By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; 6:52 PM
TOKYO -- Japan and the United States keep rubbing each other the wrong way.
Last fall, it was a quarrel -- still unresolved -- over the location of a noisy U.S. military airfield in Okinawa. This year, the stormy U.S. reaction to Toyota's recall troubles has been interpreted by many people here as Japan-bashing.
Now, the trouble is fish.
Bluefin tuna -- the crown jewel of sushi, the fish Japanese eat more of than any people on Earth -- are straining ties between the United States and its closest Asian ally.
The U.S. government said this week that it supports a proposed ban on international trade of Atlantic bluefin tuna because the species is at risk of extinction. The adult population of eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin has plunged 74 percent in the past 50 years, much of it in the past decade. In the western Atlantic, the population has fallen 82 percent.
Japan, which eats an estimated three-quarters of the world's annual bluefin catch, announced Thursday that it would not comply with such a ban.
"If worst comes to worst, Japan will have no choice but to lodge its reservations," Masahiko Yamada, a vice minister who oversees fisheries, told reporters. "Since the United States has made its position clear, it has become tough for Japan."
The proposed ban will be considered in mid-March when representatives from 175 countries meet in Doha, Qatar, to vote on measures to protect bluefin tuna and other at-risk species under CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Special of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Japan, after years of exceeding its quota for bluefin, has recently reduced its catch substantially -- and the government here says it believes it has done enough to ensure species survival.
But Japan's taste for bluefin tuna has gone global, ratcheting up prices and demand, while raiding the supply in many of the world's oceans. Many marine scientists say that a complete ban is justified by scientific data.
Monaco proposed the bluefin ban late last year, but the U.S. government did not immediately support it. The European Commission has asked that member governments go along with the ban. So far, France has signaled it would support delayed implementation, while Greece, Spain and Italy -- where fishing interests are powerful -- have opposed it. The ban needs a two-thirds majority to pass.
At Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market, where a dawn auction sets the global price for tuna, longtime veterans of the bluefin trade said Japan has been backed into a corner by its longtime friend, the United States.
"The United States just changed its position," said Takashi Saito, 76, a bluefin wholesaler for six decades. "I feel that what happened with Okinawa and with Toyota is being extended to the tuna issue as well. It is just Japan-bashing."
Bluefin tuna are by far the most valuable fish in the sea. In 2001, a single fish sold for $173,600 at Tsukiji. Prices of $10,000 or more per fish are routine. About a third of the bluefin sold at Tsukiji come from the Atlantic and Mediterranean region.
In the market, fish wholesalers agreed that global restrictions in the bluefin catch make sense, when they are based on academic data. But they said there is no way Japan can go along with a bluefin ban.
"There is no choice for the Japanese government," said Saito. "We Japanese eat tuna."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.