Fancy some fresh fish? It'll cost you.
At the first tuna auction of the year at Tokyo's Tsukiji seafood market, the owner of the sushi chain Sushizanmai paid the highest price for a lot, shelling out ¥72 million ($624,000) for a 467-pound Bluefin tuna. That's comes out at $860 per sushi bite, the Nikkei Asian Review calculates.
Though it's hardly scientific, the headline figure does serve as a yardstick for consumer confidence in Japan. This year's price is the highest since the start of 2013, just after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office with the promise of his "Abenomics" reforms. Of course, it is also a massive marketing tool for Sushizanmai's owner, Kiyoshi Kimura, the president of the chain's parent, Kiyomura. He has now won the auction for six years in a row.
Last year, the winning bid fetched only ¥14 million. Abe optimism encouraged Kimura to pay double this year's price, ¥155 million ($1.3 million), when he set the world record for a tuna in 2013. This year, the Genki Sushi T:9828 conveyor-belt chain entered the auction for the first time, its chairman saying he was making a point by taking part.
"Amid the underlying force of deflation, the eatery business sector is facing a tough environment," Masuo Fujio said. "I hope our participation in the bidding war will help enliven the mood of the industry."
The competitive bidding this year for a fish caught off Oma in Aomori Prefecture, at the very northern tip of Japan's main island, Honshu, shows some signs of confidence that Japan, ignored or laughed at by global investors for so long, is on its way back. And a non-participant tells another story.
A Hong Kong sushi chain, Itamae Sushi, won the auction in 2011 and then lost out to Kimura for the next two years. But Itamae Sushi dropped out of the bidding altogether in 2014, a sign of the poor retail sales and scant economic growth in Hong Kong.
It's not just Kimura who is feeling good about this year. The venerable market watcher Byron Wein has predicted, in his list of "Ten Surprises for 2017," that the yen will fall to ¥130 to the U.S. dollar this year. That will stimulate exports. Wein -- now the vice chairman of multi-asset investing at Blackstone (BX) -- also makes the call that Japanese growth will hit 2% for the first time in decades. The Japanese stock market, he says as food for thought, will lead developed markets globally, a beneficiary of stronger growth in both China and the United States.
That's a particularly bullish call. Japan's economy likely grew around 0.5% this year and the World Bank is predicting the same rate in 2017 -- although it may revise that when it releases its next report on global economic prospects on Jan. 10. There are plenty of more optimistic forecasts from the likes of Société Générale and the Edmond de Rothschild Group, both anticipating growth of at least 1.3% for 2017.
The Nikkei 225 enters 2017 having posted its first five-year run of higher closes since 1990, at the end of Japan's bubble years. As I outlined heading into this year, the index also broke through its 30-year moving average for December, implying that a stock market run of around 20.2% might come in the next few months according to Nomura, which based its calculations on similar statistical breakthroughs in the past.
It's not that all is well at Tsukiji. This year's auction saw the sale of only 1,523 tuna, either fresh or frozen, the lowest number in a decade and down 13% from last year.
Environmentalists decry the industry for fishing bluefin tuna in particular to the verge of extinction. One recent scientific assessment indicates that the population of the species has fallen to only 2.6% of its original size. Amanda Nickson at the Pew Charitable Trusts says the tuna are being caught at three times the sustainable rate.
Still, the world's largest fish market is a wonder to behold. The scale of the seafood on sale is almost impossible to take in. Since the market gets going well before dawn, it's best to arrive as early as you can possibly get out of bed to get a taste of the action. Stall operators and wholesale buyers go about their business without so much as a second glance at non-Japanese visitors. Then you can get a taste of the seafood itself wish a sushi "lunch" at breakfast time in one of the rows of small eateries that line the market's edge.
This may be Tsukiji's curtain call, however. The Tokyo government wants to move the 80-year-old market to a modern site on a man-made island a little over one mile away, freeing up prime real estate on Tokyo Bay in time for the 2020 Olympics. Reuters reports that the plan has been 15 years in the making and was supposed to go ahead last year, only for fears about toxic pollution on the new site, a former gas plant, to delay the move.