Principle" theology (also called the "Completed Testament") states that Jesus "could not accomplish the purpose of the providence of physical salvation because his body was invaded by Satan." Moon, however, calls himself "Messiah of the Second Coming" and "True Father" of the "Kingdom of Heaven" on earth—a literal place he says God had intended Jesus to create.
Moon speaks of unifying many things, among them the human language. In the Divine Principle, he writes: "Children should learn the language of their parents. If Christ does indeed return to the land of Korea, then he will certainly use the Korean language, which will then become the mother tongue for all humanity." Among the church's most controversial teachings is that Satan will repent and become a good angel again.
Chong Wu, owner of the Pearl District's and Bridgeport Village's high-end sushi restaurant Sinju, says he receives shipments of frozen fish from True World twice a week and fresh fish from other suppliers as many as four times a week. In fact, True World mostly sells frozen fish; it costs about half as much wholesale as fresh fish, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations stipulate that sushi, sashimi, ceviche, etc., must be frozen to kill parasites if they are to be eaten raw. ("Sashimi-grade" fish is the term used to describe fish that has been frozen at certain temperatures and meets certain standards of freshness, firmness and fat content.)
Wu says he knows nothing of True World's ties to the Unification Church, adding that his customers care about freshness and quality above all else.
To some, any connection between Moon's Unification Church and True World Group is inconsequential so long as the business behaves ethically. David Martosko, director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C., which some have accused of being a front group for the restaurant and tobacco industries, couldn't help but feign concern in a recent telephone interview.
"Oh, goodness, here's the Unification Church serving us all a very healthy food," he says. "What's the big deal? This would be like if someone discovered that most of the broccoli sold in the U.S. was tied to the Vatican. So what? Fish is one of nature's true health foods. The absolute worst thing you could say about it is that the Unification Church is engaged in a massive conspiracy to feed us healthy food."
Even Roger Jepsen, assistant general manager of Portland distribution for Ocean Beauty Seafoods, a True World competitor, refused to opine "one way or another whether people should be notified" of Unification Church connections. And Lutjen of Pacific Seafood says the ties are "not really germane" to the business itself—that the average chef is "most concerned about price and giving his customers good value."
This reaction bothers, but does not surprise, Steven Alan Hassan, a cult counselor in Somerville, Mass., and an ex-Moonie who says the leader has slipped under the radar quite intentionally. "I get that reaction all the time. People say, 'So what.' But it's a multibillion-dollar organization that wants to take over the world run by a man who claims to be the greatest man in human history—greater than Jesus or Moses or Buddha—who basically wants to control governments, business, media. And these are all things he has said, printed by the group. It would be laughable if [the group] weren't so powerful."
For local diners, their food's fishy provenance may not make a difference. "Part of me feels that the tie sucks," says Nate Hereford, a recent Portland transplant from Montana, on his way into Yoko's sushi restaurant on Southeast Gladstone Street one early June night. "But I'm not going to stop eating sushi."
Jon Weatherford contributed to this report.
Rev. Sun Myung Moon's first U.S. missionary, Miss Young Oon Kim, was sent to Eugene in 1959. Galen and Patty Pumphrey, then in their 20s, opened their Oak Hill home to Kim, raising money for a center in Korea as well as an $800 typewriter on which they were able to produce copies of Moon's "Divine Principle."
Kim was a natural leader who would become one of the Unification Church's most influential missionaries, according to Michael L. Mickler, a professor of church history at the Unification Theological Seminary, in Barrytown, N.Y. "We did not hit the radar screen in America until the mid-'70s, when Moon himself came and...the whole new religion/cult controversy emerged," Mickler says. "But interestingly, even early on, Miss Kim, who was a Korean lady, was actually suspected of being a communist. They reported her to the FBI at one point. She was just trying to survive and do her thing."
In her memoirs, however, Miss Kim says she moved her work to the Bay Area after two years because Oregon was "provincial": "Eugene was a small, conservative city, where I went not by choice, but to follow my scholarship.... I spent time raising those who had accepted and deepening their understanding of the Principle, as well as teaching the Principle in Lebanon, Salem, Albany, and Portland.... I found Oregon quite provincial on the whole, though, and was not reluctant to leave."
For whatever reason, Moon's church never struck much of a chord here. The state's only recognized center is in West Linn, and church spokesman Rev. Phillip Schanker says that while membership is strong in Washington state, it is small in Oregon. He adds that, overall, U.S. membership is modest. "We have about 50,000 members in church attendance," he says, "but about 9,000 or 10,000 active members." Other estimates put active membership as low as 3,000.
Everyone remembers their first time. All the foreign terms, the reverent way your smug friend who brought you split their chopsticks and mixed the green paste into a little dipping bowl with soy sauce.... It takes time to learn the ropes of sushi eating, but once you're hooked, knowing these terms come in handy:
Sashimi: Basically, sushi without rice. Generally served as a first course. High-quality, very fresh fish sliced against the grain.
Maki: Short-grain rice seasoned with vinegar and sugar and rolled in nori seaweed around various fillings.
Nigiri: Small, compact mounds of sushi rice with a slice of fresh fish on top. Flip the nigiri and dip only the fish part in soy sauce, not the rice. Eating with your hands is OK.
Shiro maguro: "White tuna." Sometimes albacore is used, but true shiro maguro is escolar, a white fish that can cause tummy troubles for some, foodgasms for others.
Maguro: Deep-red, lean flesh from bluefin, yellowfin, skipjack or ahi tuna.
Hamachi: Young yellowtail, also called amberjack. Light-colored and delicate.
Hirame: Halibut, often with a bit of green shiso leaf on it.
Sake: Salmon, our supply of which is some of the freshest in the world. Just remember: Fatty is good.
Saba: Mackerel, a rich, oily fish that is often salted or marinated before serving.
Uni: Roe and reproductive organs of sea urchin. The choice of Anthony Bourdain types who like a culinary challenge.
Toro: Fatty belly meat, usually from bluefin tuna. Expect to pay more: Toro is so sought-after that the price fluctuates with the market.
Unagi: Grilled eel with a sweet soy sauce glaze, usually served warm.
Ebi/ama ebi: Spot prawns or shrimp. Ama ebi is served raw; ebi is cooked.
From lowbrow conveyor-belt sushi to elegant feasts served in minimalist tatami rooms, here are some picks for the freshest fish in town:
1. The Grandad: Restaurant Murata. With a loyal following and traditional setting, this is old-school sushi at its best. Sit at the sushi bar and ask the rather taciturn sushi master what's good that day. 200 SW Market St., Suite 105, 227-0080.
2. The Hidden Find: Syun Izakaya may be well out of your way, but the fish is so fresh it's still wriggling. A good joint to find weird fish species you've never heard of. 209 NE Lincoln St., Hillsboro, 640-3131.
3. The Fatboy: Saburo's. If you like your nigiri in huge slabs rather than delicate wafer-thin slices, get in line for a table and chow down. 1667 SE Bybee Blvd., 236-4237.
4. The Supermodel: Sinju in the Pearl has a beautiful setting and fish so delish one has to wonder if it gets its supply from some sort of sashimi mafia. 1022 NW Johnson St., 223-6535.
5. The Cheapskate: Sure, Marinepolis Sushi Land is a chain and the sushi that glides by on the conveyor belts isn't the most carefully made stuff on earth, but when you get a jones and you're short on cash, there's always one nearby. Four locations: 4021 SW 117th Ave., Beaverton, 520-0257; 1409 NE Weidler St., 280-0300; 8424 SE Sunnyside Road, Clackamas, 794-1800; 1401 SE 164th Ave., Vancouver, Wash., 360-883-3881.
True World Group boasts four major subsidiaries:
True World Restaurants in the Chicago area, Detroit, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut
True World Marine's boat factory in New Jersey
True World Market in the Chicago vicinity, and 23 True World Foods processing facilities from Florida to Vancouver BC.
Source: True World Group Website
True World Foods' Alaska center processes more than 20 million pounds of salmon, cod and pollock annually.
In a 1980 speech, Rev. Sun Myung Moon said his goal was outer space: "You have to really do home church in a short time, and then the sea is waiting for you. After sea church you will go to space church.... If I went to spirit world today, would you continue the space church? If you don't, I will hound you from spirit world!"
According to its website, True World Group seeks to "invest in ocean-related businesses and other businesses that can work together to fulfill the True World Group vision and to give the highest achievable return to our shareholders."