THE BLACK COD UNDER THE ELEVATED RAILWAY
If you have a chance to come to Tokyo, probably you'll
see the J.N.R. (Japanese National Railways) belt line train
called the Yamanote Line because it's in the busiest part of
Tokyo, Metropolitan area. There's a dumpy old red brick
station along the line. If you get out of the station's entrance
that makes your way to the Emperor's Palace and take a turn
to the left, you'll find a local public type tavern called the New
Rising Sun Restaurant. It is built under an elevated railway.
You will have to go against the main flow of pedestrians and
walk along the narrowest sidewalks to get there.
One day, under the dim electric lights of the tavern, I was
drinking a Tyu-hai, which is
a cocktail based on pure Japanese
liquor. The liquor is similar to gin, or vodka.
A rather small and weak typhoon was coming close to Tokyo.
It was still only September. Usually, we didn't have typ-
hoons at that time of the year but the numbers of typhoons had
reached 14 already. I got used to typhoons, so the unclear
weather and little rain were no big deal to me anymore.
l was eating black cod cooked in soy sauce.
The half pound hunk of meat close to the head part was
generally, the richest part of the fish. It might have been the
special offer of the cook for early customers on a rainy day.
There was a blackboard on the wall showing the day's
WHOLE FRIED CUTTLEFISH \550
GRILLED SALTED GRUNT \600
SARDINE COOKED IN SOY SAUCE \300
GRILLED SALTED MACKEREL \400
BLACK COD COOKED IN SOY SAUCE \600
You see, black cod cost the same as grilled grunt, which is
considered to be high-class fish compared to sardines or
It wasn't that way when I started to work at a wholesale
company, Touto Marine Products, in the Tokyo Central
Wholesale Market, in the year 1978.
Believe it or not, there was a famous funny story among
the fish business world.
It goes like this.
When a Japanese importer imported Alaskan black cod,
he grilled a piece of it at the fish market as a sample. But to
his surprise, the piece started to melt down and it finally
disappeared in front of the people watching. It was like magic.
Nothing was left.
This story is sufficient to explain what the Japanese fish
business is like.
In the business dealing with nature and living things,
sometimes unbelievable things happen. Things like: people
guessing exactly numbers of two or three hundred of fish
included in a box; or highly-skilled cooks cutting pieces of
fish in exact weights, not making even an one gram's differ-
ence. Even so, this black cod story was a little bit too strange.
In the days after Japan had just lost World War II, lots of
walleye pollacks were caught by dragnets. Walleye pollack
was an important protein source for the defeated Japanese
people. At the same time, some black cod was caught together
with the walleye pollacks. Local fishermen ate these black
cod as susi and sasimi
which are foods that require the best
freshness and quality since they are eaten raw. There was no
amount left of the black cod to be distributed to other markets
like ones in Tokyo.
It was not until black cod started to be imported from
Canada and Alaska in large amounts, that it was given the
Before that, black cod didn't even have a name
By the way, the Tokyo Wholesale Market people call
themselves villagers because of the exclusiveness and conser-
vativeness they bear. The estimation of new products is so
sensitive and severe. Only the products and companies that
got over those trials can survive.
There were hard times for the imported black cod too.
Some conventional phrases like the following were heard
around the Tokyo Central Fish Market.
"What a pity about the fish ! " was what the auctioneer would
say when the middleman's bid was too cheap.
"It doesn't matter if I get nothing!" replied the middleman.
Through these conflicts between the auctioneers and
middlemen, fish companies and products were estimated what
they were worth.
Times have changed and black cod has a higher reputation
In earlier days, they had been pretty cheap, but nowadays
they have become expensive. In the past, they had been poorly
handled, and unfresh fish were imported. This unfreshness,
plus the black cod character of meat, being soft and fat, was
thought to be the reason for the melting story.
"No way! Black cod melts!"
That was the conventional phrase of the middlemen trying
to stay away from bidding. The phrase was something that
would make the auctioneer stop thinking further and just shut
But recently, studies made progress and detected that a
kind of amoeba called myxosporida,
that secretes a strong
protein resolving enzyme, was the reason for the melting of
the black cod. It was found out also that this so-called, "jerry
meat," depended on what the fish fed on and the period of the
catch. The truth of the grilled black cod's disappearance was
Nobody talked funnily about black cod anymore.
Lack of information and ignorance make things fishy. The
same kind of fishiness appears anywhere, and it is taking place
in the Japanese fish business, even today, on a bigger scale
and in a more sly manner.