Kiyoshi Kimura splashes out to buy the first tuna of the year but the larger-than-life methods of Japan’s King of Tuna rely on getting the small details right.
Kiyoshi Kimura – known in Japan as the King of Tuna – is the highest-profile face in the sushi business. His company, Kiyomura Corporation, owns Sushi Zanmai, a sushi chain with 55 restaurants across the country. Kiyomura is based in the heart of Tsukiji, the spiritual centre of the industry that was home to the world’s largest fish market until it moved out of the city centre in 2018. Come January he is likely to be splashed across newspaper front pages after buying the first tuna of the year at Tokyo’s famous auction; in 2019 he paid a record-breaking ¥334m (€2.7m) to secure the coveted purchase.
Kimura has been in the fish business since 1974, when he left the Air Self-Defense Force and joined wholesaler Maruha. A decade later he set up his own company, which provided prime cuts for lunchboxes, karaoke bars and izakaya pubs. In 2001 he established Sushi Zanmai, a chain beloved by fish-market workers and gourmands alike. His dedication to quality and reasonable prices is inspired, he says, by being too poor to eat much sushi as a child.
Today he is pushing to raise fishing standards and improve sustainability – a must with increasing demand and depleted fish stocks. He is running projects to nurture endangered Japanese fish and is working with fishermen in the Indian Ocean to protect their marine environment. Kimura says that he relies heavily on instinct in his work. “If I meet someone and get a good feeling about them, I’m prepared to do business,” he says. “Sometimes it hasn’t worked out but I know that without that trust, a business relationship cannot be successful.”
Company: Kiyomura Corporation
First Sushi Zanmai opened: 2001
Annual revenue: ¥29.6bn (€242m)
“This Breitling watch is worn by many pilots. I dreamt of flying from the age of four and ended up going into the Air Self-Defense Force. One of my mottos is, ‘Never give up on your dreams.”
“When my first business was failing I went to Ireland and bought these rubber boots; they are my lucky boots. It’s important to remember that business has ups and downs.”
“This kind of tuna knife is a common sight at the fish market. I have five fish knives but this one comes out at the new-year tuna auction. That auction is high profile but we want the best fish on an ordinary day too.”
“I received this medal from the government. Our work with fishermen in the Indian Ocean is improving livelihoods and reducing piracy.”
“I’m sometimes asked by TV programmes to fish for tuna and I always catch one; people say that it must be faked. So someone suggested going for the Hemingway Cup in Cuba. I won a silver medal in 2003 – the only Japanese to get one. I caught a 190kg bluefin tuna.”
“Japanese fishing boats put up these tairyobata flags to celebrate a good catch. Our aim is to make business good for the fishermen and provide quality fish for the consumer. Raising the value of fish is important. Even cheap squid can be served raw as sashimi if it’s properly refrigerated at sea.”
“I’ve been wearing braces for more than 30 years. I can wear them anywhere, even at The Ritz in Paris. It’s good to dress the part.”
“Aburi toro [grilled fatty tuna] sushi was one of my inventions. Before then it wasn’t in the original line-up of classic sushi in Tokyo. Innovation is important in this business: we always have to offer the customer something new. People love novelty.”
“I’ve been fishing since I was small. I go fishing all over the world. For big fish you need an electric reel, like this one by Saito Seiki.”