The Misconceived Culture of Bluefin Tuna in Japan
The Japanese eat 80 percent of the world’s Atlantic bluefin tuna. Although there are many who claim the Japanese have had a long history and culture of eating bluefin tuna, this is not actually the case. Co-owner of the internationally acclaimed Nobu restaurant chain, Ritchie Notar, wrote, “We find ourselves in a precarious situation. We are dealing with thousands of years of cultural customs. The Japanese have relied on tuna as part of their culture and history for centuries.” However, before 1800, Japanese sushi did not exist and it was not until the 1970s that bluefin tuna became a sought after delicacy. Michio Murata writes “Fish with red flesh tended to spoil quickly and develop a noticeable stench, so in the days before refrigeration the Japanese aristocracy despised them, and this attitude was adopted by the citizens of Tokyo.” Other types of tuna sushi were popular by the 1930s including the yellowfin tuna but bluefin was not as popular.
Before the 1960s the Japanese had little interest in eating bluefin tuna and would pay just pennies per pound to use it for cat food. Now, a single bluefin tuna can sell for over a million dollars. Bluefin tunas were considered a sport fish and were sent to landfills or mashed into pet food after being caught. However, by the early 1970s, beef became more popular in Japan, and with that came a new appreciation for strong flavors and darker meat. Beef is a fatty meat which helped draw the Japanese to enjoy the bluefin’s fatty belly. Additionally, cargo planes bought cheap bluefin tuna from New England dishing docks and sold it in Japan for thousands of dollars. According to Trevor Corson, author of The Story of Sushi, “Bluefin tuna is an amazing example of something we have been made to think is an authentic Japanese tradition. Really it was a marketing scheme of the Japanese airline industry.” Sport fishermen began purchasing commercial licenses and sold what they caught to the Japanese sushi market. Soon after, the United States began acquiring its own taste for bluefin tuna and by the 1990s it had become a highly sought after delicacy around the world. The fact that tuna had not become a common part of the Japanese diet until the modern era is irrelevant when looking at the contemporary demand for the product. Local mystifications for the surging popularity of the fish surround Japanese culture. Whether it is the tuna’s red appearance on a bed of white rice, thus creating the image of the Japanese national flag, or the fact that the tuna is called the “samurai fish” for its fighting spirt, there is a strategic essentialism that is embedded in the culinary culture of a nation that is crazy for Tuna. It is this culture that drives the tuna elite to spend top dollar on prime Bluefin. In Japan, the first bluefin tuna sold at auction each year can sell for hundreds of thousands to over a million dollars.
Although the culture of bluefin tuna does not date back far in Japanese history, the species does have an impact on today’s consumers. Conservation groups have organized “save the bluefin” campaigns but none have seemed to influence Japanese consumers. However, it seems that since the Japanese have adopted this new diet for bluefin tuna within the last half century they can alter their diet again to a more sustainable one.
Andrew Born is a sophomore at Davidson College. He is majoring in political science and is a member of the baseball team. In his free time he enjoys hiking, fishing, and working out. After college he hopes to join the Marine Corps.
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