Ocean Fishing

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Osamu Baba

    Main guest

    Osamu Baba is a marine science professor at Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. He conducts field research in fishing villages around the world and focuses on topics such as fishing management systems and conditions, fishery operations, and marine product distribution. His research is concerned with the socio-economic aspects and culture of the fishing industry. Baba has authored several books on topics including the development of Asian fisheries and introductions to fishery management.

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January 9, 2018

Ocean Fishing

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Japan is an island nation that stretches thousands of miles. “A country surrounded by the sea,” as one common expression has it. Perhaps not surprisingly, the country has had a highly developed fishing culture for centuries, if not millennia. It has long been a global pioneer in everything from ways to preserve freshness to forms of seafood cuisine. This is our topic for this edition of Japanology Plus: how Japan fishes its oceans, in particular its coastal seas. Our expert guest is Professor Osamu Baba of the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology.

Broadly speaking, Japan’s modern fishing industry can be divided into three categories. First, there are the ships operating in international waters across the globe; they spend six months to a year at a time at sea, mainly catching skipjack and other tuna. Next are offshore fisheries within Japan's exclusive economic zone—medium-sized boats will go out for two or three days at a time, catching species like saury and horse mackerel. Finally, we have the coastal fisheries, worked by small boats that are mainly family-owned, and that return to port each day.

While there are many similarities around the world in the way fishing is done, Japan’s coastal fisheries stand out compared to other countries. Why? Well, it starts with the coastal waters themselves, which are home to around 4,000 species of major marine life. About 300 of these are fished commercially, placing Japan among the world leaders in seafood.

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Freshly caught fish.

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Piercing a fish’s spinal column with a wire preserves freshness. 

When you hear “fishing,” perhaps you think of people catching, well, fish. But in Japan, shellfish and sea vegetables are also an essential part of what is harvested from the oceans. Whether it’s raw sea urchin and scallop put over rice in a delicious seafood bowl, or kelp used to make dashi (the umami-rich soup stock that’s an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine), a sincere appreciation of the ocean’s bounty is a crucial part of Japanese culture.

Consider that the first modern archaeological excavation done in Japan was of the Omori Shell Mound. Located in present-day Tokyo, these “shell mounds” were essentially a dumping ground, in this case for a small coastal village that existed thousands of years ago. Within the mounds, excavators found lots of seashells and fishing hooks made of animal bones. In short, the importance of fishing to Japan stretches back into prehistory.

Tokyo Bay's heyday as a source of seafood came in the 17th to 19th centuries, when Tokyo was known as Edo. Even now you can rent a boat and try your luck. Deep-fried anago (conger eel) is just one of the treats traditionally associated with the bay, and while you may be surprised at the biodiversity of such a busy expanse of water, with cities and industrial complexes dominating its shores, you will need to go a little farther afield to find some of the more exotic edible species in Japan.

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An eel goby catches Matt.

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A closer look at an eel goby, which seems almost…alien.

For Plus One, Matt Alt heads to Japan’s largest mudflats in the Ariake Sea, where fishermen slide along on wooden planks in their quest for a creature known as the eel goby…which looks a lot like a chest-bursting alien from a certain science fiction film. The Ariake Sea is also known for mudskippers, another edible goby not generally noted for its beauty. And if you're in Kyushu, you won't want to miss out on the chance to sample a sea anemone.

Japan's deep relationship with the sea helps to explain the nation's voracious appetite for fish. Japan eats more seafood per capita than almost any other nation on earth, and more seafood total than any nation save China. As global fish consumption rises, Japan will need to be at the vanguard of efforts to ensure the world’s oceans are fished in a sustainable manner.

But there are many ways to enjoy marine life other than eating it. Japan boasts a stunning variety of fish-related museums and aquariums, including one in Yamagata Prefecture with a special focus on jellyfish.

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Program host Peter Barakan talking with expert guest Osamu Baba.

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Having breakfast at a banya, the place where a local fishing community gathers.

In recent years, the number of people employed in Japan’s fishing industry has shrunk. As in countless other areas of Japanese society, the business is increasingly supported by older people, many of whom have no successors for their small, family-run boating operations. But fishing communities are rising to the challenge. Former competitors are banding together and pooling their strengths. Some people in the trade are taking on more of the work—handling their own processing or marketing, or bypassing agents and selling directly to restaurants—and in doing so taking a bigger slice of the profits.

In the years to come, Japan’s fishing industry faces some formidable challenges, but the incredibly rich and diverse wisdom of its local fishing communities will provide guidance on how to move forward.

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