Pandemic overshadows New Year tuna auction

TOKYO (AFP) – Tokyo’s annual New Year tuna auction ended yesterday without the usual jaw-dropping bidding war, with the country’s ‘Tuna King’ holding back on gunning for the top fish, citing the pandemic woes affecting the restaurant industry.

The most expensive fish of the day – a 208-kilogramme bluefin caught off the northern Aomori region of Japan, known for its quality tuna – was bought by another bidder for JPY20.84 million (USD202,000).

That is just a fraction of the millions of dollars that sushi businessman and self-proclaimed ‘Tuna King’ Kiyoshi Kimura has shelled out in recent years to secure the bragging rights that come with buying the auction’s top tuna.

Last year, Kimura paid USD1.8 million for a 276-kilogramme bluefin, and in 2019 he paid a record USD3.1 million for a 278-kilogramme fish. But Kimura said he wanted to show restraint this year as the raging pandemic has caused so much suffering to restaurants and other businesses.

“I didn’t go for the highest bid this year because this is the time for self-control,” Kimura told journalists who gathered to see him after the pre-dawn auction at the Toyosu fish market.

Chef Akifumi Sakagami poses with a piece of meat from one of the auctioned tuna at a restaurant in Ginza. PHOTOS: AFP
Wholesaler Yukitaka Yamaguchi works with staff members to cut on auctioned tuna at a restaurant in Ginza

“I didn’t think it was appropriate to go all festive this time,” he said.

Kimura usually uses his purchases to secure national news coverage for himself and his successful sushi chain.

Normally, after winning the annual bidding war and taking his expensive investment back to one of his restaurants, he fillets the fish with a sword-like blade, creates sushi out of it and serves it to customers at no extra charge, all in front of an army of television cameras.

The most expensive tuna this year was acquired jointly by a famous wholesaler named Yukitaka Yamaguchi, who supplies top sushi restaurants, and a major food business, according to local media.

For this year’s auction, fish wholesalers wore masks and sanitised their hands as they examined the texture of tail meat from fresh and frozen tuna by touching, smelling and sometimes tasting pieces of it. Spectators were not allowed to attend the event, now held at a market called Toyosu after the city’s world-famous fish market relocated there from its old site, Tsukiji, in 2018.