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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.

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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.

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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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