Japan Diary 3: Fish

I come from fish. My father dealt lobsters. I deal with salt water and chat with fishermen most every day of the year. But I’ve never seen anything like this. I set out for the riverside park I can see from my room just as the rosy-fingered dawn had its nails over the horizon – never made it. I’ll try another day, but I was sucked into the huge covered warehouse of a market – first the vegetables, where I recognized daikon and a few others among the unfamiliar shapes and textures, but then I was in the fish market. You have to get there earlier to see the whole fish auctioned, but this has got to be one of the busier places in the world, narrow walkways of near-flooded stone filled with walking smoking people, two-wheeled wooden carts with a man within the pull rail, and really deadly electric and diesel trucklets that turn on a dime without warning. The alleys are lined with tubs filled with – well, let me see what I can call up:

Clams of every size and shape from tiny vongole to huge geoducks that squirt you as you pass
Fresh water eels, twenty to a tub, their necks neatly broken, or literally nailed to the chopping board for skinning
Salt water eels, iridescent platinum and mean-looking

Octopi of every size – from keychain to ‘Lord save me from encountering that mo’fo’ – tentacles as big as Popeye’s arm, many turned over to present like a rubbery cactus flower, others seemingly melting together in the tubs, others still moving within plastic net bags
Crabs on ice – big legged snow crabs, other emperor-like in their crusty tiaras, little ones – but no lobsters I could see until finally I found some Maine lobsters, far from home and in reconstituted water
Conches, mussels, razor clams, scallops, whelks, and one huge something somewhere in between them all, massive numbers of these presented on the large triangular half shell
Packages of uni, endless packages of bright orange uni ($35/packet – but I couldn’t eat all that within its due date – sniff)
Sea squirts – ancient and inedible looking, large tumescent pickles floating in tubs
Squid – again every size from sliver to forearm, and every color of Turner’s rainbow
Red fish, blue fish, one fish, two fish – Fugu (the poisonous blowfish) alive and sedentary in tanks, everything else laid out in every variety imaginable.

And of course the huge tuna that produce the maguro and toro, being sliced by experts now that the auction was over. In one stall, three men filleted a tuna about 4 feet long with a sushi knife (samurai sword? – no, a sushi knife) about 6 feet long, one at each end (the man at the blade end being rather gingerly, and the third lifting the 30 lb. filet from the bones – a perfect job.


“Oh, Lord, “ the saying goes, ‘Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small!” But after viewing this incredible bounty – I has walked a steady 20 minutes dodging the bumper cars of these ‘outamyway’ delivery trucks before I emerged on the other side – the reality of overfishing – this simply can’t be sustainable – had mixed the wonder with rue. And of course Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd are at this very moment trying to stop the Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean from harvesting another 1000 fin whales and minkes for ‘research’.

We humans are so ingenious to organize all this and yet so headlong in our exploitation of every available market. Economic collapse of the fisheries- a canary in the ecological coal mine – can already be felt in every corner of the world I have visited. The corner where I live has done as well as any to make lobstering sustainable and to develop aquaculture, but we are still not on top of it all. Economics and ecology both come from oikos – household in Greek. When the inevitable economic collapse comes – recession, depression, whatever sand jams the gears of our commodity engine – we will survive. But if the underlying ecology collapses – we lose some essential part of the food chain like the bees or some small herring we used for bait which turned out to be crucial – then we humans will die in droves, miserably and pathetically, and we will have no one to blame but our greedy, headlong collective selves.


The trouble is that no one person is evil here, everyone, from the whaling boat captains on down, are just ‘doing their job’. If only the line between good and evil run between groups of people, then our duty would be clear. The trouble is that the line between good and evil winds through the middle of each human heart.


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