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Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market move finally set for October

Gov. Koike faced with consequences of her costly and controversial delay

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announces the opening date of the new fish market in Toyosu, at the municipal government office on Dec. 20.

TOKYO -- Plans to move Tokyo's iconic Tsukiji fish market to the Toyosu waterfront district are finally moving forward after Gov. Yuriko Koike announced Wednesday the new market will open Oct. 11, 2018 -- leaving barely enough time to redevelop the old site as a transport hub for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

"I think it will be deeply emotional for many people to think this will be the last New Year's auction at Tsukiji," Koike said, referring to one of the biggest events at the fish market.

"I was able to reach a key milestone," she said with visible relief.

Koike had aimed to set a date for the move by the end of this year. She just barely succeeded, thanks to the cooperation of market officials and a long-awaited breakthrough regarding additional construction at Toyosu.

The new Toyosu market is supposed to remedy the Tsukiji one's sanitary problems.

The governor had originally suspended the relocation over concerns the Toyosu site was contaminated with toxic chemicals. There are nine construction projects in the works to ensure the safety of the plot, but Tokyo had trouble attracting bids within its budget due to rising materials and labor costs. The prefectural government ended up expanding its maximum budget for these projects by up to 40%, allowing it to secure contractors for all but one.

After receiving a bid from construction company Taisei for the last project that went above the pre-announced budget, Tokyo is now pursuing direct negotiations instead of a tender process. "We believe we can cinch an agreement by the end of the year," a Tokyo government source said.

Under Koike's plan, the Tsukiji market will close its doors for the final time Oct. 6. The Toyosu market will open Oct. 11 following a four-day move.

The old market will immediately be torn down and turned into a transportation hub. A major road will pass through the site -- though, not underground as planned due to timing constraints -- and a parking lot capable of holding over 3,000 vehicles will be built. If all goes according to plan, the road and parking lot will be completed in the spring of 2020, just in time for the Summer Olympics.

What next?

Moving the fish market from Tsukiji to Toyosu opens up commercial opportunities near the new market, while freeing up rare space in the heart of Tokyo. It could result in big changes for the city as a whole.

Hot spring operator Manyo Club wants to build a facility near the new Toyosu market. But plans have come to a standstill after Koike said she wanted to turn the old Tsukiji lot into a food theme park, likely in an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the fish market with foreign tourists.

The Tsukiji fish market, famous for its tuna auctions, is a popular tourist destination.   © Reuters

"We will develop [the new market] into a key central market for Japan and bolster the 'Toyosu' brand," Koike told reporters Wednesday. The comment marked a shift from her previous focus on the Tsukiji brand, and suggests that she considers the new Toyosu market as her top priority.

But unless Koike announces concrete plans for the redevelopment of Tsukiji, it will be difficult for businesses with eyes on Toyosu to tell what they might be competing against. Commercial facilities around the new market were supposed to start opening in 2018, but already there are delays. Further lags seem inevitable if businesses decide to wait on basic plans for Tsukiji, to be ironed out in fiscal 2018.

The chemicals found at Toyosu remain a concern as well. An expert panel has concluded that construction projects planned there, including an underground concrete barrier, will ensure the safety of the seafood and produce to be traded above ground. But many believe such findings will do little to allay concerns. Continued check-ups by the Tokyo government and complete transparency will likely be key to winning consumers over.

Koike back under fire

With the Toyosu saga coming to an end, Koike's critics are once again attacking her decision from about 16 months ago to delay the move in the first place.

"We're back at the same place after spending all this money and time," one said on Wednesday. "What was it all for?"

Koike that day stressed she had made the right call. "Based on what we found out later, we were actually able to prevent confusion," she said, referring to the eventual discovery that there had been insufficient efforts to prevent chemical contamination at the site.

The controversy shed light on sloppy policymaking by the Tokyo government, and led to greater transparency in local politics. But Koike's critics have often slammed her as a "black box" for her tendency to make big calls on her own.

The governor's decision has come with a hefty price tag. Maintaining the Toyosu site even now costs tens of thousands of dollars a day, and Tokyo has already paid 9 billion yen ($79.4 million) to relevant parties over the delay.

Koike's political overtures have posed a challenge as well. Talks over the Toyosu move came to a complete standstill while she was leading her Party of Hope in the last general elections. After the party's crushing defeat, market and local officials also hit back against Koike, causing even greater complications.

Her position on the redevelopment of Tsukiji has also wavered, leading to major changes to the plans for a key road. The full extent of the delay to Tokyo still remains unclear.

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