Surf vs. Turf: New Trends Are Changing Japan’s Traditional Food-consumption Habits

The smell of raw fish hangs in the hot summer air in Japan’s Tsukiji Fish Market as Yutaka Hasegawa makes his way through the crab-and-bluefin-tuna-crammed aisles that compose this sprawling and bustling venue in Tokyo’s Sumidagawa district. As he looks down an aisle, he recounts the golden days and laments how the net tonnage of fish sold through the country’s largest wholesale market has actually declined over the last 10 years. Japan, long known for its love affair with fish, is undergoing an unexpected transformation. For the first time in the modern era, its populace has begun to rely more on red meat for the protein portion of its diet.

Indeed, reliance on fast food and convenience stores is quickly redefining how the Japanese choose to consume their meals. While the country has long been regarded for its influence on world cuisine — including dishes such as sushi and sashimi — new trends in domestic consumption are certain to affect not only Japanese eating habits, but also the future of Japanese cuisine.

Japanese Cuisine’s Star — Sushi

From teriyaki — meat broiled and grilled basted in soy sauce — to ramen, Japanese cuisine has been a mainstay on the global gastronomic stage for more than 50 years. Even more adventurous dishes such as tempura — select vegetables and seafood battered and then deep-fried — have a considerable number of fans. However, nothing is more demonstrative of Japan’s influence on global cuisine than sushi. In the U.S. in particular, the pairing of sliced raw fish on a two-fingered portion of rice is common fare for even the average consumer. As Sidney Mintz, a visiting lecturer and anthropologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, writes in the Asia-Pacific Journal, “Sushi has, to all intents and purposes, become as American as bagels, pizza, pasta, and pita.”

In contrast to the bamboo glamor and glass-box display cases that typify the current experience, sushi began rather humbly. Its predecessor in the mid-fourteenth through early seventeenth centuries was funazushi, a specialty dish in which fish and rice were fermented together for days or even weeks. Once deemed ready, the rice was discarded and the fish consumed. To accommodate growing demand in the nineteenth century, street vendors in Edo (then Japan’s capital) eliminated the fermentation process and began serving sliced fish on rice as a popular fast-food option.

From teriyaki to ramen, Japanese cuisine has been a mainstay on the global gastronomic stage for more than 50 years.

From these lowly beginnings, the sushi we see today, a century and a half later, has been molded and adapted to reflect global taste preferences. One representative proxy of this change appears in the ingredient list itself. Tuna did not always reign supreme. In fact, leaner fish such as mackerel and red snapper were deemed the pinnacles of flavor and status in nineteenth-century Japan. In his book, The Sushi Economy, American journalist Sasha Issenberg comments that “[tuna’s] fattiness did not appeal to the austere appetite of a country that preferred lean fish, and the oily belly cuts were reserved for cats.” It was not until after World War II, when Japan met the fattier tastes of the West during the mid-twentieth century, that these belly cuts surged in popularity.

Flavor alone, however, did not fuel sushi’s meteoric rise into must-eats abroad. The cuisine required a complicated latticework of infrastructure, technology, and personnel to ship fresh, perishable fish quickly across the globe in sufficient quantities to satisfy rapidly growing demand. A seismic shift in airline transportation routes — particularly those from North America to Japan — and improved ice-packing techniques developed in the early 1970s by Japan Airlines greatly increased the amount of tuna the world consumed. Tuna raised on the Spanish coast or caught off the New England shoreline could be shipped to Japan, where it was sold, processed, priced, and exported within a matter of days. Coupled with the advent of purse seine net fishing in the 1960s and technologically advanced equipment such as sonar and GPS tracking, the industry enjoyed a profitable niche for nearly 50 years.

Today, sushi and other raw-fish dishes are consumed around the world. A quick search on TripAdvisor, a global travel website that specializes in aggregating region-specific information on restaurants and attractions, reveals a vast collection of sushi restaurants, from Argentina to China to Spain and beyond. This prolific quantity is matched only by the cuisine’s quality: Over the past three years, Japanese cuisine has bucked the trend of French culinary dominance. Tokyo is now home to the largest number of Michelin-rated restaurants and the largest population of three-star properties.

This success comes at a heavy price, and nowhere is it felt more than at the Tsukiji Fish Market. This market is responsible for auctioning, processing, and distributing more than half of all the fish consumed in Japan and is the single largest market of its kind in the world. According to Hasegawa, a managing director of personnel there, “A few decades ago we saw more than 3,800 tons of fish come through here daily. Now it’s less than half of that.”

The scientific community agrees. In January 2013, the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like species in the North Pacific Ocean estimated that more than 96% of bluefin tuna, the type found exclusively at the top of all sushi menus, had been decimated. This figure underscores the seriousness of overharvesting the world’s oceans.

Changing Patterns in Japanese Protein Consumption

Historically, the Japanese people have relied on fish as the basis of their diet. Between 1980 and 2005, the bluefin tuna haul steadily increased year over year in conjunction with population growth. In addition, Japan’s small area, emphasis on rice-crop production, and high population density meant the country had scant space for cattle farming. Nevertheless, an appetite for meat soon began to take hold of the island nation when McDonald’s and other fast-food brands from America were tailored for, and introduced into, the Japanese market in 1971.

Western food took the country by storm. Hamburger restaurants and convenience stores soon peppered the land of the rising sun and began to shift Japanese eating habits. The 3,800 McDonald’s stores located in Japan control 60% of the hamburger market there and produce US$4 billion in annual revenue for the parent company. Koji Izumi, who has analyzed the Japanese food industry, found a similar trend in the offerings of convenience stores. “The Japanese are changing their attitude towards the fish culture,” he says, pointing to a graph detailing the convergence of beef consumption and fish consumption in the Japanese domestic market. “Beef consumption has been steadily gaining on fish since 1980 and finally superseded fish consumption in 2005,” he notes.

Izumi’s consumption observations perfectly match current domestic production trends in both the cattle industry and fisheries in Japan. Since 2005, the Japanese domestic market has witnessed an overall decline in fish production concurrent with exports. However, during the same time frame, the Japanese cattle industry and Japanese beef imports experienced sustained growth.

“Beef consumption has been steadily gaining on fish since 1980 and finally superseded fish consumption in 2005.” –Koji Izumi

According to a study by Wilfram Ken Swartz, a Canadian researcher, overfishing, pollution, and lack of conservation in the Japanese domestic fishing industries have led to domestic fishery yields declining by about 500,000 tons annually since 1980. Data compiled from Bloomberg confirm that this trend continues today. With the increasing influence of Western meals, the decrease in gross fish production, and an increase in the real price of fish, the Japanese have had to find a way to substitute a portion of their fish consumption with a different protein.

Beef has neatly filled this niche. As the world’s third largest economy, Japan can afford to import beef and beef products to satisfy its growing meat cravings. Although Japan placed a trade embargo on the U.S. due to the 2003 outbreak of mad cow disease, increasing domestic demand for beef in Japan led to the removal of the embargo, giving the U.S. access to the Japanese beef market in 2005. The dependence on the U.S. for beef products and the shortfall during the embargo years led Japan to focus on improving domestic beef production. According to the USDA, Japan is now not only the second-largest beef importer in the world for U.S. beef — despite its declining population growth — but also one of the world’s largest producers. In fact, the USDA estimates that if the current cost of beef imports from the U.S. declined by 2%, Japanese consumption would increase from 1.15 million metric tons in 2005 to a projected 1.5 million metric tons in 2019. Izumi attributes these trends to an expanding fast-food market and an increase in the number of convenience stores across the country.

Changing Tastes and Generational Differences

Many of the changes in consumption patterns are both generational and indicative of changing tastes and attitudes toward fish. Izumi, now in his 60s, is quick to point out that, for his generation, many key nutrients now obtained through other food groups or supplements were traditionally obtained through fish. “I have eaten fish daily for all of my life. My generation did not grow up with fortified foods or dairy products, and we relied primarily on fish for our calcium requirement,” he says.

Many young people, by contrast, eat out frequently at fast-food restaurants where beef dominates the menu. They cite several reasons for eating less fish. Fusae Nanba, a resident of Tokyo and a mother of two, argues that “preparing fish at home is difficult. You have to take out the organs and clean up the fish considerably before cooking it. Preparation of beef is comparably much easier and quicker, making it more convenient to cook for busy young people.”

In addition to the convenience, there are qualitative differences between beef and fish. Nanba is quick to add that the odor of fish could be “off-putting” to some, that the many bones in fish could make it difficult for children to eat, and that many of the traditional preparations of fish — namely “nizakana,” or fish simmered in soy sauce and mirin — are considered by younger Japanese to be “old fashioned.” The other reason she cites for younger people favoring beef over fish is that it pairs better with bread and pasta, an interesting statement considering that consumption of wheat, like beef, has been increasing steadily in Japan.

The exception to this preference for beef over fish seems to be sushi. Indeed, Hasegawa is quick to point out that, despite the dramatic overall decrease in fish coming through the Tsukiji Fish Market, live fish are the exception. “It is sushi restaurants that are demanding the live fish,” he says. It seems that while the popularity of purchasing fish at markets and cooking and preparing it at home have fallen out of fashion, consuming it as prepared sushi is as popular as ever. ”My children enjoy sushi more than they enjoy cooked fish,” Nanba adds. “It is widely available for purchase, requires no preparation, doesn’t smell, and feels contemporary” — reasons that sound similar to those behind the rise in beef consumption.

It is easy to see the Japanese influence on dishes in restaurants around the world when chefs add delicate pieces of raw fish or splash a stripe of miso-based sauce across a dish. What has been less apparent to observers is the silent shift that has taken place in Japanese food consumption. At a time when fish is the face of Japanese cuisine abroad, it has been replaced domestically by beef. As fisheries around the world struggle to adjust to dwindling fish populations, it will be interesting to see how patterns of Japanese food consumption evolve and to observe the changing face of Japanese cuisine.

This article was written by Paul Baek, Colton Neves, and Carlos Vadillo, members of the Lauder Class of 2015.

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