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Eels slipping away from consumers' budgets

TOKYO —

“This summer you might not be able to eat ‘unagi’ (eel), warns Nikkan Gendai (May 18). It seems that for the third consecutive year catches of eel fingerlings are down, leading to spiraling prices.

So tight is the current supply, the tabloid reports, that famous old specialty restaurants have been successively shutting down. At the end of March, the 65-year-old Suekawa restaurant in Koenji, Suginami Ward, shut its doors. This was followed at the end of April by the demise of the 35-year-old Yoshikawa restaurant in Tsukishima, Chuo Ward, and then in mid-May, one of the most famous eel specialty restaurants in Tokyo’s “shitamachi,” Benkei in Ueno, went under after 65 years of operation.

“This year, not only have catches been down among domestically raised eels, but in China, Taiwan, South Korea and the rest of Asia as well,” says a wholesaler at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. “The price for domestic eels is up to 9,000 yen per kilogram, and eel from China is around 5,000 yen.

“The procurement cost for eel restaurants is double that of last year, and about tenfold the level of eight years ago. No matter how much the places sell it for, they’re going to lose money on the deal.”

“Due to the spiraling costs for eel fingerlings, they’ve become difficult for operators to obtain, says Tetsuo Kaneko, a journalist who covers retailing and distribution. “Prices are on their way up to 3,000 yen for ‘una-don’ (grilled eel filets over a bowl of rice)—about three times last year’s price. That’s no longer within the budget of the average household.”

A spokesperson for Hanaya Yohei, a Japanese-style family restaurant chain, says that its outlets have halted sales of “una-ju” (eel and rice served in a lacquered box) due to difficulties in procuring stable supplies. Supermarkets are also reportedly in the process of giving up the idea of selling eel.

“In normal years, stores hold special sales for the spring ‘ushi no hi’ (special day on the lunar calendar on which eel is customarily consumed), which falls around the time of golden week,” says the aforementioned wholesaler. “But this year, many of the stores halted sales entirely.”

“Yes, the supermarkets are having a rough time,” Kaneko confirms. “There’s a chance they’ll hold campaigns for substitute items, such as ‘una-tama-don’ (eel mixed with eggs and poured over rice) or perhaps ‘anago-don’ (conger eel over rice).

Some establishments have tried to introduce ‘tennen unagi’ (eels harvested from natural habitats) from the U.S., but these have not found much favor from Japanese consumers.

“They don’t have fatty layers and the texture tends to be dry and crumbling, and they lack an attractive shape,” the wholesaler points out. “By the time the importer gets them about one-third have already died in transit. Even with this unfavorable ratio we have to pay for the order anyway, without claiming any compensation.”

By the time seasonal demand peaks around the end of July, eel aficionados might be left with no option but to forsake their traditional summer food—or else grin and bear it with unpalatable imports from the U.S.

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