It is 3am on a cold and dark Tokyo morning, but people are already lining up in the hope of getting one of the 120 coveted seats to view the daily blue fin tuna auction that takes place at 5.20am. The huge, 200kg tunas have been known to go for more than a million dollars. When the auction is over, many repair to one of the tiny restaurants that surround the market for a sushi breakfast.
Welcome to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market, soon to be closed forever in favour of a new market in another part of Tokyo.
The big frozen fish and fresh fruit arrive by truck, ship or aircraft to the world’s largest fish market and are displayed on large concrete slabs as registered dealers and fish brokers walk among them to inspect the haul and determine which fish they may want to bid on and for what price.
Most of the trading finishes by around 9am. By then about 2,900 tons of fish and produce worth US$12 million have passed through the market on the way to supermarkets and restaurants across Japan. By noon, the market has closed for the day so that the slabs and concrete floors can be sluiced down in preparation for the next day’s trading.
After the auctions, many visitors repair to the “outer market”, a warren of small shops selling peculiarly Japanese foods such as pickles, sushi and dried beans plus kitchen ware. Under the relocation plan, while the fish market will move, the outer market will remain at Tsukiji, assuming the small shops and restaurants can survive without proximity to the fish market.
Tsukiji may be Tokyo’s best-known tourist draw, but it is still a working market and one that has outgrown its premises.
“Tsukiji is too old, too small, too dirty and too dangerous to be used as Tokyo’s kitchen,” said former governor Shintaro Ishihara, who first proposed moving the market to a new location in 2009 early in his administration.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government also has its eyes on the 50 hectares of prime waterfront property that has been the Tsukiji market’s home since the Imperial Navy ceded the property to the city in 1935. Within walking distance of the famous Ginza shopping district, the market site is worth billions to the city coffers at time when it faces the rising costs of hosting the 2020 Olympic Games.
The government picked out a replacement site on reclaimed land in Toyoso, a nondescript part of Tokyo about 3km from the present market, and has built a series of multi-storey market stalls. At 400,000 sq m, the new market is considerably bigger than Tsukiji and undoubtedly more efficient. But the district doesn’t have quite the same charm.
The city hopes to maintain some of the market’s star quality status by officially naming it the Tsukiji Uogashi market – the latter element in the name harks back to an even earlier market destroyed in the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and replaced by Tsukiji.
The people most affected by the move, the fishmongers themselves, have been divided over the merits of the move but are largely resigned to it. Even some of the long-time traders accept that the move to larger quarters is inevitable.
“I wanted to stay in Tsukiji, but it is also true that the market has aged significantly after 80 years,” said trader Takeshi Shibyama.
WATCH: World’s biggest fish market set for new home
The move was scheduled to take place on November 7, but Tokyo’s new governor, elected in July and the first female to hold the job, Yuriko Koike, suddenly postponed the move until January, if not later. She cited growing concerns over ground pollution at the site, ballooning costs and lack of communication between departments. “I decided to postpone the relocation after reaching the conclusion that it has not received the support of the citizens of Tokyo and the workers at the market,” Koike said.
The cost of the project has grown from 392 billion yen in 2011 to 588 billion (US$5.7 billion) in 2015. Much of the cost overruns are due to the expense of dealing with considerable ground pollution. The Toyosu site used to be the location of a large coal gasification plant owned by Tokyo Gas Co., and the ground water and top soil was found to be heavily contaminated with benzene, chromium, arsenic and other hazardous chemicals, right beneath what is supposed to be the new gastronomic heart of Tokyo.
The solution was to truck in fresh soil creating an unpolluted 2.5-metre buffer beneath the market stalls. But what was supposed to be a straight forward operation of moving to the new site turned into an almost classic case of miscommunication and bureaucratic bungling, embarrassing the city government and alienating the Tsukiji fishmongers, many of whom were not happy about the proposed move in the first place.
The layer of clean soil was supposed to have been spread evenly among the dozen market stalls to guard against contaminates getting into the food. But it was found that the spaces beneath five market stalls had been turned into concrete lined basements, supposedly for storing heavy equipment. It was a classic case of one hand not knowing what the other was doing. Even the vice governor in charge of the market move was under the misconception that the buffer soil had been spread evenly under every stall.
“Nobody in the organisation spoke up to say ‘this looks strange’,” said Koike.
Meanwhile, many of the fishmongers, who had invested money in the move are seeking compensation from the city for the delay. A special panel will be set up this month to adjudicate compensation claims.
For her part, Koike has ordered another environmental safety evaluation, with the results expected by the end of the year. She will undoubtedly depend on that report in making her final decision whether to okay the move.
The pollution problem has given those fishmongers who oppose the move some ammunition. A few of them of them decided to shut their businesses, passed down from generation to generation. However, the largest fishmonger cooperative at the site, previously opposed to the move, has now come out in support.
“I wish the government would issue a safety declaration so we could get on with the move,” said the cooperative’s president Junichi Ho.
The public will still be able to watch the blue fin tuna auctions. But something indescribably important will be missing. “The new place will be more like a shopping mall where you can buy fish,” said Tsukiji tour guide Reiko Yoshiwara.
“I doubt it will have the same appeal to tourists.”
Todd Crowell has been a journalist in Asia for 30 years, in Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan