Japan is the land of sushi (yes, yes, and vending machines), and if you’re here—whether for a week or a decade—chances are you’re going to partake in the tradition of raw fish. Japanese sushi is the best in the world, and it’s been an important part of the local palate for hundreds of years. But with global fish stocks in crisis, particularly the Pacific Bluefin tuna whose numbers have plummeted by 97%, you might find yourself thinking twice before you tuck into that sashimi platter. Here’s a quick guide to sustainable sushi in Japan, as well as other meals that are nicer to nature (and your bank balance).
Disclaimer: This article was co-written by Mareike Dornhege, a fisheries researcher, and Carey Finn, a trying-to-be-conscious consumer. We are in no shape or form experts on every single species in the sea. We just love eating (especially sushi), love sharks (alive, not dead) and will be very sad cats if our seafood goes the way of the coral.
Sustainable sushi in Japan: What to order
Let’s start with the good choices. First off, scallops (hotate) are generally your friend. Salmon can be sustainable too—it just depends on where and how it’s fished or farmed. Same goes for squid (ika) and some shrimp (amaebi). Arctic char (iwana) is awesome if you can find it.
Top 10 choices for sustainable sushi in Japan
1. Skipjack (カツオ/katsuo)
This smaller member of the scombrids is abundant in the ocean and reproduces quickly. Your best bet for the tuna family!
2. Scallops (ホタテ/hotate)
If in doubt, choosing a bivalve like scallops, mussles and clams is always a good idea. Hotate has a luxurious, buttery flavor and is fantastic as either sushi or sashimi.
3. Sweet (or northern) shrimp (甘エビ/amaebi)
Plain old shrimp are one of the worst sushi choices worldwide: caught wild, the trawling turns the ocean floor into a dead moonscape and farmed, they pollute the surrounding environment with their waste and high doses of antibiotics (so they can survive in their own waste). Amaebi is considered a well-managed and sustainable alternative and tastes better too. It is the only type of shrimp to actually be served raw.
4. Sea urchin (雲丹/uni)
A truly Japanese flavor—not everyone will be a fan! However, this invertebrate is usually fine from a sustainability point of view. Most fisheries are well managed. Urchins are sturdy animals that can be farmed easily, and are not rare in the wild.
5. Mackerel (鯖/saba)
Smaller fish like mackerel, anchovy and sardines are some of the healthiest fish you can eat and are popular in Japan. We have finally learnt to manage their fast population cycles sustainably, and most fisheries follow these guidelines.
6. Amberjack/yellowtail (カンパチ kanpachi/ハマチ hamachi)
These fish in the jack family are now harvested sustainably in most fisheries, although exceptions still exist. Farming, as it is popular in e.g. Hawaii, is an acceptable alternative.
7. Squid (イカ/ika)
These invertebrates have short life cycles, so sustainable management is possible. Most flying squid fisheries around the world and in Japan are sustainable, so you can usually enjoy this sushi staple without remorse.
8. Salmon (鮭/sake)
This fish is a tricky one. Depending on the source, it could be sustainable or not, both the farmed and fished kind. However, a lot more salmon these days is from sustainable sources, so you can probably have a nigiri or two without guilt.
9. Salmon roe (イクラ/ikura)
The same goes for its eggs.
10. Crab (蟹/kani)
The Japanese love their crabs: king, snow, you name it. As invertebrates, they reproduce faster than large fish, which makes it easier to actually manage a fishery sustainably. Note: the Alaskan fishery is sustainable; the Japanese and Russian ones are not.
The rest gets a bit complicated, and—in all honesty—pretty confusing. A cool thing to do is use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site (they have an app too) to check the status of the sushi you’re interested in eating. The information is geared towards consumers in North America, so it’s a good idea to look at some of these WWF sustainable seafood resources too. There’s nothing stopping you from politely asking restaurant staff where what you’re eating comes from, either, though they might not know or might not speak English.
Scroll down for info on bluefin tuna, unagi and more.
Quick rule: small, seasonal, silver or shellfish?
If in doubt, ask yourself: is it small, seasonal, silver or shellfish? Small includes small fish like sardines (recommendations change for those, though) and most invertebrates (apart from normal shrimp, that’s a bad S), silver fish are anchovy, sardines, mackerel and the like. These 4-S criteria are a good rule of thumb for choosing sustainable seafood in Japan and other parts of the world.
Top five vegetarian sushi options
There are also heaps of tasty non-fish sushi options, including avocado, egg, pickles, tofu, nattō (fermented soybeans), corn, eggplant and other toppings. These aren’t substitutes—they’re pure awesomeness in themselves. Try the following and you’ll see what we mean.
1. Folded egg (卵/tamago)
It is an art to make these fluffy egg rolls.
2. Sea grapes (海ぶどう/umi budo)
You absolutely must try this Okinawan delicacy—if you can find it.
3. Cucumber (きゅうり/kyuri)
A good palate refresher between heavier flavors.
4. Seaweed salad (海藻サラダ/kaisou sarada)
Make it a balanced meal by adding some greens to your sushi menu.
5. Miso soup (味噌汁/miso shiru)
A quintessential Japanese flavor, which rounds off any meal.
Sushi and other seafood to avoid
No matter where you’re dining, there are three big names best avoided. Here comes the E-word …
Yes, we’re talking close to commercial extinction. There are three different types of bluefin tuna: Atlantic, Southern and Pacific. While the first two have their own struggles, Pacific bluefin tuna is the one you’ll most frequently find in Japan—and it needs help. Adored in the form of sashimi (hon maguro), the (most unfortunately) extremely delicious fish is being fished to the brink and beyond, and yet not much is being done to change that.
Potential welfare concerns aside, farming (with artificial hatching) might be the way forward—but is not widespread yet. Consider opting for a more sustainable type of sushi until stocks have been allowed to rebound. A good alternative is katsuo (skipjack). If you must have tuna, choose albacore (called binnaga in Japanese).
Oh, and while you’re at it, you might want to pass on the yellowtail (kihada) and big eye (mebachi) too (or at least ask where it’s from). As large ocean hunters, they simply do not reproduce or grow fast enough.
Freshwater eel (unagi) is seen as a strength-giving, culturally important food in Japan, and you’ll see it at many sushi joints and other types of restaurants. The country is estimated to consume 70% of the world’s unagi. Unfortunately, this poor eel is on the red list of threatened species because of overconsumption—making it one left well alone.
You might have heard that unagi is being commercially farmed, or will be soon, so there’s nothing to worry about—but that’s not true. While there are plans to farm freshwater eels, a viable reality is still a long way off. Researchers don’t yet know how to get the eels breeding in captivity, meaning that young ‘uns still have to be taken from the wild and ranched to adulthood.
Saltwater eel, or anago, is sometimes recommended as an alternative—but information on the status of that species is lacking, so maybe don’t go too crazy at the conveyor-belt sushi place. If you want to savor some strongly-flavored, fatty fish, try mackerel to emulate the taste.
You probably won’t run into this at a sushi restaurant, but you’re quite likely to find shark elsewhere in Japan. That’s because fish paste products like hanpen, chikuwa and surimi almost always contain shark, labeled simply as “fish meat” (sakananiku).
Keep in mind that an estimated one in four shark species is threatened with extinction, in part due to overfishing for their fins, or ending up as by-catch. So shark is best avoided, unless you know that it’s been sourced from a sustainable fishery (shark fisheries can, it seems, be managed sustainably).
Shark fin itself is tasteless anyway and only consumed for its chewy, stringy texture. If you are looking for a textured culinary adventure, try herring roe (kazunoko) instead. It has a chewy crunch to it that evokes a similar sensation.
A word on whale meat
In late 2018, Japan announced that it would be leaving the International Whaling Commission and resuming commercial whaling in its waters in July, 2019, for the first time in three decades. Does that mean you should try whale while you’re here? Well, it’s entirely up to you, but one off-putting factor might be the fact that whale meat is high in mercury and other heavy metals, owing to decades of global oceanic pollution.
Though whaling is a controversial topic, keep in mind that if you ask Japanese people when they last had whale, the answer will most likely be “never” or “a very long time ago”. That’s because eating whale is not as common as you might think, especially among younger generations. Whale is mainly served in school cafeterias, and only occasionally. No one’s chowing down on whale sandwiches for their daily snack. It’s unlikely that most residents even support whaling.
We’re not going to dive any deeper into the whale meat thing. Our personal feeling is that not everything that swims needs to be on a plate. Others may disagree, but let’s stick to the general subject of sustainability here. To be 100% sure about the sustainability of what’s on your plate, you could …
Look for the MSC logo at supermarkets
You can make sustainable choices when buying seafood at supermarkets in Japan too (notably Aeon). Keep an eye peeled for the little blue MSC logo on packaging—it indicates that the product has been sourced from an environmentally responsible, well-managed fishery. MSC is internationally recognized in the save-the-sealife mission, and their website helps you to find sustainable options around the world.
However, you might want to avoid Marine Eco-Label (MEL) products. MEL is a newer certification by the Japanese government and is considered bluewashing by fisheries scientists internationally.
Wait, isn’t “sustainable seafood” just bluewashing? Shouldn’t we give up eating fish altogether?
While abstaining from seafood of any kind, or going vegetarian or vegan, is probably first prize in the fight for the environment, realistically that’s not possible, or preferable, for everyone (for whatever reason, no judgment here). Some types of fish are a LOT better for the big ol’ earth than others, so spending your yen on them when you order a meal can make a real difference. Plus, asking basic questions may encourage restaurants to start thinking differently about the seafood they’re sourcing.
One other quick comment—unfortunately, illegally caught seafood is a global issue. Fish and the like can be hard to trace, and there is a possibility that illegally caught stuff might make its way onto your plate. Read this to see what we’re on about.
Note: In case you were looking for it, here’s information on vegetarian/vegan options and healthy eating in Tokyo.
Eating wild meat in Japan
A fairly organic, free-range source of meat in Japan that also happens to be environmentally friendly (or so we’re told, anyway) is venison and wild boar.
Known as shika in Japanese, sika deer numbers have reportedly exploded in recent decades due to a lack of apex predators. They can be be a bit of a pest to forests and farmers, so hunting (with all the permits and whatnot) is encouraged. What’s tragic is that hardly any of the deer that are killed are used for meat (or anything, really)—their carcasses go to waste. So if you encounter deer on the menu in Japan, and can stomach the thought of eating Bambi, know that you might just be tucking into something sustainable. Look out for the term shika niku (鹿肉).
Another local animal that’s wreaking havoc is the inoshishi, or wild boar. This rapscallion is overrunning a small island and marauding around the rest of Japan—like the deer, lacking a natural predator (RIP, Japanese wolf). Wild boar is hunted a bit, and you may find it on the odd menu—possibly even as a kind of sashimi. You might also see bear, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish (and one that we avoid).
A word about food waste
When you were a kid, your parents might have reminded you that people in (insert random country in Africa) were starving, and that you ought to lick your plate clean when you weren’t so keen on your peas/carrots/bland boiled meat. While it may not have been possible to send your leftovers to those in need (you only realize that later), the principle is sound. And in Japan, it’s increasingly important.
Despite the unspoken Japanese rule to finish in full whatever is served, food waste is a major issue—and the millions of tons that are tossed every year are costing the country trillions of yen. You can help by ordering only as much as you can actually eat (something one often forgets at sushi restaurants), and polishing off whatever is on your plate.
What else can I do?
Fish and wild meat aside, you can make a positive environmental impact by putting your yen behind local organic/semi-organic farmers. If you have access to a kitchen in Japan, you can buy fresh (and cheap!) produce at farmers markets. You can also plant a few trees to offset your carbon emissions for your flights to Japan. That doesn’t mean surreptitiously leaving a baby plum tree in your hotel room or Airbnb pad—you can ask the nice people at Carbonfund or this awesome reforestation project in South Africa to do your dirty work for you.
The information in this sustainable sushi in Japan guide was, to the best of the authors’ knowledge, correct at the time of publication. Published in August, 2017. Last updated in August, 2018. Any errors/issues/suggestions can be reported in the community forum.