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End of Tsukiji fish market, an insider's view

Tokyo is doing itself disservice by turning historic site into a parking lot

| Japan
An iconic survivor of a low-tech culture, Tsukiji finally lost to unrelenting pressure for redevelopment. (Photo by Kok Leong Tham)

After more than six decades of often-bitter argument, the world's largest fish market is set to move in mid-October from its historic home at Tsukiji, in central Tokyo, to a brand-new site in Toyosu, east of the city center.

The old market site will initially become a parking lot for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and other events. But its longer-term future remains unclear, after fierce criticism of proposals by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike for a mixed restaurant, shopping and office complex.

Although fish trading will continue at Toyosu, the end of Tsukiji market will deprive Tokyo -- and its growing number of foreign tourists -- of an iconic survivor of a low-tech culture that predates the industrial efficiency of modern Japan.

Visitors often stand astounded as they watch workmen moving giant tuna on two-wheel wooden carts, while others carve the fish with knives like samurai swords. In the background, auctioneers call out sale numbers and fish prices like Asian rappers.

I am a former fish trader who worked in Tsukiji from 1978 to 1992. Since then I have been guiding small groups of tourists around the market in the pre-dawn hours. I was also a Tsukiji activist who sought for many years to prevent the relocation and urged renovation of the existing site -- a cause that finally lost to unrelenting pressure for redevelopment.

Japan's famed Tsukiji fish market will be moved to a new location, opening up space for a Tokyo Olympics parking lot. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The Tsukiji debate began in the 1950s, when Japan's Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry planned to include the fish market in a larger market where vegetables, meat and flowers would also be sold. Later, amid rising concern about deterioration of the Tsukiji facilities, the choice came down to renovation or relocation.

A decision appeared to have been made in 1999, when Shintaro Ishihara, the combative Tokyo governor of the day, opted to push ahead with relocation, only to trigger fresh controversy over reports of contamination at Toyosu. Noxious substances such as benzene and arsenic were found at the site, formerly used by a company that produced gas from coal, in concentrations exceeding limits set by Japan's Environment Agency.

After long years of further debate, the relocation was set for November 2016, but was postponed again by Koike to await the final results of environmental studies. The ninth and final report by a panel of environmental experts commissioned by the Tokyo government found that benzene contamination was 79 times higher than safe levels, and arsenic contamination 3.8 times higher. Cyanogens, which can be lethal to humans, were also detected.

Many environmental scientists said it was impossible to clean up this contamination, but the Tokyo government overrode their concerns, claiming that the surface soil had been cleared of contamination and that a series of 55 wells and pumps had lowered underground water levels. This, it is said, will prevent recontamination, helped by a layer of impervious earth under the site.

But, deep down, many fish traders find it hard to accept this as conclusive: Even if the impervious layer was originally contiguous, construction works and drilling surveys may have broken through it. If the layer is not contiguous, the Tokyo government's safeguards against recontamination will not work.

But the decision to press ahead with relocation seems to have provoked little opposition within Tsukiji, perhaps because the market has lost much of its dynamism as its physical structure has worn out.

Asked about the relocation, the naka-oroshi, the vendors who buy fish at auction and sell to restaurants and other customers, become very hesitant, unwilling to commit to one side or the other, even though the issue provoked strong feelings only a short time ago. Most try to stay out of politics, perhaps because their topsy-turvy lives, lived mainly during the night, leave little time for community activities, making most Tsukiji workers nonsocial, if not anti-social.

Business is also declining, and many Tsukiji fish vendors have already given up -- 30 years ago there were more than 1,000 vendors; today, only about 535 are still in business. There are several reasons for the drop. One is that the auction system is not functioning well, in part because of the increased influence of supermarkets, which often buy fish direct from the fishing fleets. Lured by guaranteed large-scale sales, many fishermen and fish processors now send to Tsukiji only fish they cannot sell to supermarkets.

The auction process is also hampered by over-competition among the ni-uke (auction houses), which gather fish from fishermen and sell to vendors, taking no risks but earning commissions on sales. Before World War II, there was only one major auction house at Tsukiji; now there are five major houses and two small ones, created as part of an antimonopoly drive during the postwar American occupation of Japan. But a market with multiple referees competing with each other cannot run smoothly.

Against this background, more vendors may decide to quit, seeing the move to Toyosu as a final straw, or perhaps just as an opportune moment to retire. Many vendors are elderly, in part because the businesses typically pass on their licenses to young family members, who seem less and less interested. The next wave of closures is likely to include many of the small-scale vendors that sell to high-end restaurants.

Some restaurants that pay top prices for tuna or uni (sea urchin) from Tsukiji may still buy from Toyosu. But it is hard to see a bright future for the new market. The only real upside is that it will have higher sanitary and security standards than Tsukiji, which may allow it to win part of the supermarket trade. Those who work at the new market should make this a priority, turning their adversaries into business partners.

For most, though, the move away from Tsukiji will signify the end of an era. A decade ago, a vendor trading in oysters and scallops told me that the decline in business was undermining the previously widespread desire to fight the relocation. He added, with weary resignation: "It would be best to stay here at Tsukiji, but we have to follow those administrative directives." Sadly, more than six decades after the battle began, that view now represents the prevailing opinion among market workers.

Naoto Nakamura was a fish trader at Tsukiji, and has been running private tours of the market since 2004.

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