An innovative distribution method has made it possible to bring fish to consumers in Tokyo on the day they were caught, not via the controversy-mired Tsukiji or Toyosu markets, but through Haneda airport.
At 10:20 a.m. one day in late May, a container of fresh fish arrived at the Fresh Fish Center in the airport’s East Cargo Terminal aboard a plane that had left Fukuoka nearly two hours earlier.
“These are cherry salmon caught just this morning,” Shuichi Miyamoto, who is in charge of the center, said of the container’s contents.
Miyamoto, 45, said that about 30 kinds of fish totaling 3 tons, including sea bream and yellowtail amberjack, were expected to arrive at the center by air from all over Japan that day.
“After checking, we will pack 8 kg each into one polystyrene foam box for shipping,” he said, displaying a box containing five kinds of specialty fish from four locations that was priced at ¥10,800.
Shipping began shortly after 11:30 a.m., with boxes going directly to restaurants, bars and supermarkets in Tokyo for consumers to enjoy later in the evening.
The center was launched in September 2015 by Chihou Sousei Network Co., which runs an online fish market for corporate customers called Tokyo Haneda Market.
Customers place orders online and receive boxes of fresh fish from all over Japan. The Tokyo-based company says it deals only in fresh fish, not in frozen or farmed fish.
The market has over 5,000 client restaurants. The clients say Tokyo Haneda Market offers quality fish caught from various parts of Japan that may otherwise be unavailable in Tokyo and take longer to arrive.
“By conventional means, it takes as many as three days for fish to reach consumers,” President Ryohei Nomoto, 51, said.
“They are first transported by truck from local wholesale markets to Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. And then wholesalers deliver them to supermarkets or fish stores.”
“We can do it in six hours at the shortest,” Nomoto said. “The air transport cost is lower than the expenses related with wholesaling and transportation, and the good thing is that more money goes to the fishermen.
“With our ingenuity, the earnings of fishermen can be substantially raised,” Nomoto said.
The president said he spends about 100 days a year boarding fishing boats to talk with fishermen all around Japan.
“To keep fish fresh, you should kill them immediately after catching them and remove the nerves,” he said. “I sometimes tell fishermen how to do it.”
He said Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike commended his method as “eye-opening” when he had a chance to tell her about Haneda Market. Koike had been wrestling with the decision on whether to move Tokyo’s central fish market from Tsukiji in Chuo Ward to the nearby Toyosu waterfront district.
Nomoto was born in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. After graduating from high school, he joined a food wholesale company run by his family. He later changed jobs to work for a conveyor belt sushi restaurant and learned how to handle fresh fish. Then he became a director at a bar chain where he promoted new dishes based on fresh fish.
He founded his own company in 2014.
“The number of fishermen currently totals 160,000, a sharp plunge from the level just after World War II, when there were more than 1 million,” he said.
“Besides, not many people seem interested in becoming fishermen, partly because of the low wages.”
Nomoto said supermarkets have the upper hand in fish distribution and keep prices low, to the fishermen’s disadvantage.
“I hoped to deal with fresh, high-grade fish at a fair price in Tokyo to improve the level of their wages and boost their numbers,” Nomoto said.
“My simple wish is that the system will benefit all three parties — fishermen, consumers and our company,” he said.
In January, the company opened an outlet in Tokyo’s swanky Ginza shopping district, not far from Tsukiji, offering fish not just to professionals but consumers as well.
“We see some businessmen coming after 3 p.m. when freshly caught fish arrive here,” the shop manager said.
Uozen, a nearby bar and restaurant, receives a box of fish from Haneda Market every day but relies on the Ginza outlet to get more when necessary.
Its master, Kozo Matsumoto, 53, said, “Our strongest selling point is the freshness of our fish and our customers love it.”
Nomoto’s company also exports about 500 kg of fish to North America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere each day, and plans to expand sales abroad.
Noting that annual sales in its second year came to ¥450 million ($4 million), Nomoto said, “We are aiming to take the figure to ¥10 billion in fiscal 2020.”
“The current fish markets are closed on Sundays and during the New Year’s holidays, when fish are supposed to fetch a high price,” Nomoto said. “It’s like letting a great chance pass by.
“If it’s profitable, fishermen should be willing to work even during the New Year’s holidays,” he said.
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