TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - A bluefin tuna, prized by sushi aficionados as a high-end treat, sold on Wednesday for a record price of nearly $400,000 in the year's first auction at Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market.
With the ringing of bells well before dawn, an auctioneer launched into a rapid chant as rubber-boot wearing men signaled subtly with their hands.
In moments, the 342 kg (754 lb) tuna sold for 32.49 million yen ($396,700), the highest price for a single fish since record-keeping began in 1999 -- which breaks down to a whopping 95,000 yen ($1,157) per kg.
"There's a real mood of celebration with the start of the new year, and that helped push the price higher," said a spokesman for Tsukiji, a warren of stalls in central Tokyo that trades millions of dollars of fish and vegetables a day.
Tuna is one of the fish dearest to Japanese hearts, and bluefin one of the most prized of tunas, with Japan consuming over half of the world's bluefin even as supplies dwindle and fishing quotas are tightened.
But with appetites for Japanese food growing globally, Japan faces ever stiffer competition for the cherished and endangered fish.
"The custom of eating raw fish is spreading throughout the world, so that it's no longer an era where Japan is consuming all of the limited supply of tuna," an auction manager said.
As if to prove his point, the giant fish, which was caught off Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, was jointly bought by a sushi restaurant in Tokyo's posh Ginza district and Hong Kong sushi restaurateur Ricky Cheng.
Cheng, who has bought tuna in a similar way at the first auction of the year in previous years, said he was satisfied even though the price was a bit higher than he had expected.
"Good tuna is really selling to people in Hong Kong and China, and this is a really good fish," he told Japanese media.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Robert Birsel)