Environmental groups have been talking about it for years but now one of Japan’s most famous sushi chefs has waded into a debate about the global explosion of the Japanese meal’s popularity and the subsequent problem of overfishing. Speaking this week at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ), Jiro Ono, who runs the celebrated Tokyo sushi restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro said, “I don’t believe that the ingredients we’re using today will be available in the future.”
Jiro, who was the subject of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, is a celebrity in the sushi world. The tiny 10-seat basement restaurant that he runs with his eldest son Yoshikazu has three Michelin stars. Jiro says he has been working for 81 of his 89 years and that he’s been running his restaurant for the past 55. He’s still working; his son slices the fish while Jiro – standing all the time – adds the master’s touch. He takes a simple approach. Everyone lucky enough to get a booking gets the same dinner: 20 pieces of sushi done in the traditional Edomae (old-Tokyo) style.
President Obama ate there with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe this year. Ono recalled at his recent talk that contrary to media reports, Obama ate all 20 pieces, winked when he ate the chutoro or fatty tuna and said repeatedly that it was the best sushi he’d ever had.
But even an exalted establishment such as Sukiyabashi Jiro isn’t immune to wider environmental issues. Three years ago, Ono gathered his staff and apprentices to tell to them that the ingredients they were using would change in the next five years. That day, he said this week, has come even earlier than he expected.
Highly prized tuna is becoming more and more scarce. Jiro claims that sushi chefs have to be open to using all kinds of tuna now. With quantities in increasingly short supply, Japanese chefs can’t only depend on domestically caught tuna but have to look further afield, which presents its own problems to severely depleted stocks in other parts of the world.
According to Yoshikazu, farmed tuna – once unthinkable – will certainly be on the Jiro menu in the future. The chef has pointed out that at one time very few people outside Japan ate sushi, so almost all the tuna caught ¬– whether near or far from Japan – ended up here because the country was the biggest market. Now with the sushi boom taking off worldwide, tuna is being consumed everywhere and less tuna is available to be brought to Japan. Chefs, says Yoshikazu, have already seen this happen with unagi (freshwater eel); it’s rare now to find unagi caught in the wild – most of it is farmed.
Jiro Ono will adapt, no doubt, just as he has to many things that have changed over the years. Still, it’s food for thought.
Fiona Wilson is Monocle’s Asia bureau chief.