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Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010
The new frugality
In a sad start to the new season, many of the events throughout Japan featuring one of the symbols of autumn, the lowly sanma (mackerel pike or Pacific saury), had to be canceled or postponed because of poor catches. At the beginning of September the catch was only 20 percent of that of the previous year and prices skyrocketed. The simple meal of grilled sanma, rice and miso soup, emblematic of ordinary life, is no longer quite so ordinary.
Most blame the decline in sanma catches on warmer waters than usual off Japan and hope for a recovery later in the season. However, the decrease started last year and may be part of larger shifts in fish populations due to long-term climate change.
While sanma may be on its way to becoming a delicacy, under the pressure of the prolonged recession Japanese consumers are also changing their attitude to fish previously considered unfit for the dinner table. Unwanted varieties of fish as well as those rejected for reasons of size or appearance reportedly make up as much as 30 percent of the catch in the nets of commercial fishermen. Until recently they have been dumped or used in animal feed. There is nothing wrong with their taste, however, and now a movement is emerging to market them for use as fried fish in bentos or as side dishes at izakaya.
In another sign of the times, supermarkets and department stores have turned to wake-ari sales of less-than-perfect merchandise — canned goods nearing their expiration date, fruit slightly marred in appearance, unsold end-of-season clothing — to lure customers back from discount and outlet stores and Internet shopping, at the risk of driving prices even lower.
Similarly, customers are no longer automatically rushing to appliance stores to buy the latest-model washing machine, flat-screen TV or digital camera. Instead, they are comparing prices on the Internet and often settling for an older model without all the bells and whistles. One wonders if they will ever go back to the days of buying designer handbags and hundred-dollar melons as a matter of course, even if the economy does pick up once again.