Sushi and Rev. Moon
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."


LEADER'S SEAFOOD STRATEGY

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.