JAPAN - Oysters from countries including the US and Australia have been making inroads into the Japanese market. Bonnie Waycott reports for The Fish Site on how and why they are making their mark in one of the world's major oyster producers, and that it's not only the shellfish themselves that are leaving an impression.
In November 2015, oysters imported to Japan were mentioned in advertising inserts by Ikari supermarket in Nishinomiya City, Hyogo Prefecture. Those from the US were described as big and plump, while oysters from Australia were said to be free of the norovirus because of the clean water in which they had been raised.
According to the manager of the supermarket's seafood department, the imported oysters quickly sold out, and due to the low risk of norovirus, Australian oysters are a good choice for customers who want to eat their oysters raw.
Oyster production and consumption is well known in Japan. Consumed since the Jomon period (ca. 10,500 - ca. 300 B.C.), Pacific oysters, which are in season in winter, and Iwagaki oysters, which are popular in summer, are two representative types of oyster in the country. Because of their high nutritional value (they contain proteins such as glycogen and essential amino acids as well as minerals such as calcium and zinc), people typically eat them fried in oil after coating them with flour and breadcrumbs, or as part of an oyster hotpot to warm up in winter. Although raw oysters are consumed in Japan and the number of oyster bars and restaurants that sell such oysters is on the rise, there is always the risk of falling ill with the norovirus. The virus is responsible for many of Japan's food poisoning cases, a lot of which can be traced back to raw oysters, so cooking is considered the safest way to enjoy the shellfish.
Japan produces around 200,000 metric tons in-shell weight or 34,000MT of meats per year according to Japan's Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. National Marine Fisheries Service statistics show that the US produced nearly 15,800MT of meats as of 2012 and Australia over 15,300MT.
Because Japan produces more oysters than both countries (in fact, oyster production is said to be 10 times larger in Japan than it is in Australia), importing them may seem unusual but they still appeal for reasons such as raw consumption, so finding a market in Japan can be possible. Industry group Oysters Australia says that Australia exports about 3 per cent of its oyster production, with 80 per cent going to Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. Species tend to be Pacific Oyster (Crassostea gigas), the Sydney Rock Oyster (Saccostrea glomera) and the Angasi (Ostrea angasi).
It's not just the oysters themselves that have been making inroads into Japan. Oyster farming techniques and expertise from other countries have been cropping up in certain regions, especially those hit hard by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Oyster farmers there have been turning to Australian expertise in an effort to rebuild their industries. An estimated 95 per cent of farms in Miyagi Prefecture were destroyed by the tsunami, while oyster sales decreased significantly. The oyster industry soon drew attention as one way in which the Japanese regional economy could recover.
In mid-August 2015, a manufacturer in Tasmania sent the region a highly specialised, high-tech grading machine system that automatically separates, measures, sorts and bags around 1,200 dozen oysters in one hour. The manufacturer's aim is to use such technology to increase efficiency and produce quality, live oysters. Australia's profile as a leader in oyster culture has been raised further thanks to the system, and discussions have been held on strengthening the Japanese industry's capability. Thanks to the Japan Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA) signed in July 2014, trade products can be supported and technology shared among businesses even more, further contributing to industrial development.
The French oyster industry has also maintained a strong relationship with oyster farms in the disaster-hit region. Soon after March 11th, 2011, farmers in Cancale, a fishing village in Brittany, rallied round to help by sending necessary supplies to reopen farms in the Sanriku area.
Japan and Sanriku grow their oysters differently. In Sanriku, the fry are attached to scallop shells that are tied together in sacks on a rope. The rope is then lowered into the sea. This allows the oysters to grow in a variety of shapes and does not cause any problems if just the oyster meat is delivered, but producing large quantities of shelled oysters isn't possible. In Cancale, the oysters are grown in bags and can almost all be delivered with shells.
As demand for shelled oysters has recently gone up, Japanese farmers have become increasingly interested in the French method. Shelled oysters tend to fetch high unit prices, so some farmers felt they could make a profit on small-scale farming, while others became interested in the French technique after noticing the supplies the French sent over, including a plastic device that can attach young oysters to shells. Oysters in the shell are usually hard to remove, but with the device they can be removed easily and put into bags.
Other projects and exchanges are also being considered, and it is hoped that the simplification of techniques and development of mechanization in Japan's oyster industry will soon be more apparent.