July 22 is doyo no ushi no hi — “day of the ox.” It is not a holiday to mark the cultural contributions of bovine, but rather a reminder that there are 18 more days until a seasonal change, during which falls the day of the ox — one of the signs of the Chinese zodiac. Traditionally in Japan people eat grilled eel (unagi), on this day, because it is believed that eel strengthens physical stamina during the hottest days of summer. But this year foodies and purveyors of unagi are faced with a problem, since eel in the wild is becoming increasingly scarce and may soon end up on a list of endangered species. The fisheries agency reports that the amount of eel fry bought by wholesalers in Japan this year has averaged 25 percent less than last year.
Yield to eel: Banners promoting unadon outside Sukiya
So it was definitely surprising when Daiei, one of Japan’s major supermarket chains, announced on July 11 that it would be selling packaged unagi kabayaki (grilled eel) in its stores for 20 percent less than last summer’s price on July 13-15 and July 20-22. According to Asahi Shimbun the price of unagi fry is now as much as 6.5 times what it was in 2009.
In most retail outlets, the price of prepared grilled eel is 26 percent higher than it was last summer. Usually, unagi that goes on sale in July is bought by Daiei in bulk sometime after January of the same year. It is then processed and frozen by a contractor. However, anticipating the rise in prices Daiei bought its unagi last fall and asked its contractor to carry out processing and freezing “when it had the time to do so,” thus saving money. Also, Daiei usually buys unagi for lunch boxes and unagi for packaged sushi separately, but this year they bought unagi for both at the same time in bulk, saving even more money.
But the real reason they can charge less is because they want to. Daiei admits that it will lose money during these two three-day periods by selling unagi kabayaki for 20 percent less. The supermarket is using unagi as a loss leader, a means of getting customers into its stores, where they will buy other things. And it seems to be working. Daiei started accepting pre-orders last month. Another market chain, Seiyu, announced that despite increases in wholesale prices, it will sell domestic unagi kabayaki at the same price as last summer: ¥1,470 for 140 grams. Seiyu expects sales to be 10 percent higher than last year.
Restaurants, on the other hand, seem to have no choice but to raise prices, but the amount of increase depends on the type of eatery. Asahi says that Tokyo ryotei — upscale, reservation-only restaurants — have increased unagi dishes by about ¥400 since last year, and famous restaurants that specialize in unagi have raised prices by as much as ¥1,000 per dish.
However, chain restaurants are trying to keep the increase to a minimum. Many sushi chains that usually charge ¥100 per plate serve unaju (grilled eel over rice) in the summertime, though usually only for takeout. One of these chains, Kura Sushi, is advertising unadon (eel over rice in a bowl) for only ¥598. That’s pretty cheap compared to gyudon (beef bowl) chains, which also do good business with unadon in the summer. Sukiya, the biggest gyudon chain, is selling unadon for ¥780, while Yoshinoya has increased its eel bowl ¥30 since last summer to ¥680. In 2010 it was only ¥500. Both Sukiya and Yoshinoya buy their unagi from China, but insist that they supervise the raising and harvest themselves, without relying on middlemen, to ensure quality.