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The Sushi Economy

From the July/August 2007 Issue

The journey of bluefin tuna from the waters of the Atlantic to the sushi bars of Tokyo in just a few days is a marvel of globalization, writes SASHA ISSENBERG. It’s a tale of taste, technology, and the power of markets.

For most diners, sushi seems to offer a chance briefly to escape the modern world. A simple room of unadorned wood and bright lights, the sushi bar is a place out of time. Food is identified, with hunter-gatherer austerity, simply by its genus, but familiar personalities stand out among the cast of aquatic characters: confidently recoiling abalone, smoothly dense Spanish mackerel, softly evanescent tuna.

The reaction of diners receiving this procession of small joys tends to be consistent. Eyes roll upward, stuffed cheeks and busy jaws withstand a compressed smile, as every part of the face savors each sensation: the bracing coolness of the fish, its curvature as it is pressed into lightly seasoned rice, the residual warmth of the hands that formed it, the supple resistance of fish flesh as teeth make contact, the slow dissolution of meat on the tongue.  

A little over a generation ago, red tuna was worthless in most parts of the world, where an established market existed for it only as pet food.

Yet sushi as we know it is an invention of the late 20th century—in particular the flows of money, power, people, and culture that define the era’s interconnectedness. Jet travel allows perishable goods to speed over oceans. Fishermen call in their catch across distant seas via satellite phone. Agents are able to sustain orders by quickly moving capital across currencies to out-of-the-way docks in developing countries.

As the world gets smaller, the selection in those glass cases gets bigger—and better. Nearly every business across the world has been in some way affected by the currents of global capitalism, but in few places are the complex dynamics of globalization revealed as clearly as in the tuna’s journey from the sea to the sushi bar. 

In the sushi system, tuna is the trophy fish: the most demanded by diners, the one that is tested as a benchmark of a restaurant’s merit. A little over a generation ago, red tuna was worthless in most parts of the world, where an established market existed for it only as pet food, but the ability to make fresh tuna available to diners across long distances, and a newly acquired taste for fat among the Japanese changed all that. By the mid-1970s, it was common for a bluefin tuna caught in the Atlantic on a summer Sunday evening to be served for lunch in Tokyo on Wednesday. Over the course of the following two decades, the average price paid to Atlantic fishermen rose by 10,000 percent. 

A bit of sleuthing in the Japan Airlines Cargo Building at Narita reveals the bounty of modern trade: lamb from New Zealand, single-origin chocolates from Peru, pharmaceuticals from Hong Kong, chrysanthemums from Alaska.

Each afternoon at 3:40, Thai Airways Flight 676 touches down at Narita, the giant airport east of Tokyo. In the early 19th century, the artist Hokusai depicted seascapes just miles away. If he had worked in the area 150 years later, his waves would likely be on ramps. Up to 20 tons of cargo spill from the hold of Flight 676, much of it flowers and textiles and disk drives that originate across Southeast Asia and make their way to Japanese consumers through the Thai Airways hub in Bangkok. 

The unloaded goods, which travel on pallets and in metal containers, are driven from passenger gates to the Japan Airlines Cargo Building, which serves not just JAL but also its customers like Thai, which don’t have their own facilities at Narita. Inside the hangar, the stacked boxes appear unremarkable, but a bit of sleuthing among packing slips, handling instructions, and three-letter airport codes reveals the bounty of modern international trade: lamb from New Zealand, single-origin chocolates from Peru, pharmaceuticals from Hong Kong, chrysanthemums from Alaska. 

When Beaujolais Nouveau needs to make its way to Japan briskly for its coming-out party each fall, or when a Grand Prix car has to meet an appointment with a Japanese racetrack, they, too, end up in the Japan Airlines Cargo Building. So does tuna, the most popular raw material of sushi, a street snack of Edo-era Tokyo that has become a coveted delicacy both inside and outside Japan. 

Tuna emerges not just from Thai 676 but, it seems, from practically every plane that arrives at Narita. The coffins carrying the fish glide off Air France freighters coming from Paris, Singapore Airlines flights from Adelaide, China Airlines planes originating in Vietnam. But no airline has been so deeply committed to the art of transporting high-quality seafood as JAL, which invented the modern tuna economy as a means of filling the holds of its jets returning from North America and now serves as de-facto flag carrier. As one squints through the haze rising from the Narita macadam, the slice of the Rising Sun flag that fills the tails of incoming JAL planes starts to look like a piece of perfectly cut maguro.

Tuna began flying to Japan in August 1972, after a Japan Airlines cargo executive named Akira Okazaki discovered a profitable way to bring bluefin from Canadian fishing grounds to Tsukiji, the central fish market in Tokyo, and then to restaurants to be sliced into sushi no more than four days after it was caught. The tuna were trucked from boats that landed on Prince Edward Island to New York’s Kennedy Airport, where they were put on a flight to Haneda Airport in Tokyo. After failed tests in which tuna were packed in bags sealed with different combinations of gases (chunks of ice being too heavy), Okazaki concluded that the best solution would be for JAL to design and build its own refrigerated container that would fit in the lower cargo compartment of a Douglas DC-8 jetliner. 

As one squints through the haze rising from the Narita macadam, the slice of the Rising Sun flag that fills the tails of incoming JAL planes starts to look like a piece of perfectly cut maguro.

Having established a sound model, JAL’s freight experts started seeking out other tuna sources along the East Coast. They found them in Nova Scotia and later in New England. Here were dozens of established fishing communities comfortable with the dynamics of exporting seafood, if by slower, old-fashioned methods. Their names—Seabrook, Hyannis, Gloucester—would be familiar only to Japanese who recalled the origins of 19th-century American vessels, like those whose crossings on the trail of sperm whales inspired Herman Melville. At Tsukiji, the new American product became known, regardless of its port of landing, as “Boston bluefin.” Soon, during the season there were days when the 36-ton holds of JAL’s Tokyo-bound DC-8 freighters were filled with nothing but tuna. 

It was an embarrassment of riches. During the summer season, bluefin had strained JAL’s capacity so much that Wayne MacAlpine, who was the airline’s lone cargo man in Canada, had come to worry about planes being overloaded. In August 1974, nine-tenths of the airline’s total outbound cargo volume from Canada consisted of tuna. On Prince Edward Island, JAL maintained its effective monopoly, thanks to the relationship Okazaki had immediately struck with a local dealer. But in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, which had longer coasts and decentralized fisheries, JAL met serious competition for tuna from Flying Tigers, an all-freight line, and Northwest, which both ran freighters from New York to Tokyo. 

“It worked very well for everybody,” recalls MacAlpine. “It was the best export business out of North America in the 1970s—and probably the best air-cargo business worldwide.”


The bluefin’s trip across the Pacific was not an easy one. The first commercial transpacific flight, from San Francisco to Manila in 1936 on Pan American Airways, had taken six days of island-hopping. Five years earlier, Charles and Anne Lindbergh had demonstrated that it was possible to save 2,000 miles on a trip from New York to Tokyo by flying a route over the North Pole, and during World War II, Northwest Airlines would help shuttle American troops to a U.S. Army base in Shemya, at the end of the desolate Aleutian Islands chain that lingers outward from Alaska. 

The tuna trade worked for everyone. ‘It was the best export business out of North America in the 1970s—and probably the best air-cargo business worldwide.’

But it was not until after the war that commercial carriers relied on the polar route. Northwest was the pioneer, using Shemya as a refueling stop on a journey to Asia it marketed as crossing the “top of the world.” Other airlines followed Northwest’s lead, and in 1953, an airport was opened in Anchorage to meet the expanding demand. 

Anchorage would become one of the planet’s busiest airports. Its short-term visitors, who met under the influence of conflicting jet lags, were given little to remember but the stuffed polar bear that greeted them on the way to the duty-free shop. The most dazzling sight the frontier town had to offer was the flurry of flags adorning the tails of planes refueling on the tarmac: British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, SAS…. 

These flags often bore a heavy symbolic payload. For the newly independent nations of the mid-20th century, a state airline was often the first opportunity to present a post-colonial identity to the world, as well as a means of connecting culturally and economically. After the end of the American occupation in 1952, Japan set out to reintroduce itself. The graceful crane on the tail of those early JAL planes was imagined as the aerodynamic ambassador of a peaceful country. 

In 1970, Boeing rolled out the 747, a plane that could fly more people faster and farther than any in history. Unlike previous passenger planes, the 747 was designed with freight in mind. What some describe as a roomier interior—the familiar two-aisle arrangement, and its attendant five-seat central block, home to the most undesirable middle seat possible—was really the consequence of building a hold wide enough for two standard shipping containers to rest side by side. 

In 1967, JAL had placed an order for three 747s and a few years later introduced them on Pacific routes. It was bad news for Anchorage—the world’s passengers would no longer have much use for an air crossroads—but for Tsukiji, Boeing’s innovation was a godsend. In 1983, JAL introduced nonstop flights to Narita, which had opened five years earlier and replaced Haneda as JAL’s primary link for Pacific trade. 

During the Bubble period, when Japanese stock and real estate prices soared, all indicators of the health of the sushi business—Tsukiji tuna prices, the volume of fish sold, import figures into Japan—almost perfectly tracked the health of the nation’s economy. Nothing illustrated the extent of Japan’s newfound centrality in international webs of information and trade as JAL’s growth to become, in 1983, not only the world’s largest cargo carrier but also its busiest international passenger airline. In 1991, as the bubble burst, the average daily high price of northern bluefin approached $36 per pound. What was good for Tsukiji was good for Japan. 

Anchorage would become one of the planet’s busiest airports. The most dazzling sight the frontier town had to offer was the flurry of flags adorning the tails of planes refueling on the tarmac: British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa, SAS….

Thai Airways flight 676 arrived at Narita on Friday afternoon, and once the plane reached the passenger gate, an 82-kilo Spanish bluefin slid from its hull and was driven to the Japan Airlines Cargo Building. Throughout the day, three dozen brokers came to examine tuna that had arrived from around the world. Tsukiji may be the biggest, but it is only one of 30 municipal fish markets in Japan that compete for high-quality imported tuna—and once a fish has arrived in Japan, a broker still has to find a place to sell it. 

It’s a challenge of matchmaking: A good broker knows his fish (he’s looking at it now and has collected information on how it was caught or farmed, and how it has been handled since) and knows the markets. If the Osaka auction houses are already sitting on a lot of fish for the next day, it might make more sense to send it to Sapporo, unless the weather off Hokkaido has been good and locally caught tuna are flooding the market there, in which case Sendai might be a better bet. 

JAL employees removed the Spanish bluefin from its shipping container and made sure the customs paperwork was in order. Then, a broker for a small Tokyo firm arrived and took a look at the contents of the Styrofoam coffin whose voyage he had coordinated. After logging 9,190 miles, about 48 hours after being plucked from Mediterranean waters, the tuna were loaded onto a truck for one more trip, a 40-mile drive through dense urban traffic to Tsukiji, home to 60,000 traders who annually exchange $6 billion in seafood. Touring gourmand and chef Anthony Bourdain once called Tsukiji “the awe-inspiring, life-changing mother of all fish markets…the smell of limitless possibilities, countless sensual pleasures.” 

When the tuna arrived, Tokyo was almost in dusk. At that hour, fish-bearing trucks parade along the Kachidoki Bridge over the Sumida River. Until 1980, fishing boats would steer through Tokyo Bay and up the river, stopping directly alongside the 54-acre Tsukiji market and unloading their catches right into its outer ring. But Japanese tuna and bonito fishermen, whose dominance at the market was being challenged by the growing Korean and Chinese fleets, fought to complicate the foreigners’ ability to trade. Banning all tuna fishermen from docking at Tsukiji would disproportionately hurt non-Japanese boats, which would be forced to find other places in Japan to stop and unload. Now the only boats that tie up along the Sumida are those carrying live fish—yellowtail and sea bream, mostly. Everything else travels through city streets. 

Anthony Bourdain once called Tsukiji ‘the awe-inspiring,life-changing mother of all fish markets…the smell of limitless possibilities, countless sensual pleasures.’

Beginning around 11:00 p.m., auction-house staffers prepare the fish for sale. They have to unpack the tuna from the wooden or Styrofoam coffins, where they are sheathed in layers of paper and plastic and buried under heaps of cubed ice that frequently become slushy in transit. Often the easiest way to unpack a tuna is to rock a coffin onto its side and let the fish slide out, amid a stream of melting ice, onto the concrete floor. With long hooks, two or three men drag the fish onto a small scale, then fill out the tags of weight and origin that give the fish its market identity. Even without adhesive, the paper sticks easily to the viscous skin. 

By 3:00 a.m., the floor has begun to fill with fish. An employee comes out with a bucket of edible red paint and hunches over each one. First, he writes the tuna’s auction number in large, Arabic numerals in the center of its body. Then he takes a closer look, and uses the paint to mark imperfections—some immediately visible, some more subtle—on the fish. He will circle the place where a harpoon punctured the tuna’s skin, or the entry wound from an air gun used to kill a fish that has been “ranched,” that is, fattened in a watery pen—a method developed recently in Australia, Mexico, Europe, and elsewhere. He may put an open parenthesis where a shark has taken a bite of tuna. (Shark attacks are particularly common in Japanese waters. The fishing port in the northern town of Shiogama is filled with fish whose flesh has been ravaged by great whites.) In most cases, this is damage that would be easily recognized by any tuna professional, so the red paint serves as a simple form of courtesy. 

Another auction employee is making rounds with a knife, cutting the tail ends of fish to offer the opportunity for an early assessment of value. At this point, sometimes hours before buyers will arrive in the tuna room, the most expensive fish get extra pampering. Their open parts are covered with a damp towel, and a bag of ice propped up against the flesh of the tail nub, so as to slow the decay from exposure to air. 

These preparations are the result of a perpetual set of trades that balance a seller’s control of his marketable product with a buyer’s need for information about it. Each cut exposes flesh to air; after a day or two, such oxidized flesh is useless. A slice off the tail might remove a kilo or so of sellable meat. The seller is continuously losing bits of his commodity in exchange for providing would-be buyers more access to material they can use to make decisions about how to price it. 

At 4:00 a.m., the stalls of the market’s non-tuna intermediate wholesalers—who have purchased their products in bulk directly from the auction houses overnight—are already busy with activity, as sellers open boxes and put out their wares for display. At Aiyo, a coffee shop in the inner market, insiders meet in an informal predawn coffee klatsch, where they exchange Tsukiji gossip and box-score data on the performance of Japanese baseball players abroad. Buyers seeking an early start wander into the auction room to get a first look at the day’s offerings as auctioneers exchange tasting notes on what’s come in, sometimes smelling one another’s fingers to test a point about a tuna’s odor. 

There were about 150 tuna there, from every major body of water in the world. The fact that they had arrived, on schedule and generally unscathed, in the one room on earth where they could realize their economic potential was a testament to a new infrastructure of globalization and the logisticians who make it work for such a touchy product. 

Yet the tuna room said nothing about these adventures. All that potential buyers would know about these fish was written in black marker on small yellow paper tags. The Cliff’s Notes version of one fish’s biography was simple: It was from Spain, weighed 82.4 kilos, and had been ranched. 

Auctioneers exchange tasting notes on what’s come in, sometimes smelling one another’s fingers to test a point about a tuna’s odor.

At 5:30 a.m., a jangle of bells sent Haruo Matsui to the back of the tuna room, where each of the houses sets up its auction pit. With his left hand, Matsui leafed through the notebook filled with snap judgments of the tuna he had seen that morning. The auctioneer took his place at a lectern 15 feet away, shuffling papers listing the fish he had for sale, but Matsui’s eyes were turned away from him, toward the tuna. Matsui’s right hand dangled, palm open, over the side of the bleachers. When the auctioneer called the number of a fish that interested him, Matsui would nonchalantly shift his eyes toward the lectern. When he was ready to bid, he would pulse his rounded index finger against his thumb, like a pincer. 

A large New York bluefin went first. It was sold for 6,000 yen per kilo (or about $24 a pound) despite a scar running along the bottom side of its belly. The auctioneer announced the next fish on his list. Matsui glanced down at his notebook, met the auctioneer’s eyes, and twinkled his fingers to bid. In a Japanese auction, all bidders name their per-kilo price simultaneously, and then are allowed quickly to adjust their bids in response to others’ moves. After a quick flurry of hand signals and coded speech, the auctioneer announced the result, also in market slang: Matsui had bought the tuna for 2,500 yen per kilo. It was the first fish Matsui had looked at that morning after shrugging off the trophy bluefin from New York. 

All Matsui knew about his new purchase was what had been written on the yellow slip: It was a bluefin, ranched, from Spain, and weighed 82.4 kilos. He had paid about $1,800 for it. Matsui signaled to one of his employees to bring the purchase back to his stall. The fish was loaded onto a wheelbarrow painted in vibrant primary colors, and Matsui went off to buy more tuna. 

Matsui has about 40 regular customers: wholesalers, retail fish stores, and a wide variety of restaurants, including a sumo-style hotpot spot that offers tuna sashimi as an appetizer. Frequently, chefs shopping for their own restaurants make standard rounds through the market—first their shellfish guy, then over to the tuna stall, finally to the uni, or sea urchin, specialist—often filling bamboo baskets with their purchases. Matsui’s customers are the first buyers in the chain who get to see the inside of the fish before making a purchase. Matsui says they “look at the taste.” 

He sliced the loin on his cutting board roughly in half, rocking his knife raggedly to break the coarse skin. He placed the piece on a scale, and read out the weight: “Ten, nine,” he said. His daughter wrote the number—10.9 kilos, or about 24 pounds—on an invoice and quickly copied it into a ledger book. Matsui handed the piece to his son, who wrapped it in waxed paper, upon which he wrote a set of Chinese characters saying, “Isshin,” a catering service specializing in pre-funeral dinners that are a religious custom. Isshin had already called in an order. The fish was placed in a plastic bag and put aside in a box to be collected for delivery. 

There were about 150 tuna there, from every major body of water in the world. The fact that they had arrived in the one room on earth where they could realize their full economic potential was a testament to a new infrastructure of globalization.

Then, from the same loin, Matsui cut a smaller piece, weighing exactly two kilos, and went through the same process: weighing, wrapping, boxing. It would be delivered to the executive sushi bar at the corporate headquarters of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, one of Japan’s largest banks. 

One by one, buyers from various restaurants—such as Tsunezushi, a sushi bar in Itabashi, and Sosobo, a traditional Japanese restaurant that serves dishes of tuna sashimi in nearby Shinjuku—stopped by Matsui’s stall. A baseball-capped buyer named Shinji Kasei approached, with two deputies in tow. His father had bought his fish from Matsui’s father. Kasei purchased one full stomach loin from Matsui’s bluefin, a 20.6-kilo piece. 

A few hours later, Kasei was at Uoshin, a small streetfront fish store in Kyodo, in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. Uoshin supplies over 200 professional customers, mostly restaurants. For their owners, a morning shopping trip to Tsukiji could mean a total of four hours in metropolitan traffic, so they instead pick up their orders at Uoshin or have them delivered by one of Kasei’s six trucks. 

Around midday, a young man came into Uoshin to pick up his fish, as he did every day, graciously greeting Kasei. The man, Tesuro Onchi, received a few kilos of Matsui’s Spanish bluefin and went off to turn it into sushi. He drove back through the winding streets of western Tokyo to his restaurant, an unexceptional sushi bar in a city with no shortage of them. (There are 15,000 or so among Tokyo’s admirable total of 300,000 eating establishments.) 

Onchi put on a white butcher’s jacket and got to work on the bluefin. If any diners asked, he would be able to tell them it was Spanish and ranched, but even he did not know anything more about it. Most diners would just read the restaurant’s offerings off balsa placards hung from plain ecru walls. The oiliest belly cut and cheek meat each sold for 350 yen (for one piece), the leaner belly cut for 300 yen, and the red meat for 200. 

When tuna was first used for sushi in the 19th century, it was usually marinated in soy. It was only red meat in tuna that was treated this way, though; the greasy belly cuts were saved largely for cat food. The MacArthur years changed that. “It was after the American occupation came to Japan, and Japanese people got introduced to steaks that were greasy. Then fatty things became tasty to the Japanese,” said Tsunenori Iida of Hicho, a dealer that caters to the upper stratum of the Tokyo restaurant world. In the 1960s, restaurants pushed suppliers for more of what was known as toro, short for toro-keru, or “melting on the tongue.” Iida witnessed the pricing ladder for tuna at Tsukiji—which had placed red-meat akami at the top and the fattiest o-toro at the bottom—start to turn upside down. 

“It was America that raised the price of tuna, if you think about it,” Iida says. In one way, yes, but it was also America—along with JAL capitalizing on the revolution in trade and technology—that brought fresh, delicious sushi to Japan in abundance. And allowed the Japanese, as they savored their tuna, to feel they were briefly escaping the modern world. 

Sasha Issenberg is a Philadelphia writer. This excerpt is from his new book, “The Sushi Economy” (Gotham Books). Copyright 2007 by Sasha Issenberg.

Image credit: Photo by flickr user VirtualErn.

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