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Selling Seafood in Japan: Using Creativity to Survive Competition

07 October 2016

JAPAN - It goes without saying that seafood is one of the most prominent items in major Japanese supermarkets. Fish and seafood distribution systems in Japan are complex with many intermediaries, but some are now eliminating various steps in the distribution process by buying directly from producers and cooperatives. Amidst this situation, Bonnie Waycott reports for The Fish Site on how individuals and smaller seafood-related firms are surviving.

The range of fish and seafood on offer in Japanese supermarkets has always been vast. Both are among the highest selling items with fresh selections distributed in huge volumes and imported products that come in large lots.

Major supermarkets are gaining an increasing share of fish and seafood sales and forming direct sales agreements with establishments such as fisheries cooperatives, where the cooperative is able to negotiate more favourable prices with supermarket buyers directly. But where does this leave others? Some, such as fishermen, seafood-related companies and retailers are coming up with new ways to keep going amidst competition.

Fishermen's Efforts

Fishermen tend to sell fish on their own so they can receive an amount of money that matches their fish culturing efforts. Developing markets and distribution routes themselves has become all the more important because high volume sales companies currently have the upper hand -- even if fishermen ship high quality fish, these companies can bring prices down.

In light of this, the Ehime Prefectural Government in northwest Shikoku began certifying fishermen under 45 who have completed a course on the latest fish culture and sales techniques.

The course involves training fishermen who can not only produce fish but also actively engage in the distribution and selling of their own products. Some of these fishermen went on to establish a cooperative known as the Ehime Nintei Gyogyoshi (certified fishermen) Cooperative Union. Today the cooperative has registered its own trademark and conducts regular marketing surveys, as well as selling fish directly to consumers.

After the March 11, 2011 disaster, fishing industries in the affected regions faced a huge uphill struggle to rebuild. Businesses faced a myriad of obstacles such as shortages of financing, construction workers and materials as well as lengthy delays in administrative approvals, and to make matters worse, over five years on, fishing industry sales are well below pre-disaster levels.

But some fishermen, such as oyster farmer Hiromitsu Ito in the port town of Ogatsu, Miyagi prefecture, are innovating with an online business model. Ito's customers pay a membership fee and can buy a share of his catch directly from his business. Ito and his business partner are using the membership fee funds to help other fishermen get back up and running, as well as training apprentices in the hope of keeping the region's fishing industry alive.

The Appeal of Aquaculture

The domestic seafood catch in Japan has been decreasing year on year, with the shrinking of the seafood processing industry caused by a tighter supply of raw materials. In light of this, some seafood-related companies have been turning to aquaculture.

Following Kindai University's success in the farming of bluefin tuna back in 2002, firms such as trading company Sojitz and food maker Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd are conducting their own research into artificially hatching eggs or fattening juvenile fish to maturity. Sojitz established its tuna farm after feeling a sense of crisis over international fishing regulations and falling bluefin tuna resources, while Nippon Suisan Kaisha Ltd. began researching the artificial hatching of bluefin back in 2007, with the aim of selling its tuna in winter 2017. In the fiscal year starting April 2018, it expects to ship 10,000 tuna, or around 500 tons.

Another example of the joining together of aquaculture and companies is caviar production from white sturgeon eggs in Miyazaki prefecture, southern Japan.

Here, Japan Caviar Inc., a company that sells caviar across Japan, has been working with the Miyazaki Prefectural Fisheries Research Institute and a group of white sturgeon farmers in the region to establish a new market for white sturgeon by producing and selling caviar. Japan Caviar Inc., also sells directly through different channels such as high-end restaurants, department stores and Japan's major airlines.


Other retailers are turning to home delivery services and specialty fish stores. Home delivery is becoming increasingly popular thanks to the confidence that consumers have in the products they order, with some stating that they regard the products as safe. Meanwhile, a recent Japan Fisheries Association survey indicated that fish fillets are the most popular fish format purchased at retailers.

In light of this, and in order to earn more profit, some retailers and manufacturers have been coming up with new value-added products involving species like mackerel. Common, low value-added items like salted mackerel fillets to tend to have a low profit margin. But one new product that's drawing attention is flavoured mackerel fillets marinated in kombudashi (seaweed-based stock) drawn from a traditional Japanese cooking method, while more Western-based ones, such as mackerel marinated with basil, have also made an appearance.

In order to keep profits coming in and buyers' interest high, continuing to innovate and provide value-added products will be all the more important for Japan.

Bonnie Waycott

Bonnie Waycott
Freelance journalist

Based in Tokyo, Bonnie became interested in marine life when she learned how to snorkel on the Sea of Japan coast near her mother's hometown. With a keen interest in marine conservation, fish farming and sustainable oceans, she's a freelance writer who covers diving and marine-related issues in Japan and is currently taking an MSc in Sustainable Aquaculture.

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