Japan’s tuna king laments Tsukiji market move

AFP-JIJI

Kiyoshi Kimura’s ear-to-ear grin is tough to miss in Japan — it is splashed across ubiquitous billboards advertising his nationwide sushi chain.

But the self-styled “Tuna King” is not smiling about plans to move Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, the world’s biggest raw-fish emporium, and says the famed institution’s unique identity is at risk.

Kimura’s office is a block away from the market, where in 2013 he slapped down a record ¥155.4 million for a fish at the traditional New Year bluefin tuna auction.

He prevailed again in the auction this month with a comparatively modest ¥14 million bid for an enormous 200-kg tuna, but it marks his last victory at the chaotic market, which is popular with locals and tourists alike.

Backers of the move, planned for November, say the sprawling, 80-year-old complex is tired and out-of-date. An ancient refrigeration system is among its many shortcomings.

Like many critics, however, Kimura — a former member of Japan’s military who swapped dreams of becoming a fighter pilot for a life in the fish business — is not sold on the idea.

“It’s a bit sad that Tsukiji is moving,” the 63-year-old said at his office, which is covered with photos of Japanese celebrities and politicians.

“For as long as I have been in the fish business, Tsukiji was here,” Kimura added, saying that it is hard to see the move in a positive light.

Kimura abandoned plans to help build a leisure facility at the new site, which would have offered a 1,000-seat food court and about 140 restaurants and retailers, as well as Tokyo’s biggest hot spring baths.

The four-decade fish veteran is not even sure he will build one of his Sushi Zanmai restaurants at the decidedly less charming new facility built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay.

“It’s still unclear how the outer market is going to be built,” he said of the new location.

“A fish market is a place where people like to gather. But if there is no sense of excitement, people won’t come.”

For Kimura, there are few things more exciting than serving up sushi, particularly purple slabs of tuna on rice.

Sushi Zanmai’s advertisements star a beaming Kimura, his stout frame squeezed into a fish smock and rubber boots, standing over the monster specimens.

And he seems happy as a clam to pay way over the odds for the prestige of buying the first fish of the year.

“I won’t make a profit off that tuna,” Kimura said of his recent winning bid.

“The New Year’s sales are a little bit expensive, but after that prices will return to normal levels.”

Bluefin is usually the priciest fish available at Tsukiji and a single piece of otoro, the fish’s fatty underbelly, can cost several thousand yen at high-end Tokyo restaurants.

Kimura disputes suggestions that his eye-popping offers — including the record 2013 purchase sparked by a bidding war with a Hong Kong chain — are just a publicity stunt.

“My business is about giving customers delicious and high quality produce,” he insisted.

“To really have that feeling — and to make customers happy — is the best thing that could happen. If you’re doing it just for marketing, I don’t think you can pass that feeling on to customers.”

In fact, he said, paying top yen for tuna helps keep prices up, and protects the species.

Environmentalists warn that bluefin tuna could be on its way to extinction — Japan is the world’s biggest consumer of the fish and has faced calls to rein in catches.

In 2014, sushi maestro Jiro Ono, whose creations have been enjoyed by U.S. President Barack Obama and are hailed by some as the best in the world, said overfishing is a red flag for the industry.

But Kimura is convinced tuna will always reign supreme in the sushi world.

“Stocks of saba (mackerel) and aji (horse mackerel) have also been depleted from time to time, but then they always come back.”