THE BARGE ON KUSKOKWIN RIVER
The next summer, I made a business trip to Alaska.
Compared to the fish markets of the good old days, which
dealt only in fresh fish, the fish markets started to have hard
times to earn margins. The development of the technology to
freeze fish changed the nature of fish trading. Fishermen,
processors, importers gained a wider range of places and times
to sell their goods. As fish trading grew complicated, the fish
market had to face many new competitors.
This problem of the fish market was a thing so basic that a
very fundamental change was needed.
As soon as I started to work at the Tukiji Wholesale Market,
I had to ask myself, "Hey, what's the use in me doing this,
besides earning a living?" The question was in terms of my
function in society. There were no answers around. Touto
Marine Products was also asked the same kind of question. I
think the management of the company sent me to Alaska to
find out what they and I could do outside the market.
I flew to Anchorage on the North Pole route to Europe.
When I got through the U.S. immigration and walked into the
airport lobby, I met "Moe" there. Moe was a nickname for a
Mr. Sakamoto who was two or three years older than me. He
was hired as a technician for Fuji Marine Inc., a fish processing
and trading company which had close relationships with Touto
"Hi. So you are Mr. Nakamura?" said Moe to me in his
mumbling Hokkaido dialect.
"Yes," said I and looked at this young man with a deep
curved face. He had long hair like a rock and roller, wore
light coloured sunglasses; hunting cap; fish fat soaked downy
jacket. These showed no clues that he was Japanese nor any
"So, let's go," said Moe.
Moe and I walked beside a huge stuffed bear. We went
down some stairs and got out of the airport terminal from the
first floor. Cloudy weather greeted us. The time was 10 o'clock
in the morning. It was like winter in Tokyo. I took out a
brown leather jacket out of my bag to put on.
We had to wait about 9 hours for the domestic flight, so
Moe and I decided to go downtown to do some sightseeing.
We got in a taxi and drove downtown.
Moe and I ate lunch at a Japanese restaurant. Moe recom-
mended a white wine called Blue Nun. I used to drink a lot of
booze and smoke lots of cigarettes those days. I got drunk
that day too.
At 7 o'clock in the evening, Moe and I got on a twin-
engined propeller plane and flew to a town called Bethel. We
arrived there in about an hour.
Moe had a pickup truck parked beside the airport. It was
an American Ford. A typical high decked one I had seldom
seen in Japan. We got in it and headed for town.
Bethel was in a tundra. The land was absolutely flat and
no trees were found. You could have seen the whole horizon
around you, which was also scenery never seen in Japan.
After a twenty minute drive, Moe and I reached a place
where there was an apartment in which we were going to stay.
The place seemed to be like in an Indian reservation. But
there were no Indians: just Eskimos; some white men; very
few black men. Moe said the white men and black men were
only there because of the salmon season.
Moe and I looked around the apartment for a while. No
stores were seen but a small supermarket called Q.F.S., which
stood for Quick Food Store, and a dirty old shack which
actually was a game room. The Eskimos were all friendly and
they all said "Hi," when we passed by.
Moe and I got in the pickup truck again and then headed
for the plant that was processing salmon.
'Twas the destination of my business trip.
Driving a paved country road for about 5 minutes, we
reached a small river. It was the Kuskokwin, Moe said. We
turned left and drove over a wooden bridge. There was one
more small wooden bridge and the pavement ended. Muddy
roads showed that it must have rained the day before. Moe
steered the pickup quite slowly. He steered left and right to
avoid the boggy places.
All of a sudden, Kuskokwin became wide. The other side
was so far beyond that she seemed to be a lake. There was a
grey and huge barge anchored on the near side.
The barge was an on-board salmon processing plant that a
company called Kemp & Paulucci Co-op owned. From this
company, Fuji Marine bought fresh salmon roe. Fuji Marine
would salt them there on the barge and the products were to be
sold to the Japanese market through Touto Marine Products.
Moe, with both of his arms and chin on the steering of the
pickup, said that the president of Kemp & Paulucci was a man
named Louie Kemp who owned Jino 's Pizza, America's
famous pizza shop.
"Is that so?" said I.
"He also has the sales right for Coca Cola in Europe. He's
the manager of Bob Dylan too."
I still remember how deeply I was impressed with hearing
I always had believed that The Beatles and drugs had
changed the world a lot. Bob Dylan was pretty close to that
stuff, if you know what I mean. Thinking back to the days
when I was in high school, there came the hippie movement
and the world wide mass-hysteria situation of young people
called "the student power." But the stronger the movement
grew, the more I tried to ignore that kind of stuff. Maybe, I
was trying to fake myself.
I felt that something was happening somewhere -- something
big. But I didn't understand what in the hell it was. I was
caught by a feeling of being left out.
I'm not saying that my attitude was wrong nor that I felt
regretful about it. Even now, I have this question in mind.
"Gee, then someone tell me. Who in the hell really under-
stood what was happening?"
I thought the time wasn't right to put things into action.
l grew old and finally, I seemed to have found a place where
something was really happening.
Moe and I got off the truck. Our boots stuck deeply in the
mud. We walked over a wooden dock and got on the barge. It
was like a fortress sticking out from the Kuskokwin River:
silent and stable.
Moe and I went up a ladder and entered a room which
seemed to be a bridge from the outside appearance. The room
was used as a large cafeteria. On the opposite side of where
we were standing, were offices of the president and vice-
president. On the other corner was a kitchen.
There was only one young man in that room. He was
sitting, and playing cards by himself.
Moe opened the refrigerator that was there. He took out a
can of pop, flipped its tab and drank it.
The refrigerator was full of pop.
I drank one too.
Maybe this was no big deal, but I was shocked by the fact
that the pop there was all free.
"This is the great consumer economy of America!" I
Think about what Andy Warhol tried to express by his
pictures of Coca Cola and Campbell Soup cans. First, people
felt familiarity with the objects seen there. Next, with a slight
madness, they felt a superiority complex that art had been laid
within common things around: common things that never had
been turned into art before.
Indeed, Coca Cola and Campbell Soup's trademarks re-
present the American culture. And what I want to say is that,
similar to that, fish represents the Japanese culture, I think.
Coca Cola is a product the producer tries to cut down cost
by mass production and mass consumption.
The product has a one and only quality.
The social duty of the producers is to achieve a cheap price
and distribute it widely.
Fish has several varieties of qualities. It has to be graded,
processed and distributed carefully according to -- locality and
time -- favourite flavours, sizes, or grades and so on.
The social duty of the producers or distributers is to fully
utilize this nature resource.
This difference between Coca Cola and fish is very impor-
tant for many reasons.
The story goes back to the barge on Kuskokwin again and
I opened a 350 m.l. can of pop. That size of can, I saw the
first time besides beer. Those days, all pop cans were 180
m.l. in Japan.
Moe came together with two men. One was the vice
president of Kemp & Paulucci, Tom Hiland. The other was
the plant foreman, Jim Snooker. The vice president, who was
in charge of accounting, had a beard around his mouth like the
guys in Peter Paul & Mary. The foreman looked kind, had
little hair on his head.
"Nice to meet you " I said. After I received greetings, I
was took to the cabin of the barge. In a four bedroom cabin
were two Japanese technicians and a Mr. Iwasaki, an employee
of Fuji Marine. The technicians were Moe's kouhai (A name
to call people who have entered a certain business, school, or
any group later, compared to one that has already been there,
who is called senpai. Not to say about actual age, this senpai
and kouhai relationship means that senpai is old and kouhai is
young in that group. The senpai always has to teach and take
care of the kouhai. Nevertheless, the kouhai is obliged to obey
whatever the senpai says.) The kouhais were from Hokkaido,
same as Moe.
Mr. Iwasaki seemed to be about the same age as Moe (The
senpai-kouhai relationship works even if people are not in the
same group. They find other measures to fit the cases. Age,
status are the most popular measures. Therefore, when
Japanese people first meet, they think about their age first.)
Somehow, he was in a bad mood. Later, I found out that Mr.
Iwasaki was always like that.
I met quite a few Japanese in Bethel. At the apartment
where Moe and I had first taken a look, there were seven more
Japanese whom Fuji Marine had hired. They were men who
used to be on factory ships owned by a Japanese company,
Nichiro (Nichiro Gyogyo Kaisha Ltd.. "Nichiro" means
"Japan-Russia" in Japanese). They were specialists in gutting
salmon. Since many countries extended their territorial seas
to 200 miles, Japanese factory ships lost most of their main
fishing grounds. The seven men hired by Fuji Marine also
had lost their jobs. But they were hired for their skills in gutting
salmon again. On factory ships, they used to gut good quality
salmon caught on high seas. They gutted the salmon, having
high fat content, with a tremendous speed, using a knife called
makiri. With this makiri: they cut the salmon's belly; took the
guts out; they flipped the gill covers open and popped off the
gills like champagne corks with the head remaining on. The
part of popping the gills off needed a lot of skill. So, to do the
part fast and neatly meant that the whole salmon processing
was going to be good, according to the Japanese standard.
Salmon throats were very easily cut, which were something
very bad to do. Japanese gave high rank to fish with heads on.
In contrast, fish with heads off were considered to be second
grade: the same as damaged fish.
By making the salmon gutting specialists work at the Kemp
& Paulucci barge, it became possible to process faster, improve
the production quality, and make a head-on salmon product
which was very rare in Alaska, but had large demand in Japan.
This was something like bringing fish culture into Coca Cola
culture: things were not so easy.
When salmon started to come up the Kuskokwin River,
the fishing season was open and enormous Eskimo fishermen
on their canoes rushed to Yugtuk, the fishing co-op of Bethel,
with loads of salmon. The salmon were directly turned on to
the Kemp & Paulucci barge since Yugtuk had no processing
line nor freezer.
The river around the barge was all covered with Eskimo
canoes waiting for their turn to bring in their catch. On the
barge, the salmon were weighed. Eskimos received fish tickets
that would be exchanged to cash later.
The salmon gutting specialists wore black rubber aprons
and gloves. The gloves were so long that they covered their
The salmon gutting specialists were really fast. The process
line ran smooth at first. But soon, the line stopped. The
freezing capacity of the barge was not that large, therefore the
line was stuck there. The fish catch was big. The specialists
kept gutting fiercely. Fresh salmon started to be piled in front
of the filled-up freezing room.
Something had to be done about this before the fish would
start to perish.
A freighter was anchored off the shore of the town of
Bethel. Kemp & Paulucci, Fuji Marine and Yugtak negotiated
and decided to use the holding space of the freighter to freeze
the overflowing fish. Fresh salmon already gutted were put
into wooden boxes and removed from the barge to the freighter
using the winch of the freighter. The work was slow.
Meanwhile, the fish were starting to lose their freshness. The
wooden boxes, in the freighter's hold, were piled up so high
and dense, that the frost didn't circulate equally to the fish. In
contrast to quick-frozen, which is a quality good for the
product, the product freezed on the freighter ended up to be in
a partially-frozen state, which was very poor in quality.
On the other hand, the salmon roe production, which I was
involved with, was going busy like crazy. What we had been
doing was to salt the fresh salmon roe and make a product
called sujiko. It's something like a caviar. Since the gutting
part was fast, so was the delivery of fresh salmon roe. The
first few days after I came to Bethel, I lived at the apartment
with the seven gutting specialists, but it got so busy that I had
to move to the cabin of the barge with the opening of the fishing
There seemed to be no end to the fresh salmon roe delivery
although the Japanese sujiko technicians, Mr. Iwasaki and I
kept on processing and processing continuously. We moved
into a 24 hour shift: working 16 hours and resting 8 hours.
The situation continued for 10 days. I had to be constantly
standing with my black rubber apron soaked with fresh salmon
roe juice to and put my hands into a saturated salt water solution
which was colder than ice. These things made my head and
Sometimes when my shift had ended and I was lying in
bed, I heard roaring sounds from above. It was the sound of a
Cessna flying in from some Eskimo village around the Yukon
River, about 150 miles north from Bethel. I was exhausted
and had just crawled into bed to take a deep sleep. The Cessnas
were always loaded with white plastic pails full of fresh salmon
roe. Cursing to myself, I had to wake up and go to the "egg
room" to assist the others. I walked the dark hallway in a bad
mood. I was afraid of hearing the engine sound of Cessnas,
all the time I was staying on the barge.
It was just the early years of Alaskan salmon being imported
to Japan. The business there in Bethel could not be recognized
as a success but everyone who took part there tried hard to
make the products suit the Japanese market.
Later on though, I realized that ending in success was a
rare thing in the nature of fish business.