This year, doyo no ushi no hi, the “day of the ox,” falls on July 29 in accordance with the old Chinese calendar. Counterintuitively, Japanese people don’t celebrate the day by eating beef but rather eel, because, supposedly, eel, or unagi, helps maintain a person’s stamina during the hottest days of summer. But it should be noted that the custom of eating eel is commercial in origin. According to legend, the tradition started in the 18th century in Hino, Western Tokyo, where nobody ate eel because the fish was a kind of local deity. An inventor named Hiraga Gennai came up with a publicity campaign to get people to eat unagi on doyo no ushi no hi because both ushi and unagi start with the “u” sound. The campaign worked, and now everybody eats unagi on doyo no ushi no hi. Well, maybe not everybody, but enough to drive Japanese eel to the brink of extinction.
Japanese eel for consumption are caught in the wild as fry and transported to eel farms throughout Asia. Eel is now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature‘s endangered red list, and so the environment ministry made the same designation on its list of at-risk species. However, this information has been tempered somewhat lately by media reports saying that the eel catch was higher this past year, thus driving the price of imported eel, mainly from China and Taiwan, down considerably. Consequently, eel dishes on the 29th may be cheaper in some places than they were last year.
Unagi fans will see this as good news, but it isn’t. The reason eel is on the endangered list is that Japanese people catch and eat too much of the fish, which wasn’t the case before the mid-1980s, when eel was considered something of a delicacy eaten only on special occasions. In other words, the cheaper the eel, the more likely eel stocks will be decimated.
Japan not only is the major consumer of Japanese eel, it is by far the major consumer of all eel: 70 percent of eel caught in the world is eaten by Japanese people. The speed at which Japan consumes eel has outpaced the species’ ability to reproduce itself. Japan first started buying eel overseas in 1980, mainly in Europe, but wild eel has been protected there since 2009 when it was declared endangered by the European Union.
Japan is trying to import more eel from Southeast Asia. Right now Japan itself produces 20,000 tons of unagi a year on farms, about half the amount at its peak in the late 90s. In 2000, Japan imported 130,000 tons from China and Taiwan. That amount dwindled to 32,000 tons by 2013, and yet eel prices in restaurants are still cheaper than they were in the 1980s. Why? Because so many restaurants serve eel. Before the bubble era, eel was only consumed in specialty restaurants and rarely at home. Now, even fast food chains serve eel; or, at least they do on doyo no ushi no hi.
And that may be where the problem lies. Last year, Osaka Gas conducted a survey asking consumers if they plan to eat unagi on ushi no hi, and 30 percent said they would. The biggest portion, 57 percent, said they hadn’t decided. Among those who said they definitely would not eat eel, one-third explained that eel was too expensive, another third said they don’t really like eel, and the rest said they’d eat it some other day. (A mere 2.6 percent said they wouldn’t eat eel because it’s endangered.)
While 30 percent doesn’t sound like a large portion, we’re talking about one day out of the year, a day when even people who don’t eat eel regularly feel the desire to eat eel, because the media makes a big deal out of it. The problem is that there are no statistics about eel consumption in Japan, only eel production, but we can assume that everything produced and imported is eaten here, since Japan doesn’t export eel. And as Minako Saito points out in her Tokyo Shimbun column, eel isn’t a hugely popular delicacy like fatty tuna (toro), it’s simply a “seasonal dish,” so if you divorce eel eating from doyo no ushi no hi, you may substantially be able to decrease the amount of eel that is consumed, because, according to government statistics, a relatively huge portion of eel is consumed on doyo no ushi no hi.
Like beef cattle, eel became the victim of an affluent society that thought everyone, and not just its well-off members, should have the right to eat it whenever they wanted. As we now know, the worldwide taste for beef has led to major environmental collapse, and Japan’s taste for eel has driven the species to the edge of extinction; except that Japan doesn’t really have a huge taste for unagi. It’s mostly PR-driven, so if you stop the PR and allow consumption to drop to a more rational level, the price will go up and unagi stocks should grow.