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The Japanese Table

Tai: Japan's King of Fish

by Tomoya Akimichi

As an island nation, much of Japan's cuisine reflects the ocean's bounty, while inland diets revolve around freshwater fish. These foods are an integral part of the Japanese menu, bound to the culture itself. In this first article of our new series, we take a look at the sea bream, Japan's most kingly fish.

During the months of March and April, the sea bream, called tai in Japanese, turns reddish. Schools of bream move toward the coasts of Japan's Inland Sea to spawn, and when a school is caught up in the current and pushed near the surface, the waters swell slightly. The local fishermen call these swells uojima, or "fish islands"—a term also used to refer to the season itself, evoking the bounty of the sea. Those bream caught in early spring are prized for their bright color and rich flavor, and are sometimes called "cherry blossom bream," because the season coincides with the much-celebrated blossoming of the cherry trees.

Bream propagate widely up and down the coasts of the long, narrow Japanese archipelago, which stretches from the northern shores of Hokkaido to southern Okinawa. Bream is a favorite fish throughout the country, but the tai caught off the coastal city of Akashi, on the Inland Sea, is considered superlative. Some attribute its excellent flavor to the abundant shrimp and squid on which the bream feed; others claim that the rapid currents in that area, against which the fish must swim, tighten their flesh.

The species of sea bream most commonly referred to here is madai (Pagrus major), or "genuine tai," the leading species of the Sparidae family. Many other fish—more than 230 varieties—have names suffixed with -tai, suggesting sea bream, although some are not of this family.

The Traditions of Tai

The sea bream has long been considered king among fish in Japan. Excavations of ancient Neolithic shell mounds, the oldest of which date as far back as five thousand years, have yielded large quantities of tai bones, as well as fish hooks most likely used for tai angling. In the Nihon Shoki, or Chronicle of Japan, completed in 720 and one of the oldest extant documents in Japan, the word tai is written as akame, or "red woman." The Engishiki, completed in 927 to record court rituals and ceremonies of the Heian period (794-1185), relates the various ways in which tai was preserved, dried, salted and sliced, and how it was presented as an annual offering to the emperor, and to the government as tax in kind. Traces of these traditions are carried on even today. For example, the dried tai produced on Shino Island is presented to the Ise Shrine as an offering to the deities enshrined there.

In the ancient and medieval periods, however, greater value was placed on the easily available freshwater carp than on tai. As soy sauce came into common use in the late medieval and early modern periods, fish began to be eaten raw, and sashimi was dipped into soy sauce for flavor. Fresh tai became the most sought-after variety of sashimi, and gradually became more highly prized than carp. An eighteenth century book records nearly one hundred types of tai dishes.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), tai was one of the most highly prized seafoods presented as gifts to the shogun. Tai caught in the Inland Sea was transported to the fish markets in Osaka, where it was so popular that a special marketplace just for live tai was established in 1831. Even after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, as the country rapidly began to industrialize and adopt Western culture, tai continued to be a luxury commodity, sustaining the prosperity of fishing boats that transported live tai in onboard tanks.

Fishing methods have changed over time. Thousands of years ago, tai was most commonly caught with lines; the use of nets became common in the Yayoi period (300 B.C.-A.D.300). During Edo times, the gochi-ami, or bottom-pull net—considered a symbol of male virility—was developed by fishermen around the Inland Sea. Today, more common techniques include drag and gill nets, and fishing with lines. Line fishing methods vary from place to place, but shrimp and squid are commonly used as bait. A well-known proverb, Ebi de tai o tsuru ("Fishing for tai with a shrimp"), is a metaphor for gaining large profit from a very small investment.

Today, sea bream farming is a thriving business, producing about seven times the harvest from the seas. Many different species of sea bream are imported from overseas as well.

Tai and Japanese Culture

The Japanese word mede-tai means literally, "wanting of admiration, " or "auspicious" and "celebratory." Japanese are particularly fond of specific foods on auspicious occasions because of certain fortuitous plays on words, or the association of a name with words related to good fortune.

During the New Year and on happy events such as weddings or the birth of a baby, salt-grilled tai is a special traditional fare throughout the country. In Kyushu, the traditional gift presented at a formal betrothal ceremony is a bottle of sake and fresh tai. In western Japan there is a custom of hanging a pair of tai tied with string at the entrance to a home or at a household shrine. This pair of tai is known variously as kake-dai ("hanging sea bream"), or nirami-dai, or "glaring sea bream," as the large, beady eyes of the fish are believed to be a potent force for driving away evil. Dried tai hung during the New Year is later eaten on the first day of the sixth month of the lunar calendar.

In various ways, tasty allusions to the distinguished tai have been incorporated into Japan's food culture. A confection in the shape of the sea bream is often given as a thank-you gift to guests at wedding parties. In the northeast Hokuriku region, tai-shaped fishpaste loaf is served at weddings. Popular among both young and old is tai-yaki, fish-shaped pancakes stuffed with sweet soybean paste. One very popular children's song, Oyoge! Tai-yaki kun ("Swim faster! Young tai-yaki") is about an intrepid pancake that escapes a shop owner and goes swimming in the sea until it is caught by an angler.

Japan is a land where numerous deities have been worshipped since ancient times. Ebisu, one of the so-called seven gods of good fortune, has long been worshipped by fishermen who pray to him for a successful fishing haul and protection at sea. Ebisu, a portly fellow carrying a fishing rod and a huge tai under his arm, has countless shrines dedicated to him throughout Japan.

Ebisu is also regarded as the god of commerce. Soon after the New Year, on January 10, the Tohka Ebisu festival is held. The most famous venues are the Imamiya Shrine in Osaka and the Ebisu Shrine in Kyoto, where the atmosphere pulsates with shouts of the ancient phrase, Shobai hanjo de sasa mottekoi! ("Business is thriving; fetch the bamboo grass!"). This refers to a small bamboo branch decorated with the image of a sea bream that is always sold at the Ebisu festivals. The branch is later displayed in homes and shops as a wish for prosperity.

The prototype of Ebisu is a character in Japanese mythology referred to as the mountain bounty man. In one ancient tale, he borrows a fish hook from his elder brother, the sea bounty man, and goes fishing. A tai swallows the hook and swims away, and the god dives into the sea to retrieve the hook. This is just one of many examples of the tai as a commonly recurring theme in Japanese allegory and fable.

Tai, thus a symbol of wealth and prosperity, also signifies high quality; it is the elite fish of the well-known proverb, Kusattemo tai, or "No matter how spoiled it may be, it's still tai"—the implication being that no matter how reduced in circumstances, someone of quality is still respected. The reality behind this proverb lies in the great quantity of inosinic acid contained in sea bream, a substance that helps the flesh resist spoiling. Thus even when tai is no longer completely fresh, its flavor lasts longer than that of most fish—a fitting and enduring symbolism for the fish that has come to epitomize the very finest in Japanese cuisine.

Author's Profile

Tomoya Akimichi is one of Japan's leading maritime anthropologists. He is currently a professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, where his main areas of study focus on Southeast Asia, Oceania and Japan. He is the author of various books and articles on fishing and maritime culture.