It wasn’t long after I arrived in Tokyo that I heard about the tuna flying to China. My book The Sushi Economy ends in China, sushi’s last frontier, where an expanding middle class is developing fresh appetites for the food and an increasing ability to afford it. The result — tens of millions of Chinese join us at the sushi bar — has seemed inevitable, much as a yen for sushi has accompanied integration into the global economy elsewhere in the world. But that day still appeared to be far-off. “Five years from now, Japanese consumers will not be able to eat good-quality sashimi,” Tom Asakawa, a fisheries-trade specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo told me a year and a half ago. “You’ll have to go to China to do that.”
When I spoke before groups in Tokyo, I made a point of quoting that line verbatim, savoring my Nostradamus-like role to residents of a country that has long paid a premium for the world’s top seafood catch. I quickly, however, was able to move from prophesy to reporting on present-day reality: high-quality tuna were already being purchased at auction at the Tsukiji market in downtown Tokyo and being put immediately on planes to Shanghai. I hadn’t heard anything like this the last time I was at the market, about a year ago — but things are changing quickly in China, in terms of both the new wealth undergirding a luxury consumer culture and the international cargo connections that sustain its tastes.
The Japanese have been long concerned that the Chinese would eat their lunch, although they didn’t expect it to happen literally. Asakawa’s prediction seemed to becoming true, although there was in reports of these new flying fish a quiet note of caution for those who want to trumpet (or fear) the unending rise of China.
At first, I wondered why the fish even traveled through Tsukiji to begin with; tuna originating in the Mediterranean or South Pacific or Atlantic could be flown directly to Shanghai, saving at least $5 per pound on tariffs, auction-listing fees, and freight costs. But then I remembered what the Shanghai municipal fish market looked like when I visited: a dirty, disorganized bazaar exhibiting seafood of widely varying quality. Tsukiji presents the opposing model of the modern marketplace, and the extra handling costs Chinese wholesalers were willing to saddle served as a premium for being able to tell chefs and diners that their fish had the imprimatur of the world’s biggest and best fish market.
This is where China’s luxury culture and the lack of consumer confidence in its public and private sector come into conflict. The origins of products matter, but the hands through which they pass do, too. If people don’t trust the hygienic standards or business practices of their hometown fish market, a nice piece of north-Atlantic bluefin toro handled there will never be worth much — just as bags marked Louis Vuitton are suspect in China unless they come straight over a Vuitton counter. The Japanese may be losing their historical grip on the world’s best sushi, but the national brand has not lost its credibility. As China rises, those who eat sushi will be willing to pay for the best, but they need to be assured that’s what they’re getting. Back in Tokyo, Tsukiji’s primacy as a local seafood provider may diminish, but the fish market may find new life as a international boutique label.