Photo/IllutrationSaury, a seasonal delicacy featured in a festival held near Tokyo’s Meguro Station on Sept. 10, 2017 (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

In Japan, "tai" (sea bream) is considered the king of fish, and old sayings would seem to back this up.

"Kusattemo tai" is one. It translates literally as, "It may be rotten, but it's still a sea bream," meaning there is no substitute for quality.

Another, "ebi de tai wo tsuru" (literally, "use a shrimp as bait to catch a sea bream") is said to be the Japanese equivalent of the English saying "to throw a sprat to catch a whale."

I also learned from "Tsuri to Sakana no Kotowaza Jiten" (Dictionary of sayings related to fishing and fish) that there was an old maxim advising anglers to go for "madai" (a type of sea bream) or grunt if making money was their top priority.

Thus, the sea bream has always been a synonym for pricey fish. But recently, it has finally fallen behind "sanma" (saury) in market value.

At Tokyo's Toyosu fish market, the per-kilo wholesale price of saury caught in Hokkaido now tops that of madai. Should I call this a freak autumn phenomenon?

There was a time when a meal consisting of freshly broiled sanma with a bowl of the new rice of the season was an affordable luxury. But those days appear to be long gone. Or, perhaps the time has come to change our thinking and recognize that sanma is a budget buster.

Over the past few years, I became accustomed to poor sanma hauls, year after year. But the exorbitant price the fish has fetched this autumn is off the charts.

The August-September haul was even less than one-quarter of what it was two years ago, when it set "an all-time low in a half century."

The water temperature of the seas near Japan is said to have risen too high for sanma to come near, which likely indicates changes in the global environment.

Many shoppers this autumn must be opting for fish other than fresh sanma, seeing how slim the latter are for their grossly inflated value.

Come to think of it, I myself have had only frozen sanma so far this year. In fact, when I went to the popular "Meguro no Sanma" festival in Tokyo earlier this month, the organizers were making do with charcoal-broiled frozen sanma.

Should the poor haul continue into next year, I worry that even the frozen ones could start running out of stock.

Back in the Edo Period (1603-1867), the fish markets of old Edo (present-day Tokyo) were piled high with fresh sanma in season, and people literally feasted on them for days.

I understand that the festivities were referred to as "sanma sawagase"--literally, "sanma sensation."

Now, I am miffed that the fish are creating a sensation every day because of their dire shortage.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 9

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.