Free Fish!

sanma festiival

These people waited in line for hours to get free grilled fish at the Sanma Festival. About 5,000 sanma (Pacific saury) were given away. And they remained in line to get their lime and grated radish.

sanma festiival

I guess they could have just gone to the store to buy the fish, which costs around 150 yen. But what’s the fun in that? The price went up because of the poor harvest this year. Fisheries netted 20% of their usual catch.

sanma festiival

There are so many interesting layers in this event. I got my academic fork and knife out and mused about a few things.

The Origin Myth. The first question you might ask is why? Why is this particular fish being given away, and why is it in Meguro, an otherwise nondescript Tokyo neighborhood.

The story goes like this.

Long ago, a feudal lord went hunting with his retinue in Meguro, back when it was just farmland and forest. After a long day of terrorizing the local game, he became very hungry and by chance smelled fish being grilled. He sent his lackeys to secure some of this sweet smelling fish from the poor farmer.

Since sanma was considered peasant food, he had never had it before. But after eating it he thought it was delicious. He later became obsessed with eating more, and pestered his kitchen staff into getting some. Since such a common fish was beneath him, they tried to prepare it befitting a lord. So they got it straight from the fish market and steamed it.

But he preferred the grilled taste and insisted his servants get the fish from Meguro. And that’s why you too can be a lord for a day and commandeer your very own free fish.

sanma festiival

A Culture of Waiting. I can’t fathom waiting in line voluntarily for longer than a few minutes for anything, much less grilled fish. I barely understand the appeal of waiting overnight for world premieres, or for the newest iGadget. In the US, marathon sessions of waiting in line are reserved for the fringe superfan, for a special exclusive event.

I suppose the Sanma Festival is a special event. But these are not sanma connoisseurs. They’re just regular people on their days off. The Japanese have an endless patience for queueing. For a densely populated country, waiting in line is a fact of life, and being patient about waiting helps run things smoothly. But you’d think that on their days off, they’d minimize standing in line.

sanma festiival

Fishy Business. Who pays for all this fish? I mean, 5,000 fish for free?! And what about all the cooks, security, people directing the crowds, the equipment to grill it all, the fuel? The event is sponsored by the city of Miyako, far up north in Iwate prefecture. The festival was nearly cancelled this year because of the poor haul. I imagine the publicity from the event leads to higher sanma sales and tourist dollars to the region. Or maybe they just want people to enjoy their fish.

sanma festiival

Denying Ecocide. Most of the local press blame the poor catch on the unusually hot weather. Yet I haven’t come across any articles that take the logical next step, which is global warming. And I haven’t heard or read any references to the possibility of overfishing as the cause of the dramatic decline in the sanma population. These seem obvious to me as factors, but to the multibillion dollar aquaculture industry, it’s the elephant in the room.

sanma festiival

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One thought on “Free Fish!”

  1. Nice analysis. We are pretty in denial about the ultimate causes of things. Just keep hoping that next year things will be different. Unfortunately in the Maritimes poor catches don’t mean we have an adult conversation about climate change and the food system or overfishing, it means we start factory farming salmon and genetically engineering them to boot.

    The other day I heard about how, since we have overfished all the yummy species, we have to start eating things lower down on the food chain like jellyfish etc. Logically one might assume that we will overfish these lower species and then what will we have to eat? But don’t expect any discussion along these lines.

    It’s all quite pathological . . .

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