In Japan, The Uncertain Future Of The World's Largest Fish Market

Fishy business at Tokyo's Tsujiki market
Fishy business at Tokyo's Tsujiki market
Christoph Neidhart

TOKYO — The mackerel comes from Iceland, the salmon from Norway or Chile, and the king crab is from Russia. Less than half of the 2,000 tons of fish and seafood that passes through Tsukiji Market is caught in Japanese nets. The world’s largest fish market is a bustling trading center, with its early-morning auctions influencing prices across the globe.

But these could be the last days for Tsukiji. Twelve years ago Tokyo’s city council decided it was time to move the fish and vegetable market, which was built in the Bauhaus style in 1935. “Something needs to happen,” says a young man taking a cigarette break. His father is the owner of Ikeda, a wholesaler specializing in tuna. “We’re supposed to move within two years. But there are not even any plans drawn up for the new market.”

The steelwork around the market building is dilapidated, the ice shredder is a monster from the early industrial period, and valuable tuna fish are dragged along the floor on hooks. It is simply impossible to meet modern hygiene requirements in Tsukiji.

Tsukiji from above — Photo: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons

When it was first built, the market stood by the harbor on Tokyo Bay. Now land has been artificially reclaimed from the sea and Tsukiji is flanked by the city’s skyscrapers. The government wants to build on the land, which covers more than 43 football fields, and its bid to host the 2016 Olympics included plans to construct a media center in the market’s place. The bid for 2020 earmarked a different site.

Tsukiji has great economic significance, as it employs more than 60,000 people, directly or indirectly. Every year almost 4 billion euros’ worth of fish is sold here. But the numbers are falling as Japan’s supermarket chains and wholesale companies like Mitsubishi, the largest global tuna trader, have started avoiding Tsukiji. Instead, they go to fish markets in other Japanese harbors, where they can avoid auctions and establish strong trade relationships with stable prices.

How it works

Long before Tsukiji opens for business at 3 a.m., hundreds of trucks thunder up into the outer halls to deliver their wares. Around 5:30 a.m. the auctions begin, with tuna first. The auctioneer’s babbling is incomprehensible even to the Japanese, and the buyers’ signals are almost invisible. As soon as a bid is accepted, a ticket is slapped onto the frozen fish and the auction moves on.

The daily auctions do not reach the legendary prices that sometimes appear in newspapers. Environmental campaigners even claim that tuna are sold too cheaply. The record prices have nothing to do with the quality of the fish in question — they are all about publicity. Everyone knows the company that buys the first tuna in the new year will be mentioned all over Japanese media. On Jan. 5, 2013, Kyoshi Kimura, head of a sushi restaurant chain, paid 155 million yen ($1.48 million) for the first fish.

When a fish arrives on your plate in a sushi restaurant, it has already changed hands nine times, with four or five of those deals taking place at Tsukiji. When it is delivered, it belongs to a broker, then to the auction company, then to the buyer whose bid is successful. Normally the buyer is an intermediary who sells it on to a wholesaler, who ultimately sells it to smaller fish shops or restaurants.

After the tuna auction, smaller fish such as starfish, sea cucumbers, sea snails, mussels and even seaweed are sold off. The auctions continue until 9 a.m., then it goes quiet and many stands start packing up. At that point, tourists, including many Russians and Chinese, come to enjoy the market.

Tourists vs. bidders

Until 10 years ago, Tsukiji was relatively unknown, and the few visitors who came had free access, even to the auctions. But as the number of tourists grew, they began to get in the way of bidders and even stepped on the fish.

Busy Tsukiji — Photo: Derek Mawhinney

At the same time, the market began to change. Many of the simple shops that used to sell knives were edged out by souvenir stalls, while the snack stalls where market workers could get a cheap meal were replaced by sushi restaurants for tourists. Now there are even hotels in the area with special offers for those who want to see Tsukiji.

At one point, the disturbance became too great for the market’s management, so they decided not to allow tourists in until 9 a.m. But the Tokyo tourist board was not pleased with this decision, and the two eventually reached a compromise. Now there are two guided visits to the tuna auctions every morning. Tourists who wish to take part have to register at 5 a.m. at the market office.

At the new fish market, no one will be allowed to visit the auctions, says the young Ikeda. “Or only to watch through a window.” But the market’s fate still remains unclear. The city is planning a new fish market, hoping that it will bring more tourists, but the stallholder at Muramatsu, a traditional company selling Bonito flakes — the most important ingredient in Japanese soups — is not convinced. “We’re staying here,” he says.

The market was supposed to have been moved long ago to the artificial island of Toyosu, two kilometers to the south. But in 2007 it was discovered that the soil was contaminated by heavy metals and that a massive cleaning project had to be initiated. The city authorities were then planning for the move to take place in 2014.

They have budgeted $680 million for construction, but four of the five projects have not received a single bid, so they have been forced to move the date back again. Now the market should be in its new home by April 2015 — assuming it’s ready.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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