The New Year’s Day meal, Osechi Ryori, has historically included salted herring eggs, known as kazunoko in Japan. But in recent years, roe has become less popular in the traditional dish, often substituted with western-influenced dishes, like roasted beef or chicken. (“Osechi” by OiMax is licensed under CC BY 2.0.)

Herring season wrapped up earlier this spring in Sitka Sound with the largest commercial harvest in the history of the Sac Roe fishery. Herring management nevertheless continues to be controversial, and – many would argue – weighted heavily toward market demand in Asia. But what exactly is that market? Earlier this year, KCAW spoke with a Japanese anthropologist studying the history of herring in his home country, and how the market is changing.

Dr. Shingo Hamada is a university professor in Osaka, Japan. He earned his degree in Indiana, studying environmental anthropology and food studies. While a student, Hamada was interested in the history of salmon fishing among Indigenous cultures. During his studies, he met Dr. Thomas Thornton, an anthropologist who has long studied the subsistence herring harvest in Sitka.

“He said, ‘Hey, Shingo, do you know anything about herring fishing in Japan?’ And I grew up in [the] kind of southern part of Japan. So at that time, I didn’t know much about herring fishing. So I basically said ‘Herring? I don’t eat herring much, but on the New Year’s Day, I eat kazunoko,'” Hamada said.

Kazunoko is a delicacy made with herring roe. Hamada and Thornton connected over herring in Japan, and their conversations instilled a curiosity in Hamada.

“[Thornton] said ‘You know, I think the production of herring is increasing in Alaska.’ And I said, ‘The consumption of kazunoko in Japan is decreasing in Japan. So, where’s the herring go?'” Hamada said. “And we didn’t have any good answers.”

“Where does the herring go?” With that question to answer, Hamada began to research the history of herring fishing in northern Japan and the food systems in place today.

Hamada says both the fish and the eggs imported from Alaska and Canada are used as food. Some eggs are shipped to Japan after being processed in other countries, like China, and he says it’s still somewhat of a mystery what happens to the fish in those cases. 

“They might be you know, eating herring fish, herring for human consumption, but I think a certain number of herring fish are use for the fishmeal for the Department of Agriculture in China and other parts of Southeast Asia.”

For the fish and eggs that are processed and sold in Japan, Hamada says the market is waning. Traditionally salted herring eggs, or kazunoko, were eaten on New Year’s Day. The tradition is still observed, but the dish doesn’t always look like it used to.

“Nowadays Japanese food ways are so much Westernized,” Hamada says. “Many people prepare the traditional Japanese food on New Year’s Day called Osechi Ryori, but instead of using, for example, kazunoko or shrimp, a lot of people come to prepare roasted beef or grilled chicken on the New Year’s Day.” 

Rather than trying to revitalize the tradition of herring eggs on New Years, marketers are trying to understand contemporary Japanese consumers — with some success. They’ve discovered that flavored herring eggs will sell any time of the year. Typically salted herring eggs are yellow in color, garnering the nickname “Yellow Diamond.” But walking down an aisle in a market in Japan today, you might see herring eggs of different colors. 

“But nowadays we see a lot of kazunoko in brown color, which means they are kind of soaked in the soy sauce base, dashi broth,” Hamada says. “And that goes well with a bowl of rice, for example.” 

Then there’s Kazu-Chee. That’s herring eggs flavored with processed cheese.

“Goes well with beer, wine, and sake. They use the smoked herring egg, the smoked kazunoko, and mix with the processed cheese,” Hamada says. “They’re individually packed. And that’s a huge hit.”

While marketers are responding to what seems to be a declining local interest in herring eggs, herring harvesting in Japan has actually increased in the last decade. Japan’s centuries-old herring fisheries crashed in the mid-1950s and the species became “commercially extinct.” In the late 1970s, the Japanese government established herring hatcheries. For a time, it didn’t pay off and people were skeptical, but in recent years, Hamada says the survival rate of the hatchery herring has improved, and each year they’re harvesting more and more.

Hamada hypothesizes that the government has continued to invest in the fishery not necessarily because of market demands, but because of the cultural value. He says even though the more they catch, the more the value of the fish is driven down, fishermen can’t get enough of the large schools coming in to spawn.

“The commercial fishermen of Hokkaido, they’re still really excited about herring fishing. They say, ‘There’s something special about herring.'”

Hamada came to Sitka a few years ago during the herring run and learned about traditional herring subsistence from Tlingit harvesters.

“And that technique, that traditional Indigenous technique of harvesting herring egg, and also maintaining a sustainable relationship with herring and human on this planet is something that I really want to share with local coastal fishermen in Japan,” he says.

Hamada was recently named a Fulbright Scholar. In partnership with the University of Alaska Southeast, he will move to Alaska in the spring of 2023 to study spawn-on-kelp fisheries and further investigate the relationship between our respective cultures, and the herring we share.