Nov 26, '17

The last king of tuna, Mr Yamaguchi

Yamayuki group president Yukitaka Yamaguchi
Yamayuki group president Yukitaka Yamaguchi

Many thanks to Mrs Mimi Kobayashi, my “fixer” and interpreter, who made this interview happen. Mimi-san can be your best guide in Tokyo!

Yukitaka Yamaguchi is, without any doubts, a very important man at Tsukiji market and one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met in Tokyo. If you have ever been to Tsukiji market,you might have seen him in his blue uniform, focused slicing tuna, making calls and serving such sushi masters as Takashi Saito as well as many other top chefs in Tokyo. Thirty five years ago, Yukitaka Yamaguchi’s father, himself a tuna broker, asked his twenty-year-old son if he would like to start a company. Together, they built the Yamayuki Group. At first, the company worked mainly with frozen tuna; today, 70 to 80 percent of the fish Yamayuki handles is fresh. Under Mr. Yamaguchi’s leadership, the group has grown to include several companies: Yamayuki, a tuna wholesaler; Tsukiji Daitoyo, a general fresh fish retailer; Nozomi, a high-end fresh fish retailer for top restaurants; Yukiya, a fish retailer at the Tsukiji outdoor market; and Yamayuki Oota Shiten, a fish processor and distributor. The group opened its first restaurant in August 2017, in Azabujuban.

Mr. Yamaguchi kindly took time out of his incredibly busy schedule (he only sleeps 3 hours a night!) to share his insights into eating and buying tuna today.

Fresh tuna at the early morning tuna auction at Tsukiji market
Fresh tuna at the early morning tuna auction at Tsukiji market

Has it always been your plan to expand your business, including to the international market?

I’ve always dreamed of growing my business. And I really love tuna! I’m 55 years old, but I eat at least two bowls of tuna don every day with leftover shari (vinegared rice) from the restaurants I supply.

So, what got me interested in Japanese tuna?

To learn more about tuna, I tasted it. I even worked at a sushi restaurant. As I tasted tuna from all over the world, I wondered why Japanese tuna caught close to shore are so tasty. As I travelled around Japan tasting tuna, I also discovered that tuna tastes different depending on where it was caught. I began to understand that tuna’s flavour is determined by the food it eats. For example, at this time of year, tuna is caught in Canada. Canadian tuna feed on fatty herring, so you will detect the smell of herring when you eat it. I realized that Japanese tuna is flavourful because they feed on small, delicious Japanese fish. These differences intrigued me and sparked my lifelong interest in tuna.

For me, the taste of tuna is what matters the most. Of course, eating involves all five senses—visual appeal, sound, smell, mouth-feel—but how something tastes is more important than what it looks like. This has been my belief since the beginning. But at first, nobody understood why I placed more importance on taste rather than appearance. Kyubei (one of the legendary sushi masters from Tokyo) might have been the only one who agreed with me. Still, I was sure that one day, people would come to understand this, too.

Sushi culture has evolved over the last decade. Today, people go specifically for the sushi and not just for an evening out with friends. The way restaurants serve sushi has also changed. Shari used to be sweetened with sugar; now akazu (red vinegar) vinegared rice is more common. The rice base has more structure, which means the fish on top has to be more flavourful. My tuna is a good fit for this and has gained more attention the last few years.

Fresh tuna auction at Tsukiji market
Fresh tuna auction at Tsukiji market

So, you focus on Japanese tuna?

Of course. However, because part of our business is as a tuna broker, we provide the kind of tuna that our customers ask for, and that can be farmed or wild Japanese tuna. We could not survive by handling only wild Japanese tuna, it’s too risky. For example, in February, we lost about 30 million yen purchasing and selling tuna. We have to diversify our product range. That’s why we handle frozen and farmed tuna in addition to fresh. But we asked ourselves, what added-value can we bring to this market segment?
Some customers do business directly with tuna growers. But, remember, tuna farms are fixed in one place, and the tuna is only at its best at certain times of the year. So, we have developed relationships with many tuna farmers in order to be able to always buy the best quality tuna, be it from Mie Prefecture or Amami Oshima.

But of course, we are most passionate about wild Japanese tuna.

Frozen tuna auction at Tsukiji market
Frozen tuna auction at Tsukiji market

Do you think wild tuna tastes differently than farmed?

Yes, for sure, they taste completely different. The quality of tuna fat is different depending on whether it is farmed or wild. For example, as we head into winter, tuna from Oma on the Tsugaru Strait will become really fatty. You can see the difference on your knife: if the tuna is wild, the fat washes away easily with water but not so with farmed tuna, which clings to the palate. This is why it is difficult to taste the subtle umami of white fish after eating farmed tuna. Aroma provides umami, while fat provides sweetness. Sometimes sweetness is mistaken for aroma. But if you drink green tea after eating Japanese otoro (wild tuna), all you will taste or smell as you drink the tea is the pleasant aroma of fish. Wild tuna fat does not disturb the palate or ruin the taste of other food.

There are many places in Europe where tuna is farmed. In Spain, they have almadraba from Andalucia. These are wild tuna. What is your impression of wild Spanish tuna?

Oh yes, that tuna is caught with a purse seine. Tuna farming in Europe is done by growing wild tuna that are then caught in the Mediterranean Sea when they return to lay eggs. They catch the tuna and then put them in farms [the tuna are thin after their difficult swim up the Atlantic and must be fattened up before sale]. Spanish tuna may be wild when it is first caught, but the quality of the flesh changes completely after being fed in captivity for a year or so.

Japanese tuna is a gift from nature. Japan’s topography is what makes it so delicious. The Japanese coastline is surrounded by shallow water, and there are many places where fresh water flows into the sea. There is a lot of plankton, which attracts the small fish that the best tuna feed on. An abundance of minerals encourages seaweed growth. Sea urchin and abalone are flavourful for these reasons, too. I really think Japan’s marine resource is one of the world’s richest.

Tuna at Yamayuki stand
Tuna at Yamayuki stand

How do you evaluate the quality of frozen tuna?

Most frozen tuna comes from Ireland. Quality-wise, they are very good because the fish are caught at the best season and frozen on the spot. But personally, I prefer Japanese tuna. Tuna prices are determined by supply and demand. No matter how high the quality, when there are many fish on the market, the prices fall and vice versa. Of course, I never buy bad tuna. I look at the quality, not the price. But because of this pricing mechanism, sometimes frozen tuna is sold at higher prices than raw tuna.
Some people prefer frozen tuna because it ensures the same quality all year round. But the fact that the tuna always tastes the same takes away from the enjoyment of eating. Personally, I like tasting the difference between summer tuna, which is less fatty, and winter tuna, for example. Japan prides itself on the four seasons, so we should enjoy what they offer.

Where else do you buy frozen tuna?

We buy from tuna farmers in Croatia and Spain. At Tsukiji, we buy Bluefin tuna from Ireland and southern Bluefin tuna from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. We also buy bigeye tuna from Sydney, Australia.

What percentage of your sales comes from fresh tuna?

Seventy to eighty percent of our sales come from fresh tuna. Today at Tsukiji, thirty tunas were available for purchase. We bought twenty of them. I buy when I like the quality of the tuna. If it doesn’t meet my standards, I won’t buy anything at all.

What is the smallest tuna you would purchase?

I don’t have that as a criterion. Taste is what matters, not size.

Yamaguchi at work
Yamaguchi at work

How do you allocate parts tuna to shokunins and restaurants?Also, how do you satisfy all your customers?

I provide tuna that pairs well with each restaurant’s shari (rice). Strong shari needs strong fish. At Saito’s (Sushi Saito) restaurant where the shari is soft, I provide soft tuna with a subtler flavour. I dine at all the restaurants we work with to find out what they are looking for and suggest tuna suited to their shari. Today, I pay special attention to soft tuna, which was not as popular in the past when sashimi was more common. Eighty-five percent of our customers are sushi restaurants and each restaurant has a different type of shari. Some use akazu (red rice vinegar), some komesu (rice vinegar), some use sugar, some don’t, some use lots of vinegar others don’t. I also provide tuna for those serving sashimi. We probably do business with about 1000 restaurants around the world.

Yamaguchi at work
Yamaguchi at work

Do you age tuna, too?

We never provide aged tuna to sushi restaurants. If we provided tuna when it’s at its peak flavor, the restaurants would have to use it immediately. We provide different size blocks of tuna to each restaurant according to how long it will take to be use, so that the last piece of tuna served will still be at its peak.

Not all tuna is fit for aging. Umami decreases as water leaves the flesh. It doesn’t matter how the tuna was killed, it depends on the quality of the flesh and how much water it loses as it ages. With tuna, you don’t know how good it is until you cut it open. But I judge by checking each tuna. I take responsibility for the tuna we provide up until the last bit is used. If the tuna somehow goes bad, I take the piece back. I do this because tuna is often the most popular ingredient at restaurants. A person may only dine at an expensive restaurant a few times in their life. If they are excited about the experience, it would be a shame to disappoint them with anything less than the highest quality tuna.

Chef Hiroyuki Sato and me at Tsukiji auction
Chef Hiroyuki Sato and me at Tsukiji auction,  © The Hungry Tourist

How long can tuna be aged for?

As long as the tuna is good for ageing, it can last up to 30 or even 40 days. The surface oxidizes just like beef, but the interior will be fine, as long as the tuna is properly conserved to prevent water from evaporating from the flesh.

Does the surface of the fish need to be trimmed before it oxidizes?
There’s no need to trim tuna. The surface will blacken, but as long as the tuna itself is fit for aging, the oxidization will not penetrate the flesh. What matters is what the tuna fed on. If you age tuna caught from the deep sea, it will give off smell of animals and oxidation. If the tuna fed on good quality fish from shallow coastal areas, it will not smell.

Yukitaka Yamaguchi at his office
Yukitaka Yamaguchi at his office

What is your typical day like?

I wake up at 2:30am, arrive at the market around 3:20am, start the auction at 5:30am, work at the market until 2pm or 3pm, have meetings from 5pm to 6pm and dinner meetings from 6pm onward. I get home after midnight. I enjoy playing golf on my days off and travelling overseas during long holidays.

What is your vision for the future?

I hope one day that I will be able to sell only the very best tuna. There are only about 20 really extraordinary tuna caught a year. I would like to then provide that to restaurants I like. That is my dream. I would like to step down as CEO when I am 60. I would like to encourage my successor, whoever that may be, to pursue his or her dream. As long as my successor sticks to the principles I have established, they will be fine. But they will have to maintain this business model, which enables us to sustain losses of about 10 million to 20 million yen through tuna brokerage by ensuring stable profits in various other businesses. When we start thinking, “We should not buy this tuna today because we will lose money”, then it’s time for us to quit. I can teach my staff what to look in order to spot good tuna, but they have to learn to think like managers. One of my goals for the next 5 years to increase our sales to 10 billion yen. Then I would like to retire.

Text and photos ©

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