While blessed with a culinary culture that prominently features seafood, the premier Japanese chefs of Relais & Châteaux are concerned about their environment. Four eco-conscious culinary figures share their vision of change.
Contradictory regulations on gyogyo kyokai, livelihoods depending on the sea and traditional food culture all pose a challenge to making sustainable seafood mainstream in Japan. Of the stocks monitored in the waters around Japan, estimates are that half of the fifty most common fish species have populations in “critical condition.” And 10% are in decline. Only 20% of these resources are considered abundant. This worrying situation was a central issue at the Tokyo Sustainable Seafood Symposium last October, an annual event promoting sustainable fishing. The Japanses chefs, members of the association, spoke at this event, spotlighting the Relais & Châteaux Japan and Korea roadmap to help effect change in the preservation of marine resources. This includes a 2019 pledge they made on the subject, followed today by a public commitment to "Life below Water", one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Chihiro Masui, Paris-Based Food Writer
“Though the Japanese say they care deeply about nature, it must be understood that they don’t have the same view of those matters as people in the West, where we talk about ecology, farm to table, sustainable fishing, and the like. In Japan, they mean mountains, streams – poetic nature. The nature expressed in strokes of Japanese writing and art. It’s a bit like the Japanese garden: designed to represent the balanced cosmos and nature, but, in reality, heavily shaped by human hands. I remember before the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo moved, famous tuna supplier Fujita posted an Instagram message urging the government to take action against overfishing. But it wasn’t to protect the oceans – it was a warning that ‘if people fish too much, we won’t have a job anymore.’ To my knowledge, sustainable fishing isn’t an organized movement that way it is in France, where images have an impact. Environmental considerations are still far from taking root, but people have started talking about it.”
Hideaki Matsuo, Chef at the Three-Star Kashiwaya Restaurant in Osaka
“People don’t fully understand what sustainable development really means with regard to fishing, which is why I wanted to gather more information about the subject at The Fisheries Laboratory of Kinki University [where he works with Professor Yoshifumi Sawada for his research on marine ecology, aquaculture innovation and production of cultured fish seedlings… – Ed.]. In January 2020, we launched the Osakana-wo-Kangaeru Kai (meaning “a society thinking about fish”) as a group to work on sustainable seafood. The goal is to produce high quality farmed fish for gastronomic restaurants. In my restaurant, I use lesser-known fish, such as rockfish, black scabbardfish, or a variety called kasago in Japanese. You can simply grill them with salt or steam them. Japanese cuisine is generally defined by the seasons, but certain types of establishments, such as izakayas [Japanese informal bars or pubs serving snacks and alcoholic beverages – Ed.] keep exactly the same menu throughout the year. They are the ones who must be made aware of the marine-life reality, because these establishments target the masses. As a Michelin-starred chef and a member of the Osaka Cuisine Society (an association of 40 primarily gourmet restaurants), I believe I have a role to play. We mustn’t demonize the fishermen, because many of them belong to local organizations called gyogyo kyokai. Each such organization sets its own rules and will also honor those of the region’s prefecture. The price of fish, the species sold, the fishing calendar and volume – all this is codified and it’s difficult to work ‘outside the box’ if you’re part of such an organization.”
Hiroshi Yamaguchi, Executive Chef at the Kobe Kitano Hotel in Kobe
“There are 3,000 varieties of fish in the sea, 500 of which are listed as edible. Among them, only 50 are classified by the government with the associated price. Mullet is not one of them, so unfortunately it gets thrown away, since no one buys it. Or it ends up canned or frozen, so it loses value. Changing these classifications would at least be a first step toward sustainable fishing. The Relais & Châteaux operation highlighting lesser-known fish is designed to achieve this, the aim being that all members will take part within the next three years, compared to 40% in 2019. We’d also like the campaign to be officially recognized. What’s paradoxical is that Japan used to be more sustainable in this realm. What changed? People wanted to highlight scarcity in restaurants, the consequences being the overfishing we’ve seen for certain species. I see this philosophy as being the opposite of sustainable development. And then isn’t one of the great pleasures of a restaurant eating things you’ve never tried?”
Shinobu Namae, Chef at L’Effervescence in Tokyo
“Are we overfishing or are we facing the environmental effects of changing temperatures? Some fisheries claim that certain species are abundant, while others say the opposite, so it’s very hard to really know. What doesn’t help is that Japanese dining customers are very conservative – they don’t readily change their food habits compared to other parts of the world. This is even truer in sushi restaurants, which don’t change their menus and don’t base what they serve on seasonality. Why? It always comes down to the same thing: protecting tradition. It’s no coincidence that the Michelin Guide has awarded all these ‘Green Stars’ this year to French- and European-inspired tables. For my part, I’ve chosen to use my voice to say ‘you shouldn’t use this fish,’ but I try to be very careful in the way I communicate, because it’s a sensitive subject. I work with a consulting company, Seafood Legacy, which analyzes which marine species are the most sustainable. The challenge is in connecting them with the restaurant industry and distributors. Fishermen believe that lesser-known fish won’t have the same commercial success. It’s still minimal, but some chefs are now trying to prepare relatively unpopular crabs or less sought-after fish species. One example I can think of is skate (stingray), which isn’t given much consideration because its ammonia level means it doesn’t smell very appetizing. But once you remove the jelly from the skin, stingray has a very fine, delicate flavor. Same goes for skate liver – delicious. It’s essential that we rediscover the ocean’s diversity when it comes to fish: It’s up to us, the chefs, to say that we want to challenge tradition with these ingredients, otherwise nothing will change.”