Published by the Wall Street Journal, March 22 2010.
TOKYO—The Japanese fishing industry landed a big win last week when it persuaded other maritime nations to nix a trading ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna. The fish is so prized in Japan that it’s dubbed “true” tuna.
But at home, the defenders of Japan’s proud fish-eating culture are facing a more serious threat: kids like Yuta Itsuno, a 14-year-old middle schooler.
“I love fishing, but I hate eating fish,” he said, as he hung out with friends in Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku neighborhood. “They smell fishy, and I don’t like their bones.”
Put aside all those stories of global battles spurred by Japan’s reputation as a voracious seafood-eating nation. Here in Japan, the trend that’s causing buzz is quite the opposite: Fish consumption has been steadily declining. Per capita fish-eating fell below that of meat for the first time in 2006. The average monthly household spending on seafood has dropped 23% since 2000, to $74 last year.
So Japanese bureaucrats are resorting to unusual means to keep their nation’s fish gobbling from shrinking further.
Rock singers dressed as fishermen sing paeans to ocean creatures through supermarket sound systems. Fish-promotion associations take schoolkids to beaches and fish markets and issue “Fish Meister” certificates to grown-ups. Others are trying to take the inconvenience out of eating, offering up filleted fish—and prompting hand-wringing by traditionalists concerned about the decline of Japanese gastronomy.
The decline in fish consumption reflects changes in lifestyle and demographics. Many children would rather eat spaghetti than squid sashimi or stewed sole. And that isn’t an unwelcome change for working parents who appreciate the convenience. The growing ranks of elderly people fearful about choking on sharp bones causes some of them to avoid grilled fish. A sluggish economy has also hurt since fish is often more expensive than meat is.
In the latest issue of its annual Fisheries White Paper, the government warned about the negative implications of children’s dislike of fish, pointing out that DHA and EPA, substances found in fatty fish, are essential to brain development. Without having to delicately remove bones, children are not learning chopstick dexterity, the agency said.
One trade group has turned to a rock band called Gyoko, or Fishing Port. “Our mission is to bring back fish to the Japanese table,” Tsurizao Morita, the vocalist and “captain” of the band says regularly.
In concerts, Mr. Morita, a former tuna fisherman, walks onto the stage wearing a real tuna head. He then slices it into edible pieces, while swinging a gleaming fisherman’s knife.
Gyoko’s first single, titled “Maguro,” which means tuna, was followed by another called “Katsuo,” or “Bonito.”
Gyoko became the nation’s first rock band to hold a press conference at the Fisheries Agency when it released a song called “Fish Heaven” in 2008. That’s a tune now heard in supermarkets all over Japan: “Fish. Fish. Fish. You get smart when you eat fish. Smart Smart Smart. Fish Fish Fish. You get healthy when you eat fish. Healthy. Healthy. Healthy.”
Hiroshi Kanatani, a fish monger in Wakayama in western Japan, believes the only way to recapture customers is to eliminate all “the inconveniences associated with fish,” meaning the work of cleaning and boning them.
Having had success with selling fish fillets to hospitals and schools, Mr. Kanatani now offers gourmet-quality versions through an online supermarket, relying heavily on Chinese workers wielding tweezers to get rid of pesky bones.
“Cooking and eating fish has to be as easy as heating up ham and sausage,” says the 50-year-old Mr. Kanatani.
Others say the problem isn’t that it is hard to eat fish, but that people don’t know what fish to eat and how. Instead of eating inexpensive and plentiful local fish in season, many Japanese go for trendy, expensive fish like tuna and salmon that have caused international outcries about overfishing.
Yoshikatsu Ikuta, a fish wholesaler at Tokyo’s world-famous Tsukiji fish market, recently opened a retail outpost near the main market area. His goal: showcasing the best seafood of the season.
One cold, rainy afternoon recently, Mr. Ikuta, speaking rapidly, was found trying to persuade a customer to try striped marlin, a fish at the peak of its season. “Everyone is always asking for tuna, but I tell them that when it’s not in season, even bluefin is so flavorless a cat would pass it by.”
Fishery officials have started sending instructors to schools. One group holds classes titled “Fish Have Bones,” where children are taught how to eat whole grilled fish with chopsticks. The catch: Before eating, they have to learn the bone structure of the fish using an anatomy chart.
And then there’s the Fish Meister school. At a class held at a small conference room in Tsukiji one recent Saturday, 15 students huddled around a counter laden with gleaming fish.
As Tomio Matsumoto, a 73-year-old fish monger, began cutting them into juicy sashimi slices for tasting, some took notes furiously while others took snapshots. One woman lowered her nose to within an inch of a slab of yellowtail to confirm the teachers’ statement that fresh fish don’t smell.
The students come from different backgrounds—office workers, housewives and buyers for supermarkets—but are united in one goal: spreading the knowledge of fish. “We were born in a nation with a gift of great fish,” said Yusuke Ochi, a 29-year-old ad agency employee who got hooked on fish after working on seafood menus. “It’s a shame not to enjoy it.”
—Miho Inada contributed to this article.
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