Tsukiji traders fish for new export markets

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

Businesses operating at Japan’s largest fish market are increasingly trying to boost exports, sensing demand overseas for such fare as octopus, abalone and stonefish sold with the renowned Tsukiji brand.

Seafood consumption in Japan has been declining in recent years as people shift to meat, which is generally cheaper and seen as easier to prepare.

But the traders also believe the market’s planned move in fiscal 2016 from its historic but poky site in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, to Toyosu in Koto Ward is a good time for them to make full use of more modern premises and expand their business reach.

“The question is whether we stick to our present fish business or whether we seek new commercial opportunities,” said Naohide Kametani, an executive board member of the Wholesales Cooperative of Tokyo Fish Market, which represents about 680 middlemen at Tsukiji.

They buy fish delivered to the market from around the country from wholesalers and sell it to fishmongers, restaurant owners and chefs. But the traders often lack export skills because their business is focused on the domestic market.

To overcome this, they are taking training courses coordinated by the government-backed Japan External Trade Organization. Among the skills it aims to teach are how to handle shipping procedures, product inspection, sales and marketing.

And the timing chimes with something the central government wants, too.

In the growth strategy touted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the government aims to boost annual fishery product exports to ¥350 billion in 2020, up from ¥170 billion in 2012.

Moreover, “washoku,” or traditional Japanese cuisine, was added this year to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The move excited some economists, who believed it would spur interest worldwide in authentic Japanese fare.

Shinichi Eguchi, who heads the export division at JETRO’s agriculture, forestry, fisheries and food department, said foreign demand is already rising.

Moreover, as people in developing nations in Asia grow richer, they have begun eating more fish in recent years.

The trend is unrelated to, but happens to correspond with, the declining demand in Japan. The 2013 fisheries white paper published by the Fisheries Agency reported that daily seafood consumption per person in Japan was 94 grams in 2001 and fell to 72.7 grams in 2011, while meat consumption rose.

JETRO and the cooperative have launched a joint panel to hear from professionals in export-related industries, such as aviation, trade and transport.

“After all, we hope that the cooperative’s traders will be ready to operate independently by the time of the move to Toyosu,” said Eguchi.

In general, he said seafood exports are conducted by regional fishermen’s unions, many of which partner with trade firms, and by fisheries companies. But these exporters tend to ship only one type of fish at a time, in large quantities, and this is where Tsukiji traders can stand out.

“Let’s say someone wants to run a sushi restaurant and needs more than 10 different kinds of fish. The wholesale market can supply that,” said Kametani.

Some Tsukiji traders are already exporters and make sales to countries such as the United States, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore.

But Kametani says they often faces difficulties.

“Their business scale is small and they export small quantities, so transport costs are high. Also, export procedures vary from one country to another and understanding the rules can be hard work,” he said.

Moreover, it is hard to develop new clients, as the traders lack connections overseas, he added.

JETRO and the cooperative believe that if more traders enter the export business, they can help each other, for instance by sharing a shipping container to reduce transport costs.

And JETRO has offices around the world and connections to help widen sales channels for them.

Osamu Shimazu, another executive member of the cooperative, admits that it will be an uphill effort. He said becoming an exporter means a trader must compete with existing players in local seafood markets overseas.

“Each country has its own fish culture that centers around local species, so we need to compete with that,” said Shimazu.

He said Tsukiji traders, however, can analyze what customers might like and steer them toward suitable products.

“Choosing fish just because it’s expensive is not really a connoisseur’s skill. We think it’s a skill to provide the best fish depending on a customer’s needs . . . and when it comes to that, we believe that the Tsukiji traders’ skills are the best in the world,” said Shimazu.

Eguchi of JETRO said that if traders at the Tsukiji market can succeed in export, traders at fish markets elsewhere in Japan may follow suit. That would not only strengthen Japan’s seafood export industry, but also hone tastes worldwide for Japanese delicacies.