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Paying a record tuna price is simply good advertising

by Mark Schreiber

“Even considering that Ooma tuna is a prestige brand, its tuna might normally sell for about ¥4,000 to ¥5,000 per kilogram,” a seafood trader tells Nikkan Gendai (Jan. 8). “At ¥700,000 per kilogram, you’re looking at a magnitude of scale of not one, but double digits. For a fisherman it’s like winning the Takarakuji lottery.”

At Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, the 2013 business year commenced on Saturday, Jan. 5. And before the day was over, practically everybody was talking about what had transpired at this year’s hatsu-seri (“first auction”).

A fresh hon-maguro (Pacific bluefin tuna) from Ooma-cho, a small fishing town on the Shimokita Peninsula of Aomori Prefecture, weighing 222 kg went up for auction. The bidding continued, in increments of ¥10,000 per kilogram, and finally the gavel fell to Sushi Zanmai, operator of the Kiyomura chain of sushi restaurants, which agreed to pay ¥700,000 per kilogram. In the case of this fish that came the princely sum of ¥155.4 million.

The figure was considerably higher than last year, when the top-selling fish sold for “only” ¥56.49 million.

“We had not placed any limit on our bids,” a PR spokesperson for Kiyomura revealed afterwards to Nikkan Gendai. “We’re optimistic in terms of the economic situation and (the purchase) was part of our overall media strategy. We can’t control how the media reports it, but anyway we felt upbeat about this year’s economic outlook, so we went all-out in the bidding.”

Here’s how the ¥155 million spoils were divided: Ooma’s fishermen’s cooperative received a handling charge of 4 percent (estimated at around ¥6.21 million) and the Aomori prefectural fishermen’s union collected 1.5 percent (¥2.33 million). Then a 5.5 percent handling fee went to the wholesaler, the Maruha Nichiro Group, for shipping the fish to market in Tokyo (¥8.54 million).

“The fisherman could also deduct expenses such as the cost of ice and fuel for his boat, so his actual income came to about 80 percent of the total,” says an expert in the fisheries trade. “After tax deductions at the highest rate of 40 percent, I suppose he’ll be left with about ¥70 million in profits.”

Some have suggested tongue in cheek that Daisuke Takeuchi, the lucky 36-year-old Ooma fisherman who landed the monster tuna, consider sinking his windfall into a condominium in Tokyo’s pricey Azabu district.

Despite the dizzying price, Sunday Mainichi (Jan. 27) figures that the cost to end users will come to about ¥134 per serving of red (lean) maguro sashimi, ¥313 for chūtoro (a fatty cut from the underbelly) and ¥418 for the most desirable ōtoro cuts.

“This is a great success for Kiyomura in terms of marketing,” consultant Hiroshi Onishi tells the magazine. “Even if the selling price of ¥155 million were to be flaunted in a TV commercial, it would not get as much public attention. But this time the company has received huge coverage via TV, newspapers, magazines and other media and has also been mentioned via Twitter and on blogs. If you consider how this helps the brand achieve wider and deeper penetration, it may wind up achieving even more than would an equivalent of ¥150 million in outlay for promotional advertising.”

Aera (Jan. 28) noted that Ricky Cheng, proprietor of the Hong Kong-based Itamae Sushi chain that operates 30 outlets in China, Malaysia and elsewhere, had previously been a successful contender at the Tsukiji auctions, having become the first foreigner to pay top price for a bluefin tuna from Ooma in 2008. That year the gavel fell at ¥22,000 per kilogram.

With a fishing moratorium on some tuna varieties due to concerns over depletion of stocks and increased international demand, the price of tuna has soared. The bidding consortium that includes Cheng’s Itamae Sushi won the top bids on the first day of trading three years running, paying ¥75,000 per kilogram in 2009; ¥70,000 in 2010; and ¥95,000 in 2011.

Despite this year’s record-setting price, some Japanese may have sighed with relief that at least the mighty fish will be served to diners in the country where it was caught.

“Japanese have consumed raw tuna as a delicacy since the Jomon Era, so their relationship extends back over 5,000 years,” explains food-history maven Hisao Nagayama in Josei Seven (Jan. 31). “As tuna spoils rapidly, it was once considered a cheap side dish, and avoided. Then it became popularized as sashimi or in nigiri-zushi (slices of fish atop slabs of compressed vinegared rice).”

According to Nagayama, before Japan’s urban-based economy developed during the Edo Period (1603-1867), consumption of easily perishable tuna was limited mainly close to where they were caught, in the coastal areas in northern Tohoku or near the Goto Islands of Nagasaki. It first began to be eaten by city folks who preserved the fish in shōyu (soy sauce), and eventually raw consumption became popularized.

“Maguro truly holds the iconic position of being a fish that’s integral to Japan’s food culture, along with deserving credit for developing the culture of raw-food consumption,” remarked Nagayama.