Sustainable Sushi and Other Japanese Food that Doesn’t Cost the Earth

Carey Finn
Sustainable sushi Japan
This is sashimi central.

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, you might find yourself thinking twice before you tuck into that tuna platter. Here’s a quick guide to sustainable sushi in Japan, as well as other meals that are nice to nature (and your bank balance).

Disclaimer: In no way, shape or form am I an expert on environmental stuff. I just love eating (especially sushi), and will be a very sad cat if our seafood goes the way of the coral.

Sustainable sushi in Japan: What to order

Let’s start with some good choices. First off, scallops (hotate) are your friend (except the ones from Peru). Salmon can be sustainable too—it just depends on where and how it’s fished or farmed. Same goes for squid (ika), shrimp (ebi) and albacore tuna (shiromaguro). Arctic char (iwana) is awesome if you can find it.

Sustainable sushi Tokyo
Scallop sushi. | Photo by T. Tseng used under CC

The rest gets a bit complicated, and—in all honesty—pretty confusing. Sardines (iwashi) were punted as a sustainable fish a few years back, only to have stocks collapse in parts of the world. Mackerel is okay in some countries and in a real bad way in others. The best thing to do is use Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch site (they have an app too) to check out 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. (Scroll down for info on bluefin tuna, unagi and more.)

Of course, there are heaps of tasty non-fish sushi options too, including avocado, egg, pickles, tofu, nattō (fermented soybeans)corn, eggplant and other toppings. You could also visit …

Sustainable sushi Japan
Tamagoyaki (egg roll) is delicious and not from the sea. | Photo by City Foodsters used under CC

Blue Seafood Restaurant

It’s not a sushi place, but Tokyo is home to a legit sustainable seafood restaurant—an independent joint certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Blue Seafood, which is in Setagaya, is surprisingly affordable (cheapo win!). Case in point: the fish and chips go for ¥700, and you can snag Spanish garlic shrimp for ¥880. You’ll need to make a reservation before you go, though. Last we checked, Fukui Prefecture also had an MSC-certified seafood eatery called Totally Searoll Club.

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.

Note: In case you were looking for it, here’s information on vegetarian/vegan options and healthy eating in Tokyo.

Sustainable sushi in Japan
Tuna temptation.

Sushi and other seafood to avoid

No matter where you’re dining, there are three big names best avoided. Here comes the E-word …

Bluefin tuna

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.



Oh, and while you’re at it, you might want to pass on the yellowtail too (or at least ask where it’s from).

Unagi

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.



sustainable sushi in Japan
Unagi is seriously endangered and not an example of sustainable sushi in Japan. | Photo by Andrew Choy used under CC

Shark-fin everything

You probably won’t run into this at a sushi restaurant, but you’re almost guaranteed to find shark somewhere else in Japan. Almost one in three shark species is threatened with extinction, in part due to overfishing for their fins. Cruelty aside, shark-fin soup is a no-go for those who give a fig about sustainability. Shark on the whole, really, is best avoided.

I’m not going to get into the whale and dolphin meat thing. My personal feeling is that not everything that swims needs to be on a plate. Others may disagree, but let’s stick to the subject of sustainability here.

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. At the time of writing, we found 330 products in Japan, including salmon fillets, mackerel and flounder (though admittedly, some were imported).

sustainable sushi Japan

A local initiative called Marine Eco-Label Japan also lists sustainable seafood products, but you’ll need some Japanese ability to navigate the site.

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.

Deer

Known as shika in Japanese, sika deer numbers have 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).

sustainable meat japan
A dish made with deer meat. | Photo by 極地狐 used under CC

Wild boar

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 I 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 (yeah, you only realize that later), the principle is a sound one. 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 I often forget at sushi restaurants), and polishing off whatever is on your plate.

sustainable sushi japan
A huge stack of plates, but they pass the no-waste check. | Photo by jewell willett used under CC

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 guide was, to the best of the author’s knowledge, correct at the time of publication. Any errors/issues/suggestions can be reported in the comments section below.


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