The Sushi Auction That Cheered Japan: The Ticker

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By William Pesek

The fish went for $730,000, and that's not a typographical error.

That's what Kiyomura K.K. paid for the most expensive fish ever sold at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market. Make that overpaid. The Japanese sushi chain will be selling $74 pieces of tuna for $5 apiece -- a roughly $600,000 loss.

What can we make of this headline-grabbing splurge? Three possibilities come to mind: Kiyomura President Kiyoshi Kimura is a showoff wasting his fortune; he's a brilliant showman who's probably getting $7 million worth of public relations for 10 percent down; or he's trying to inspire his nation.

The answer appears to lie behind door No. 3. And Japan's government could learn a thing or two from the gesture. "Japan has been through a lot the last year due to the disaster," he told AP Television News. "Japan needs to hang in there. So I tried hard myself and ended up buying the most expensive one."

The first Tsukiji auction each year has a special place in the Japanese psyche. Some regard the prices paid as an economic omen for the year ahead. And the latest auction got huge press coverage.

It's one of the best shows in Asia -- a three-ring aquatic circus of sorts. Six days a week, at dawn, hundreds of bidders gather to pay top yen for the fish most beloved by Japan's food-obsessed masses. It's also one of the core tourist attractions in a city that punches far below its weight in foreign arrivals.

Part of Kimura's motivation was to keep the tuna in Japan "rather than let it get taken overseas." The January 2011 sale was a downer for many Japanese; one of the big winners was a Hong Kong restaurateur. Coincidentally, perhaps, 2011 was a dismal year that included a record earthquake, tsunami and radiation crisis.

No, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda shouldn't be buying giant fish to boost consumer confidence. Yet Kimura is the latest private-sector bigwig to realize that Japan's 126 million people need a serious pick-me-up -- and he's doing something about it. Distracted by petty infighting and politics as usual, elected officials aren't.

No one seriously thinks a $730,000 tuna will turn the tide in a nation beset with economic gloom and skepticism. Yet for a people in need of a psychological boost, Kimura's fish came through in ways the government hasn't.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Jan/06/2012 16:24 GMT