Chinese tourists, who tend to have a big appetite for shellfish, have increasingly pushed up prices for Ise-ebi (Japanese spiny lobster) in Okinawa fish markets to the point that many local residents can no longer afford the delicacy.

A clerk holds up an Ise-ebi (Japanese spiny lobster) at a market in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture. | THE OKINAWA TIMES

At the Makishi Public Market in the prefectural capital of Naha, foreign tourists constantly flow along the narrow passages lined with shops selling a range of seafood. Around tanks filled with lobsters, tourists haggle daily over prices with calculator-toting vendors.

The average market price of spiny lobster rose to ¥4,215 ($40) per kilogram in 2017, about double what it was in 2010, official data showed. The lobster catch totaled 5,933 kg, compared with only 102 kg in 2010, according to data provided by the Okinawa Fisheries Foundation.

Retail prices are much higher — ranging between ¥10,000 and ¥15,000 per kilogram in recent years. Okinawa slipper lobsters, which have an established reputation for being tastier, are traded at even higher prices.

Although the prices are beyond the reach of many local consumers, robust demand persists among foreign visitors to Okinawa, which now sees about 200 international flights per week.

Still, there have been some changes in buying patterns of late. Families and young people are becoming major customers at the market, known as the kitchen of Okinawa, with an increase in low-coast carrier flights to the region from abroad. Instead of being busy with wealthy buyers, vendors are ever more faced with customers who insist on lower prices.

The major public market was booming until around three years ago, when so-called bakugai (explosive shopping sprees) by Chinese tourists were all the rage.

“It was quite common to see customers selecting several big lobsters from a tank and buying them without even asking the price,” said Hidemori Yonamine, who works at a fish shop in the market. “There were customers who paid more than ¥100,000 at a time.”

At the time, the shop could pull in 80 percent of its sales from lobsters, with Yonamine recalling it as a “golden period.”

But the golden days have come to an end. Currently, Yonamine and other sellers face with foreign tourists who are willing to take time to visit each shop and seek out, or bargain for, the best price. As retailers often need to sell spiny or slipper lobsters at near cost to the tourists, their profits are dwindling, and at the same time they bear a greater risk of losing money if the lobsters they have stocked at a high price die in their tanks.

Compared with three years ago, Yonamine said his shop’s profit has been reduced by about 50 percent. “Nevertheless, as there is demand, we have to continue placing the lobsters on sale,” he said.

Engan, a seafood restaurant in Naha, used to offer soup made from locally caught spiny lobster, but it switched to imports from about six years ago after it could no longer charge higher prices. Kaoru Yamakawa, who runs the restaurant, said the soup made with locally sourced lobster would have to be priced at no less than ¥8,000.

“If possible, I want to use lobsters from the prefecture. But they are out of my range,” Yamakawa said. “I think only foreign people can eat them.”

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