The country that gave the world sushi now finds itself with too much fish.
Demand for seafood has been dropping in Japan for much of the past decade as people eat more pork and beef, forcing domestic fishermen to look for buyers abroad. With the help of a plunging yen, that strategy is working. Exports are surging, and companies like Yamato Holdings Co. and ANA Holdings Inc. are expanding a delivery network across Asia, a region that still gets most of its sushi salmon from Norway, which is more than 8,000 km (5,000 miles) away.
Exports have been a godsend to Japan’s ¥1.4 trillion ($11.6 billion) seafood industry, where the number of fishermen shrank 42 percent since 1995 and competition from cheaper imports has hurt profits. While domestic demand fell more than 20 percent in the past decade, global consumption is rising as economic growth boosts incomes. Japanese seafood exports in the first half of 2015 are up almost 30 percent, providing some support to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s goal of boosting food sales overseas.
“We can offer fish we catch in the morning to buyers in the afternoon of the same day,” said Shigeru Koike, a 72-year-old fisherman in the port of Inatori, 150 km southwest of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture. “That’s our selling point. If we can catch more, and our cooperative managers sell more fish overseas, that will be great.”
Foreign shipments by Japan reached 293,806 metric tons this year through June, up from 232,424 over the same period in 2014, reflecting improved demand for everything from scallops to the finest cuts of raw tuna eaten atop balled rice as sushi, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Seafood is showing strong gains at a time when Japan’s exports of cars, machinery and electronics haven’t recovered to their 2007 peak.
A weakening of the yen has helped, making Japanese products cheaper for some importers. The currency is down 11 percent against the dollar in the past year and has lost value relative to those of neighboring countries, including China, Taiwan and India.
While Japan is still the second-biggest fish importer, purchases are surging in places like China, South Korea and Europe, the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said in a 2014 report.
Japan’s per-capita consumption in the year through March 2014 declined to 27 kg, from a peak of 40.2 kg a dozen years earlier, government data show. Meat consumption exceeded fish for the first time in 2006, and Japan is now the world’s largest pork importer. While the FAO estimates Japan still bought $15.3 billion of fish from foreign suppliers in 2013, that is down from $18 billion a year earlier.
Global fish consumption climbed to 19 kg per person in 2012 from 9.9 kg in the 1960s, according to the FAO. The World Bank projects food-fish demand will rise to 151.8 million tons by 2030 from 111.7 million tons in 2006. In China, per-capita consumption expanded 6 percent annually from 1990 to 2010 to 35.1 kg, FAO data show.
To tap that demand, Yamato, Japan’s largest express-delivery company, uses refrigerated trucks to transport fish from ports to local airports, then on to a hub in Okinawa Prefecture. Within four hours by air are 2 billion possible consumers, including in Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Chuo Ward, Tokyo-based Yamato began door-to-door delivery of chilled fresh food overseas in October 2013 and has expanded the service from Hong Kong to Taiwan in March and Singapore in August. ANA, Japan’s largest air carrier, is adding more cargo flights in the region to meet demand.
Emerging economies are buying more high-value species like salmon and tuna, FAO data show. Salmon accounts for 14 percent of fishery trade and is the most popular sushi topping among Asia consumers outside Japan.
Norway has promoted the consistency and fat, juicy quality of its farm-raised raw salmon in Asia over the past three decades, said Henrik Andersen, director for Japan and Korea at the Norwegian Seafood Council.
Unlike Norway, which focuses exclusively on salmon, Japanese fishermen can supply about 350 types of fish for sushi, said Nobuhiro Nagaya, senior managing director at Zengyoren, formally known as the National Federation of Fisheries Co-Operative Association.
“Previously, it was difficult to export fresh fish to Southeast Asia without sacrificing its quality,” Nagaya said. “Japanese yellowtail and amberjack are as fatty as Norwegian salmon. If consumers in Southeast Asia try them, we are sure that they should love them too.”