NIPPONIA No.21 June 15, 2002
Special Feature*
It's Hard to Imagine Life in Japan without Seafood
Seafood served raw as sashimi, simmered in a pot, grilled over charcoal, or deep-fried as tempura—Japanese cooks have many ways to prepare fish and shellfish. Seafood is served in most homes almost every day. Japanese people like fish a lot, just as their ancestors did centuries ago. This article looks at their appetite for seafood.
Written by Kawai Tomoyasu, marine scientist
Ray (left) and tuna (right). Both of these drawings appear in Baien Gyohin Zusei, a 19th-century illustrated book of natural history by Mori Baien. Property of the National Diet Library.
The world's biggest fish-eaters?
The 1999 Fisheries White Paper published by the Japanese Government has a chart showing annual per capita seafood consumption for countries around the globe. Japan's seafood consumption is fourth in the world. The top four countries are:
153.4 kg
per person per year
91.1 kg
78.6 kg
70.6 kg
So in one year, the average Japanese person eats slightly more than his or her own weight of seafood. I found it surprising that the figure for Maldives is more than twice that for Japan. (Maldives is a country made up of about 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean, and is now famous as a vacation resort.)
You may be surprised that Japan's per capita seafood consumption is fourth in the world. My reaction was: Japan's population is so much greater than the first three countries! I looked up their population figures—about 260,000 for Maldives, 270,000 for Iceland, and 80,000 for Kiribati. A population of 200,000 to 300,000 would be about the same as the number of people living in Shinjuku, which is just one part of the Tokyo metropolis. If we looked at other places in Japan with a similar area, we would surely find communities where seafood consumption is twice the national average.
At any rate, Japan's population is well over 100 million, and Japan's per capita seafood consumption must be the biggest in the world for a population of that size.
A frog crab illustrated in Mokaikikan, an 18th-century sketchbook of mammals, fish and other living creatures. Property of the Eisei-Bunko Museum.
Seafood in ancient times?
The last ice age ended more than 10,000 years ago, followed by global warming during an interglacial period. This warming caused the sea to rise gradually, as it may be doing now, too. But the relatively warm temperatures at that time cannot be blamed on human activities emitting more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
In Japan, the Jomon period is said to have lasted about 10,000 years, starting 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. During part of that period, the seas rose and submerged low-lying areas in Japan. We call this phenomenon Jomon kaishin. When the sea was highest about 6,000 years ago, Tokyo Bay stretched 65 km inland to what is now the city of Tatebayashi in Gumma Prefecture. The sea level would have been several meters higher then, and mean temperatures were more than 3°C warmer than they are now.
As global warming advanced and the sea rose, people inhabiting the Japanese islands would have had to cluster along the shore. The Jomon people used dugout canoes called maruki-bune, and it wouldn't have taken them long before they were fishing offshore.
A shell mound in Kanagawa Prefecture near Tokyo, said to be the oldest in Japan, was excavated and found to contain fishhooks and harpoons. The mound, called Natsushima Kaizuka, shows that the Japanese were using such tools to catch fish at least 9,000 years ago. Shell mounds contain not only shells from the nearby coast but also the bones of many fish from the ocean, like tuna, bonito, sea bream, sea bass, pike conger and ray.
Grunt, illustrated in Gyofu, a book of drawings by a doctor named Kurimoto Tanshu who was active in the 19th century. Property of the National Diet Library.
The ancient shell mounds indicate that the Japanese ate seafood in those days, of course, but I think they indicate more than that. Shell mounds are found along other marine coastlines of the world, but mounds in Japan contain a greater amount and variety of fish and shellfish remnants. Could it be that the Jomon people were among the first in the world to really appreciate the taste of fish? I think they had already developed a special liking for eating raw or almost raw seafood—the beginning of today's luxury food, sashimi.


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