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Politics

Claiming mantle of reform, Tokyo governor targets Tsukiji market

New Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, right, discussed the relocation of the Tsukiji market with a former political rival Tuesday.

TOKYO -- The newly elected Tokyo governor stuck to an election promise of transparency by opting to postpone the relocation of the historic fish market in Tsukiji, a move that could win voter support but risk grave repercussions for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Gov. Yuriko Koike is expected to announce her decision Wednesday, making it official that the relocation, which was to take place Nov. 7, will be pushed back for the time being.

Koike has cited safety and costs as main concerns. The Toyosu district where the new market is to open was an industrial site used by Tokyo Gas. After high concentrations of benzene and other chemicals were detected at the site, its soil was cleaned from 2011 to 2014 at a cost of more than 80 billion yen ($776 million).

Tokyo has scheduled eight tests of the underground water there to ensure safety. Seven tests have already taken place, with the results clearing environmental standards. Koike took issue with the fact that the eighth and final test would not happen until after the new market was opened.

"Making sure that these kinds of things are carried out properly is a key step toward winning people's trust," Koike said.

Drawing the line

The governor has also set her sights on the massive cost blowout. At 588.4 billion yen, the latest relocation cost projection is roughly 40% higher than the initial estimate. Cost overruns have been particularly pronounced in the construction of buildings and facilities, with the price tag nearly tripling to around 275.2 billion yen.

Most bureaucrats are said to see the higher-than-expected costs as a not perfect but acceptable state of affairs given tepid responses to bidding. But the new governor and her inner circle do not subscribe to this view.

"In the eyes of ordinary citizens, such huge cost increases without clear explanations look murky," one of her aides said.

Her major campaign platform was returning government to the people. She blasted the Tokyo government's habit of getting things done through deal-making between assembly heavyweights and high-ranking bureaucrats. As the Tsukiji relocation has become a symbol of such opaque wheeling and dealing, Koike had no choice but to intervene. The move was also important in demonstrating her leadership in the new government.

Yet, she is also making a risky bet. if she cannot justify the costs and assure the public about safety, the postponement will be seen as a needless exercise in political showmanship. 

Potential impact on 2020 Olympics

Construction of the Toyosu market has already been completed. Even with Koike's decision to delay, many believe that the relocation could happen as soon as February.

Meanwhile, some are expressing concerns that delaying the relocation may interfere with Tokyo's preparations for hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics. A major road connecting the Athletes' Village for the games and the city center is to be built through the vacated Tsukiji market site. The delay may also have a negative impact on wholesalers, since they now have to revise their relocation plans.

The Tsukiji market in central Tokyo, whose fish auctions are a major tourist attraction, is one of the world's biggest fresh food marketplaces in terms of the value of the foodstuffs it handles. Opened in 1935, its facilities have become outdated. Its redevelopment has been a long-running issue since the 1980's.

(Nikkei)

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