Amid tuna mania, Japan needs to ask itself what food traditions are worth protecting. By: Takao Yamada

March 22, 2010

Novelist and gourmand Shotaro Ikenami talks about tuna in “Baian kageboshi” (Baian, the Shadow) of his historical series, “Shikakenin Fujieda Baian” (Master Assasin, Fujieda Baian).

The protagonist, Baian, makes a visit to Izutsu, a high-class restaurant in Tokyo’s Asakusa district, for the first time in a while. There, he is served fish meat with white fat, which has been marinated in wasabi (Japanese horseradish) and soy sauce and grilled on a metal grate. Baian takes a bite and says something to the effect of “This is pretty good.”

The story takes place in the late Edo period, when tuna was rarely consumed. Even in the early Showa period, people only ate lean tuna meat, and fish mongers discarded the fatty parts because they spoiled quickly.

Ikenami continues to write about tuna for three pages, interspersing his childhood memories of the fish into the episode.

It was the recent brouhaha over tuna diplomacy and the “tuna as a part of Japanese culture” argument that reminded me of Baian.

As Ikenami wrote, the history of tuna consumption is young. In western Japan, where yellowtail is widely eaten, its history is even shorter. Modern refrigeration technology and transport made tuna available to the masses, but it only began appearing in supermarkets and at conveyor-belt sushi restaurants in the past decade or so.

Tuna is not a part of our traditional diet. Sure, it’s delicious, but the tendency to blindly worship fatty tuna is a meaningless consequence of a fishing industry that has grown increasingly capitalistic and a food culture that has become more and more uniform. Prior to Japan’s period of rapid economic growth, the Japanese ate whatever fish was available in nearby regional waters.

On Thursday, at an international conference held in Qatar, participants voted on a proposal to ban the international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna (considered a high-quality tuna). It was rejected. The meeting had been attended by countries party to CITES, whose purpose is to protect wild animals in danger of extinction.

The Japanese delegation, comprised of bureaucrats from the Fisheries Agency and the Foreign Ministry, argued that there were too many bluefin tuna to position them in the same category as pandas, and that tuna fishing should be regulated by an international body dedicated to tuna conservation instead. The Japanese delegation worked to spread support for their position, in the process convincing Libya — which motioned for a vote to be taken sooner than had been expected — to reject the bill.

Most of the countries supporting the tuna ban were from the West, which championed the cause of environmental protection. However, the effects of prejudice toward the tradition of fish consumption and the political activities of radical environmental groups also cast a shadow on the debate. Some observers say that Japan did a good job of maneuvering its way through the game of international politics by bringing developing countries in Asia and Africa to their side.

But there is another way to look at it.

Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker Itsunori Onodera, a graduate of Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology, raised the bluefin tuna ban at a Lower House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on Nov. 18 last year and sought a government response on the issue. He was the first in Japan to bring the issue up.

“If Japan had been in close contact with the EU and the U.S., the ban proposal could have been nipped in the bud,” he says. “More than anything, I’m worried about the government’s functional decline.”

Along with Japan, China and Australia also opposed the ban. China is now a consumer of high-quality tuna, and Australia is an exporter of high-quality tuna to Japan. Herein lies an arrangement that is deeply intertwined with Japan’s contemporary tuna mania, where money is no object.

In the first place, overfishing from roll-net fishing — which allows for massive quantities to be caught at a time — takes place because tuna exporters anticipate Japan to pay big bucks for it.

There is no doubt that the regulation of fishing methods, information gathering and polishing diplomatic strategies are essential. But we must not lose sight of something that is of greater importance. That is, to ask ourselves what food traditions are worth protecting, and to wake up from this gourmet tuna madness that has wreaked havoc around the world. Without such awareness, there is no way any tuna-protection measures are going to work.

Takao Yamada is an Expert Senior Writer at the Mainichi Daily News, Japan

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