Prices at Japan's First Fugu Auction of the Year Underwhelm as Demand Affected By Pandemic

The first pufferfish of 2021 sold for significantly less than last year as restaurants that serve the poisonous fish continue to struggle with a lack of local diners and tourists.

Last year should've been a celebratory one for Zuboraya, an iconic pufferfish restaurant in Osaka, Japan. The restaurant opened just over 100 years ago, and has long been known as the first restaurant of its kind in the city—its famous pufferfish lantern has even become an unofficial symbol of Osaka's Shinsekai district.

Fugu fish
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Unfortunately, as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the restaurant was forced to close in September. "Thank you for your love over these many years," a sign on the door read. "Please take care of yourselves, everyone. Goodbye, and see you again!" Its oversized pufferfish was removed in the middle of the night, which really felt like the end of an era.

And in addition to all of that, the pandemic has affected Japan's first pufferfish—or fugu—auction of this year too. According to NHK-World Japan, the auction was held in Shimonoseki, which is the country's largest market for the potentially poisonous seafood. More than six tons of the fish were sold on Monday, and the highest bid was ¥15,000 ($145) for a kilogram, which was a decrease of about 25 percent compared to the same time last year.

The lower prices are believed to be a result of decreased interest from restaurants and undoubtedly from a significant drop in tourism numbers. Japan has never instituted a national lockdown, but Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to declare a state of emergency this week for Tokyo and the neighboring Chiba, Kanagawa, and Saitama prefectures. Japan does not currently allow travel for tourism or "most other short-term purposes."

Despite the below-average prices, the auction still followed its traditional format, which requires the auctioneer to put his hand in a black bag and to give potential bidders information about each auction through a series of hand signals. According to SoraNews24, the would-be buyers communicate their bids by "grasping the auctioneer's fingers in a certain way." The auction itself is conducted silently, and the winning bidder is announced by a wordless finger point.

The outlet reports that there are a few theories that have attempted to explain why fugu auctions are conducted that way, which range from the fact that they're being held during the winter so it's warmer to keep your hands inside a bag, to the idea that bidders might be tempted to drive up the prices to ridiculous levels in an open (read: vocal) auction.

One fugu wholesaler has suggested that future auctions will see even less-impressive sales prices if the Prime Minister does issue a state of emergency. That's bad news for the restaurant industry, but potentially good news for anybody who's grabbing an auctioneer's hand through a black bag, I guess.

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