As celebrations go, it was an unusual display: a Japanese politician who had just been re-elected to parliament, beaming for the television cameras while waving a dead fish.
Not just any fish: the fish held up by Shinjiro Koizumi, the telegenic son of a former Japanese prime minister, was a red sea bream.
In Japan the sea bream gets special treatment as the king of fish. It’s an auspicious symbol that’s as prized for its flavour as it is the striking beauty of its red scales. It gets trotted out for just about any festive occasion: weddings, births, the arrival of a new year.
Why sea bream? The answer: a pun. Sea bream in Japanese is tai, which resembles medetai, a word that means “a joyous occasion” or “a cause for celebration.” Nobody knows when the fish became the go-to prop for a celebration but it's thought to date back centuries to Japan’s medieval period when the emperor dined on sea bream on special occasions.
Normally the sea bream is sliced up raw and downed as sashimi, decorated in trimmings of red and white. But Japanese politicians have figured out that hoisting the dead fish first is far more entertaining and raises their chances of landing on prime-time TV news or the front page of Japan’s major national daily newspapers, as Koizumi did.
Japan’s politicians didn’t invent this. They borrowed the tradition from sumo wrestlers who are more likely to appear on television, fresh from winning a tournament, with a sea bream in one hand, a trophy in the other.
It seems appropriate that Japan, a nation that introduced the globe to sushi and whose trawlers account for an estimated 8 per cent of the world’s fisheries catch, represents happiness with a large, dead fish.
Kenji Hall is Monocle's Asia editor at large.