Rivals split bid, Tsukiji bluefin down middle

Kyodo News

The battle over a bluefin tuna that sold for ¥9.63 million at the first auction of the year at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market, the highest price fetched in eight years, ended when the Japanese and Chinese bidders agreed to share the fish, market participants said Thursday.

Yosuke Imada, the 63-year-old manager of the prestigious sushi restaurant Kyubey in Tokyo’s Ginza district, and Ricky Cheng Wai-tao, the 41-year-old Chinese manager of the Itamae Sushi chain in Hong Kong and elsewhere, each took half of the fish, which was caught off Oma, Aomori Prefecture.

The tuna was cut in two at the market immediately after Monday’s bidding, with one half transported to Hong Kong and the other to Ginza.

One piece of “otoro” sushi, using the fattest portion of the fish, costs around ¥1,100 in Hong Kong restaurants and ¥2,000 in Ginza.

Cheng set off shock waves in the industry at the first auction of 2008, when he paid about ¥6 million to become the first foreigner to win the bidding for the priciest tuna at the Tsukiji market, whose official name is the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market.

With Japanese pride as the birthplace of sushi at stake, Imada was determined to win the bidding this time around, even if he suffered a loss, but with raw tuna growing in popularity in China, Cheng was reportedly prepared to pay more than ¥10 million to land the fish.

Yukitaka Yamaguchi, 46, a longtime middleman for Imada who also started to work with Cheng last year, found himself in a quandary after both asked him to buy the top fish “at any cost” in the auction.

Summoning both of them to a hotel bar in Nihonbashi, Tokyo, on the eve of the auction, Yamaguchi suggested they jointly purchase the fish.

The two accepted the plan because Imada wanted to avoid an unnecessary battle that would drive up the cost, while Cheng wanted to avoid upsetting anyone by winning the auction for a second year in a row.

The annual consumption of tuna in China skyrocketed 20 times to 4,000 tons in 2005 from 200 tons in 2000, according to Lou Xiaobo, professor at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

Lou expects the consumption of tuna in China to continue to increase as the higher socioeconomic group expands.