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Japan’s First Marketing Success – Grilled UNAGI

2018.07.29

At the end of July, banners go up in front of supermarkets and fishmongers around the country, promoting grilled eels, Unagi Kabayaki.  It is for Doyo-no-Ushi Day.

Day to Mark Change of Season

“Ushi” means Ox.  Once upon a time, the days were named according to the twelve horary signs from the Chinese zodiac.  “Doyo” is an eighteen day period running up to the date of the change of seasons.  These dates are astronomically correct, but it is difficult to feel the change.  For example, the fresh air of Autumn at the beginning of August is not very typical.

But the day of the Ox (Doyo-no-Ushi Day) in summer, which usually falls at the end of July, is the best recognized one, as the day to eat Grilled Eel (Unagi in Japanese).  There are in fact many Japanese who are not aware that there are four or potentially more Doyo-no-Ushi Days in a year.


 

Eels and Japanese – Edo the Unagi Capital

Japanese have eaten eels for thousands of years. Traces of eel bones have been excavated from archaeological sites dating back to 6000 years ago.  It is an excellent source of protein, as well as vitamins and minerals, and eels are relatively easy to catch. In the poetic collection, Manyoushu, published in 806 AD, Unagi is mentioned as a remedy for the loss of appetite due to heat fatigue.

When Edo (present day Tokyo) was made the capital of the unified Japan in the early 1600s, there was a lot of construction around the bay.  The shores dried up, and many eels started to live in the shallow water.  They were there in abundance and were an easy catch.  Freshly caught and cleaned, grilled with rich soy sauce and Mirin mix, Unagi Kabayaki became a staple for the everyday lives of people living in Edo. There were probably more than 400 Unagi Speciality outlets, and numerous street vendors.

The best time for eels is in fact in late autumn when they prepare for hibernation.  Their bodies hold as much fat as possible, giving an extra rich flavour to the meat during this season.

So why did people start to consume Unagi in the middle of summer, on a specific date?

First Catch Phrase in Japan

By the end of the 1700s, Unagi market was saturated in Edo, and summer, which is the low season for eels, was a big headache. Vendors could not sell enough to maintain their lives.

There is a theory that one of the vendors asked a very famous scholar/inventor at the time, Dr. Gennai Hiraga, how to boost sales during the summer.  He advised him to put a banner up with the phrases:

“Ushi Day Today” – Doyo no Ushi Day is a day of Unagi.  Eat the grilled Unagi and Defeat Heat Fatigue.

Gennai may have known the ancient poem mentioned earlier, and he may have known the nutritional value of the dish.  It is the first time that a direct connection was made between Ushi Day and Unagi.  It is known as the first copywriting in Japan, and what a success it was, as it still maintains an influence after more than 200 years.

Changing Habitat and Shortage

In recent years, because of the change in climate and habitat, the catch and harvest of eels decreased significantly.  Prices went up by 40% in 2018 compared to 2017, the record high.

Japanese Eel is listed as an endangered species by IUCN, due to overfishing and poaching.  Eel farming relies on catching them young, as a technique for managig eel spawning has not been established.  The major retailers look as far as Indonesia, and are working together with an international organisation to keep the stock sustainable.

It is vital to restoring the stock to sustainable levels for all eel varieties, but there is no consensus among the leading international players – Japan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and surrounding nations – on how to proceed.

Looking for Alternatives – New Opportunities

Apart from conserving and increasing the stock of eels, retailers are pushing for sustainable alternatives – entirely different types of fish or meat.

The original message of this annual Unagi Eating Day was to prevent heat fatigue during the height of summer, and it was a marketing invention to increase sales during the low season.

As it is the day of the Ox, grilled beef is a widely suggested choice, as well as pork as an economical alternative. Also, freshwater clams, rich in vitamin and minerals, have been suggested (these are also a very common catch in Tokyo Bay).  They are all viable options for meeting the objective of keeping up peoples’ strength during hot summer days.

The eating of Unagi does not have to be concentrated on one day, outside of the season.  Retailers, the fishing industry, and conservation organisations are coming up with new marketing strategies, still involving a lot of shop front banners like Gennai Hiraga’s suggestion, but also utilising social media forums, to educate consumers about sustainability, and about available alternatives.

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