Food Preference and Local Identity in a Coastal Fishing Community in Hokkaido, Japan
Zappa: Underutilized, Unimportant Fish
Concerns about global food security lead us to think of ways to reduce the underutilization of by-catch. FAO estimates that an average of 27 million tons of by-catch is wasted as unimportant or unwanted “trash fish” each year, but in Japan—and probably other places—records of by-catch are absent or unreliable because by-catch does not receive nearly as much statistical attention as commercially targeted species. By-catch is a prime example of waste, or “neglected value.” I became interested in waste as a practice that has local meanings, because cultural models that create and define waste vary in time and space. What makes fish a global market commodity or trash at sea or on shore? Discussing zappa in the context of a coastal fishing community in Hokkaido, Japan, where I am conducting dissertation fieldwork, this essay seeks to answer this question by focusing on food preference with which locals practice taste and waste in identity politics.
Smith (2006:480) defines food preference as “the way in which people choose from among available comestibles on the basis of biological or economic perceptions including taste, values, purity, ease or difficulty of preparation, and the availability of fuel and other preparation tools.” The perception and practice of taste influence the social life of fish. Social and economic class influences what tastes good. Bourdieu elucidates that tasting is a profound and complex “act of cognition, a decoding operation, which implies the implementation of a cognitive acquirement, a cultural code” (1984:3). Trubek’s ethnography on terroir (2008) describes that taste is also spatially inscribed in local landscape. Wilk (1999:253) argues, “tastes and preferences are now more deeply localized than ever before. Local knowledge of history, people, personalities, and politics determines taste.” Among the Japanese I interact with in a local inshore fishing community in Hokkaido, food preference helps them construct the taste of place and define their identities, but it also requires wasting fish.
Zappa, or zatsugyo (miscellaneous fish) in standard Japanese, is by-catch produced by commercial fisheries. Inshore gill net and fixed net fisheries in my fieldwork site produce a total of one or two tons of zappa every day. Zappa is not auctioned at a local fish market, but fishers earn a flat rate of 15 yen per kilogram of zappa, regardless of fish size and species. While many fishers bring zappa to a local fish market for sale, others do not even bother taking it in—they throw it away and often distribute portions of it to their assistants on shore. I also observed inshore trawl fishers often regarding certain fishery-targeted species, such as rainbow smelt (Osmerus eperlanus moradax) and saffron cod (Eleginus gracillis), as zappa. They discard these fish at sea because of limited space on fishing boats and because of the low price these species bring at the auction market. This tends to occur especially when these fish are pulled in as by-catch, or when they get caught out-of-season.
Seafood vs Those Kinds of Fish
Many zappa species are edible, and they are indeed consumed in other areas of Japan. Nevertheless, they are considered unmarketable as seafood by local fisheries because locals think they do not taste good. For example, very few if any people in my fieldwork community eat the Japanese dace (Tribolodon hakonensis and T ezoe) nowadays. An elder once told me that he used to eat salted dried Japanese daces and roe from Japanese chars (Salvelinus leucomaenis leucomaenis) for a while after WWII, when food was scarce. The Japanese char is now considered game fish and not officially listed as a fishery target in Hokkaido, though it is cultured and released to enhance its stocks in several other areas of Japan. Food consumption of these particular fish has some association with poverty and privation.
Nearshore gillnet flounder fishers often catch sharks such as spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). Locals understand the potential marketability of sharks particularly their fins in Chinese cuisine. But if sharks are kept, they are thrown in zappa containers with their fins and all the other parts attached. Rather than having commercial potential, locals told me that they do not eat sharks. I have never heard vendors or buyers at local fish markets talking about upgrading sharks to an auctioned commodity. The sharks have little presence in local foodscape, as if local food distastes are a counterhegemonic practice against the national and global process of homogenization in markets for seafood products, including sharks fins (or the sale of shark meat under assumed names like “rock salmon,” common in many parts of the world).
Meanwhile, local fishers associate zappa with certain social groups. For example, some fishers derogatorily associate zappa with indigenous Ainu, whose indigenous fishing rights have not still been denied, and ‘mountain folk,’ who are dairy farmers. One of the Japanese fishers argues, “they are the only ones who eat those fish.” Another continued, “you’re from mainland Japan so you won’t get it, but remember, we don’t eat those kinds of fish—smelly fish, fatless fish and freshwater fish.” Such food preferences as stated by inshore Japanese fishers can be conceptualized as the construction of social boundaries through non-consumption of certain commodities (see Wilk’s chapter in Reimagining Marginalized Food, edited by Finnis, 2012).
Wasting Fish in the Production of the Locality
For local fisherfolk, freshwater fish is not a part of local foodscape and gôut du terroir—the taste of place. Several inshore fishers stated that people in their town are fortunate because they can eat saltwater fish all the time. Inshore fishers argue that fish in seawater is tastier than freshwater fish. By tasty, they mean that fish is less smelly, more fatty, makes richer broth for soup, and has the right boniness and texture for preparation and consumption. They say that fish in mainland Japan does not taste good, because fish from colder water tastes better. Their preference for “real” seafood sets them apart from others—namely indigenous Ainu, mountain folk and mainlanders. The patterns of producing, consuming, and distributing marine fish while avoiding freshwater and game fish construct the terroir and signify local fishermen’s identities. Practicing local food preferences inscribes distinction in identity politics and social contexts. With freshwater fish as a boundary marker, their avoidance of zappa for consumption is a practice of distaste that excludes others from local inshore fishers’ imagined coastal foodscape as well as social land- and seascapes.
In the end, most zappa fish is destined to become fishmeal while non-zappa fish become a cherished part of the local foodscape, part of eastern Hokkaido’s reputation for tasty seafood. Commonly processed together as fishmeal, the large variety of fish that make up zappa, unimportant fellows, lose their names and identities. Their existence is reduced to powder, as fertilizers that may leave the island anonymously. Annual fishery reports published by the prefectural government do not even mention zappa; thus, annual production of zappa in Hokkaido is unknown. Rather than marketizing perfectly consumable zappa, inshore fishers waste it, and instead, they often claim their culinary knowledge to utilize other local saltwater fish which requires time, skills and suitable climatic conditions to process as seafood, such as fermented pressed sushi. Zappa is marginalized, if not erased, from Hokkaido’s coastal seascape and foodscape.
Zappa receives little attention from locals as a commodity, and identity politics influence local food preferences and the fate of by-catch—which fish is good to eat and good to sell, which will be trashed. This is yet another example that demonstrates that globalization is not necessarily a process of cultural homogenization in which economy always trumps ideology. From observing the social life of zappa, it becomes clear that food choice is a practice of local identity building, and cultural consumption of food is also an important aspect to consider in the discussion of resource conservation.
Shingo Hamada is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Indiana University. He is currently conducting dissertation fieldwork in Hokkaido, Japan, to explore how various actors construct different definitions of successful coastal resource conservation and to understand better the complexity of human-nonhuman interactions in coastal seascapes.