By Jeanette Lee Falsey
Alaska Dispatch News
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Satomi Inaba grew up eating her mother’s boiled fish and mackerel sushi, but like many younger Japanese consumers today favors turf over surf in her own kitchen. Seafood she considers more troublesome to prepare and, frankly, rather smelly.
“Although I like (the) taste of seafood, among all kinds of flesh, I actually prepare chicken, pork, or beef more often than seafood,” Inaba, 39, wrote in an email interview from her home in Osaka.
The changing palates of Japan’s younger generations are one reason Alaska’s most valuable export sector has lost ground there. Seafood exports to Japan fell in 2013 to the lowest level since 1999 before bouncing back slightly last year, according to International Trade Administration data.
Long the dominant foreign market for Alaska seafood, Japan slipped into second in 2009, behind China. An influx of less-expensive farmed Chilean salmon to Japan, demand for Alaska seafood in other markets and the relatively high cost of processing fish in Japan are among the many reasons for the decline, the Alaska Dispatch News (http://bit.ly/1aYgKBs), an Anchorage newspaper, reported.
And a growing number of younger consumers refuse to eat the dishes savored by their parents and grandparents.
Herring roe, a delicacy served or gifted at the New Year, is a case in point.
“I eat herring roe on rare occasions,” Inaba said. “I think it tastes OK, but my husband says he is not eager to eat it. It seems a food more associated with older generations.”
Seafood’s popularity among younger Japanese consumers is shaky enough that representatives from seafood trade associations and the government now visit schools to educate students on the merits of eating fish.
Per-capita consumption of beef, chicken and pork surpassed that of seafood each year starting in 2009, according to a report by Japan’s fisheries ministry. Consumers are increasingly opting for Western dishes based on meat and poultry in part because they believe seafood prep is messy and somewhat confusing, while disposal is smelly.
“I think seafood is a less convenient meal to prepare at home comparing to other foods,” wrote Yumiko Fukushima of Kusatsu City in an email interview.
Aside from not having many seafood recipes on hand, Fukushima, 48, finds that “it is a bit cumbersome to take care of seafood garbage as it smells.” She cooks seafood once a week or less. When she does cook it, she sticks to no-fuss meals such as boiled fish and crab legs.
Alexa Tonkovich, international program director at the publicly funded Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said its Tokyo-based staff is trying to counter the perception seafood is difficult to handle by staging demonstrations for home cooks and introducing time-saving tips through its “Cook It Frozen” campaign.
Among consumers, the institute is focused on winning over more Japanese women aged about 35-60 years old who have college degrees and live in affluent urban households — women such as Inaba and Fukushima.
The marketing institute also works with “seafood ambassador” Shinya Tasaki, a master sommelier and celebrity restaurateur. Tasaki, who owns three upscale Tokyo restaurants, presides over Alaska seafood and wine tastings. He helps create recipes for a variety of species, including lesser-known ones such as Atka mackerel and pollock roe.
Whether it was Tasaki’s suave visage or other factors that improved Alaska seafood’s showing in Japan last year, seafood marketers and trade specialists don’t know. Between the high-water mark of 2005 and 2013, the market there for Alaska seafood dropped by 49 percent. In 2014, king crab, herring roe, sockeye salmon, and other species captured more export value for a 7 percent gain, but it’s too early to know why.
Trends in Japan have not doomed the seafood industry, which, overall, has had exports grow since 1999. The industry as a whole last year captured nearly half of the state’s export dollars.
More of Alaska’s aquatic edibles actually reach Japan than the numbers imply. A large share no longer goes directly from Alaska to Japan, but joins the global flow of seafood passing through countries such as China, Thailand, or Vietnam, where processing plant workers receive lower wages. The deboned, filleted and packaged products are then shipped to Japan, Europe, or even back to the U.S.
For example, black cod from the Bering Sea that has been filleted outside Japan before being grilled and served in a Tokyo izakaya would count as an export to the country that first received the fish, rather than to Japan. These so-called “re-exports” are difficult, even for trade statisticians, to track and quantify.
“The U.S. sends a large volume of pollock to China, where they make the finished product and send it back,” said Tom Asakawa, a fisheries commercial specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, speaking from his office at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. “Japan is now doing that with its seafood too.”
Looking at the overall export picture, Japan was Alaska’s No. 1 destination for all exports until China took the top spot in 2011. That same year, total Alaska exports hit a record high. In the late 1990s, about half the state’s exports, in terms of value, went to Japan. By 2014, Japan’s share had fallen to 20 percent. The decline coincided with soaring trade to China and modest gains in South Korea, Canada, Germany and other smaller markets.
Total exports to Japan hit a low of $699 million in 2013, but bounced back above $1 billion last year owing mostly to the resumption of liquefied natural gas exports from Cook Inlet. Exports of minerals and forest products rose as well.
Tokyo took the trade relationship into serious consideration when debating whether to close its Anchorage-based consulate general in 2006. Instead, the government decided to downsize, said senior political assistant Warren Roselius. The staff of eight, representing a modest diplomatic presence, is based in an office building near the Loussac Library.
“The Japanese consulate is still here because of trade,” Roselius said. (end)