Safe, sustainable local

Behind school lunches are other issues to tackle, according to Sotaro Usui. Japanese-made products cost more than products from abroad, but due to limited budgets, school lunch providers have no choice but to offer cheaper imported produce. Meanwhile, an increasing number of Japanese people appear to dislike fish because they had little opportunity to eat it fresh when they were children.

He commented that this is particularly the case in big cities, adding that as they grow up they can visit restaurants and izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs), they start to enjoy fish thanks to the variety on offer.

‘Children eat school lunch once a day and it’s a key meal for them,’ he explained.

Children need safe, sustainable local food, according to Satoro Usui

‘We need them to eat local, Japanese-produced food. Their image of sushi is cheap food or conveyor belt restaurants as they don’t go to the restaurants and izakaya that adults go to. But it’s because they’re children that we must take them to such restaurants and show them how fish are cut and prepared. Eating fresh, delicious fish is extremely important at their age.’

In addition to being cheap, the fish in school lunches isn’t so fresh and it’s often unclear how it’s been processed. It also tends to smell, which Sotaro Usui says is another issue – children in the cities appear to dislike fish due to its smell.

School lunch is a key meal for Japanese children

‘In Japan, fresh fish refers to fish that can be eaten raw, whereas in other parts of the world it tends to refer to the fish in its raw state,’ he said .

‘We cover freshness in our programme, the children get to taste different species of fish and they love it,. I want them to know that there are many types of fresh fish, so when they discover this, I’m always really happy.’

Usufuku Honten's sustainable bluefin on sale in a supermarket

Aside from school lunches, the amount of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fish entering Japan is another concern. Usufuku Honten applied for MSC certification to differentiate his fishery from IUU fishing and tackle the issue of such items entering Japanese markets, including school lunches. A key question is how can Japan guarantee its own sustainable fisheries and find sustainable ways to obtain fish without catching too many depleted resources.

‘These are the kinds of topics that we want to bring up with children,’ he said.

Fishing company Usufuku Honten goes back to 1882, and they began fishing for tuna around 90 years ago

‘Right now, the market tends to prefer artificially-made items, or stable food sources that are easy to procure or a fixed, consistent quality. Sustainable fisheries and sustainable markets should go together as one, but in Japan a fishery may be sustainable while the markets aren’t. When it comes to school lunches, we mustn’t think that cheap items are acceptable. Children must eat high quality food, even if it’s once a month or once a week. They need safe, sustainable local food.’

Satoro Usui also wants to turn Japan’s primary industries into growth industries, Without fishermen, he says, the fishing industry won’t keep going however much resources in the wild recover. In order to create a growing, thriving industry, it’s vital to create something attractive that people are drawn to. By attractive, he says, it’s not just about decent wages but also about an industry that’s respected.

Schoolchildren waving off a fishing vessel as it leaves harbour

‘Japan’s fishing industry has traditional gear and catching methods that go back hundreds of years,’ he explained.

‘My fishing venture has been operating since 1882 and I can’t let it decline and disappear. We need to compete with the rest of the world, and that starts with the younger generation. I want children to learn more about fishing industries in their area, realise that there are industries out there that they can be proud of and pass on our work to future generations.’