The Last Days of Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market

Tatsuo Suzuki

Since 1935, Tsukiji has sold more than 50 million tons of 480 varieties of seafood. But there's not much time left to visit the largest, most beloved, most awe-inspiring such market in the world.

The electrical clock on a high wall above the Tsukiji fish market beams down a number in bright red computerized lights: 179. The number of days before November 2, moving day.

I had awakened at 4 A.M. to get to the market in time for the morning’s legendary tuna auction. Tsukiji, a raucous bazaar covering 57 acres in the center of Tokyo, is a pilgrimage for anyone seeking a remnant of old Japan in the middle of the raging bull of modernity.

The fish market is epic, run-down, almost a ruin. That’s a good thing. And that’s the feeling I get as I approach its unceremonious entrance through what seems like a parking garage. It sits right across the street from the border of the ultraexpensive Ginza district, which, many say, could be a reason for the move: prized property where more emporiums of fashion and high finance could stand now wasted on a fish market.

I am following my guide, Thomas Angerer, executive chef of the Park Hyatt Tokyo. For him and other top-tier chefs, from the global Japanese-Peruvian cuisine king Nobu Matsuhisa to Jiro Ono, the 90-year-old sushi master celebrated in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Tsukiji is where the greats of the kitchen are humbled by the treasures of the sea. “For us, Tsukiji fish market is just like Egypt for archaeologists,” says Noma’s René Redzepi in the 2016 documentary Tsukiji Wonderland, which chronicles the market in its waning days.

For 80 years, Tsukiji has been the fish market to the world, selling the best seafood on the planet. In the fall it’s relocating two miles south to an island in Tokyo Bay. The moving of the market has become a flash point—in Tokyo politics, in tourism, and in fishmongering. Sides have been taken. It’s a battle of economics versus culture. Those for the move say creating a modern fish market is vital for the future of Japan’s fish industry and, thus, the world. Those against see it as another lost piece in our disappearing world, more people displaced and more generations-old businesses obliterated.

Fish moves around the market via wild-driving workers on turret trucks. (Courtesy Tatsuo Suzuki)

“It has the charm of a small seaside market on a massive scale,” Angerer is saying. Just then, a swarm of turret trucks, little motorized three-wheel contraptions whose drivers stand behind massive steering wheels, transporting their oceanic wares throughout the market, buzzes past, so close they seem on the verge of colliding, with themselves or with us.

It’s now barely 5:15 A.M.

Looking across its expanse, covering a series of open-air warehouses, shadowy corridors, and endless aisles, all lit by bare bulbs and drenched in running water, I see the ocean, transplanted. Everywhere—strewn across floors and tables, on cutting boards, in Styrofoam display boxes—are fish, so much fish, in every conceivable variety that it’s as though the sea swelled overnight in one massive wave and deposited its abundance across these concrete floors. This isn’t merely a fish market. It’s a phantasmagoria of fish. Adjectives like enormous, colossal, and gargantuan don’t begin to do it justice. Consider that each day about 900 licensed stalls reportedly sell 480 kinds, or 1,800 tons, of seafood, worth millions of dollars—some from Japanese waters, others flown in from the seven seas. Add to that the 42,000 people who work here and wander through daily.

Today, Angerer and I are two of them. I follow him down bloody and fish-gut-slippery aisles toward the auction hall, in which giant bluefin tuna are displayed like silver trophies on wooden pallets on the floor. Having once raced across the ocean at 40 miles per hour, they now lie with their innards exposed and their gills tagged and labeled, ready to fetch between $40,000 and $200,000 each. By the time we arrive, auctioneers are moving from one massive tuna to the next, testing the quality by tasting the tail meat, systematically selling each giant off in a series of indecipherable screams and hand signals, rushing to get the highest price for the perishable product.

Sushi chain owner Kiyoshi Kimura (“the tuna king”) regularly makes headlines by buying the record-setting tuna at Tsukiji’s first auction of the new year. (Courtesy Tatsuo Suzuki)

“I love it!” Angerer shouts over the commotion. “It’s the madness of the morning!”

I was in Tokyo for the first time in 1990, and it was an altogether different city. A gloriously romantic but hidden world of infinite secret streets and corridors. Where no one seemed to speak my language and directions and maps were untranslatable. I stumbled around blindly when out of the arms of my escorts and always ended up lost.

This time around, I encountered a Tokyo conquered by Starbucks, Wolfgang Puck, and Joël Robuchon, a cosmopolitan capital in which every international franchise seems to have an outpost. Two things had not changed, however: the people, the Japanese being among the world’s most gracious, and my tendency to get lost. Every time I asked for directions, a stranger, often English speaking, wouldn’t merely tell me where to go, they would personally take me there.

Which is how I arrived at the office of the Japan Times to meet reporter Masami Ito, who had dug into the archives to find the first mention of the fish market’s pending move.

For years there had been talk of renovating the market, all the way back to 1985, but the plan kept getting sidelined because of cost issues. Then, in September 1999, Tsukiji fish market, officially called the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, stood as the backdrop for a press conference by Tokyo’s then governor, Shintaro Ishihara. The market was “too old, small, and dangerous to be used as Tokyo’s kitchen,” he said, picking back up the renovation conversation. It was again scrapped, leading to the 2001 bombshell: The market would instead be moving. To a man-made island named Toyosu.

An ice maker. (Courtesy Tatsuo Suzuki)

Still, dates and details were lacking. Last July Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe announced the new market would open on November 7, 2016.

“It was like a dream,” says Kyoko Fukushi, head of the cultural organization Ginrinkai, whose multiroom library above Tsukiji’s ground floor is a jam-packed repository of literature, all focusing on fish and the fish market. A birdlike woman wearing a black shirt and crystal necklace, Fukushi is recounting hearing the news, which first surfaced as rumors in 2000. One day, she says, she up and drove the two miles from Tsukiji to Toyosu to see for herself. It was then mostly raw land. “Why here?” she thought.

Good question. “They are planning for the 2020 Olympics, and the centrally located plot that Tsukiji is on now has been designated for the international communications center,” says Theodore Bestor, author of Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.

Others aren’t so sure. “There are so many stories,” Fukushi says. “First they said it was a media center for the Olympics. Then they said they wanted to make a retail and financial center. The only person who knows is the governor.”

I ask two young government bureaucrats organizing the move from a sprawling office in the fish market. The government hasn’t decided what to do with the land, they tell me, adding that only one thing is certain: Bulldozers will flatten it.

“I have this romantic feeling to stay in this historical place, but you cannot live in the past,” Fukushi says. “When Tsukiji was at its peak, there were 1,600 wholesalers,” she continues. “That’s been almost halved. We used to have 300 [library] members. Now it’s 90. Before, all fish passed through Tsukiji; 100 percent. Today, there are other logistics companies handling 40 percent. And you have our economic crisis, prompting people to eat less fish.”

Sardines, $5.45 a pound. (Courtesy Tatsuo Suzuki)

The move was cheered by the market’s major wholesalers, the seven powerhouses who move the fish and rule the market, and whose offices line the dilapidated halls above the market where I meet with Masayuki Yamada, of the mighty house of Uoriki. “I have 70 stores in Tokyo,” he says of his business, which his grandfather started with a small fish shop 87 years ago. “I am the top buyer for 1,000 suppliers, totaling $285 million in annual sales.

“When I came to the market, I was ten years old,” he continues. “I’m 52. I’ve spent almost half a century here. I am inspired by the market, by its busy and lively atmosphere. It’s part of me. But it is no longer safe. It’s old. It can’t be healthy. Every year there are more cats and rats and birds inside. The new market will be very strict about cleanliness.”

He shows me a computer rendering of the new market, a futuristic nexus that is the polar opposite of where we sit now: made of glass and steel walls, a world totally enclosed and climate-controlled, with no running water or open walls. Here, he says he will build his “logistics system. High-tech. Everything modern.”

Still, he feels the pain of the nakaoroshi, the 600 or so small and midlevel wholesalers and the independent dealers, all passionate experts in their specific fields of fish, working their own stall-like shops as he once did. Their dissent, unrest, and protest against the move is as passionate as his is for it. “They are traditional people,” Yamada says. “They’re afraid to accept change. It costs them to move. They don’t make enough money.”

“It’s history but an 80-year-old history. It’s been patchworked over the years,” says Tomohiro Asakawa, former Japanese fisheries trading specialist to the U.S. Embassy. “I call it organized chaos. It’s surprising to me it’s still functioning. Pushcarts and jitneys and semioutdoors...”

A vender filets a tuna. (Courtesy Tatsuo Suzuki)

A 35-year veteran of Tsukiji, he says the market is split 50-50 on the move—all of which, he adds, matters little, since the government has the controlling vote. At the same time, many say the Japanese fish industry has become too big, a player on an international stage, to remain headquartered in an outdated facility with the world clamoring for its wares. “It’s a big mess,” he says. “In the last 10, 20 years, there are so many tourists, they’ve had to restrict entry, especially to the auction. Some of them get obnoxious, taking a picture side by side with the tuna—licking its head. They’ve become restrictive: 120 tourists a day at the auction.”

At first, those against had little reason to complain: Who could dispute doing business in a hygienic and high-tech fish market?

Then, in 2009, came news that changed everything. The site for the new market wasn’t clean at all. It was contaminated.

It turns out Toyosu, once the home of Tokyo Gas Co. and where the company’s plant manufactured gas from coal between 1956 and 1976, was so severely polluted that, experts soon reported, “it would technically be impossible to purify the soil.”

“The gas company revealed that the area contains a high level of chemicals, such as benzene (which was 43,000 times above environmental safety standards) and cyanogen (860 times above environmental safety standards),” reported the Japan Times in 2015. Other toxins detected included arsenic and mercury.

Once the depth of the contamination was discovered, the government formed a “technical board” to determine how to clean up the site. It would take $833 million, reported the Japan Times, of which Tokyo Gas would contribute $77 million, leaving the government to handle much of the rest. The total cost to move the market, meanwhile, had been estimated at roughly $5.6 billion.

For the denizens of the fish market, exposing their precious product to a contaminated island was beyond comprehension. The relocation was opposed by “municipal bodies, workers of the market, and ordinary citizens,” wrote Mahito Shinto, of the Japan Times. By late 2009, the moving of the fish market dominated local politics. Angry demonstrators took to the streets, leaflets were circulated, and one gubernatorial candidate kicked off his campaign in Tsukiji, telling a sizable crowd, “Why should we relocate the market? Food safety must come first!”

But the protests turned out to be for naught. The government has cleaned Toyosu island’s soil and made assurances of its purification.

In the middle of the market, I meet Kazuyoshi Watanabe, president of the House of Yamawa, literally salmon pink with rage. He says his company grosses $11 million a year and pays approximately $5,500 a month to his landlord, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. And although he’ll make the move—he has no other choice—he will not go happily.

He says he and other midlevel independent dealers will pay twice the price for half the space in the new market. “Only one-third of the stalls are making a profit here,” he says. “So let’s say a store is this size,” he says, motioning around his stall, which is a respectable size compared with smaller stalls near him. “The new market will be 1.5 times bigger. At first it was to have 350 stalls,” he says. “That meant leaving out hundreds. The government recently increased the number to 700.” But that meant cutting the size of each stall in half.

In addition to getting less space for more rent, each vendor has to pay its moving expenses, as well as electricity, air conditioning and refrigeration, everything done to the government’s strict standards. How much higher will the rent at Toyosu be? “I haven’t even been told yet,” Watanabe says.

Sushi restaurants offering the morning’s fresh catch line the outer market. (Courtesy Tatsuo Suzuki)

Then there is the physical location. Currently, all roads lead to Tsukiji. It’s easily accessible. Toyosu, remember, is an island. You have to travel farther to get there. Opponents have also blasted its lack of public transportation—especially transportation that would deliver vendors at its peak predawn hours of operation. In general, a restaurant has to have raw fish by ten or eleven in the morning.

“A lot of people are giving up,” Watanabe says. A lot also don’t believe it’s been cleansed of contamination.

Tokyo’s city hall occupies a towering skyscraper in skyscraper-filled Shinjuku. On the 39th floor I meet two more bureaucrats—Hiromasa Inagaki, new market coordinator, and Junichi Uratani, public relations—to discuss the move. I look across the glistening new skyline and then at the two stiff government representatives in these sterile surroundings and wonder: Can they hear the cries of the fishmongers from way up here?

They give me a fat booklet titled “Dispelling Concerns,” which systematically analyzes the government’s reasons for the move. Then they open a sheaf of plans and show me the market at Toyosu, an air-conditioned, totally enclosed, almost hydroponic place of glass walls and antiseptic corridors. The only thing it shares with its current market is the tuna neatly arranged on platforms across floors.

Here, fish isn’t even fish: It’s “product.” “Today in Tsukiji, there are no walls, so you have dust and insects and birds that could touch the product,” Inagaki says. “In Toyosu, there are walls to protect the product from high temperature, wind, rain, anything that could damage the fish. It’s 1.7 times bigger. It will be more spacious.” There’s a rendering of tourists at the new market: Not being able to smell, touch, or eat the fish, they’re instead lined up like visitors at a zoo, watching the proceedings from behind glass windows.

As for the contamination, they have fixed that too, the government representatives insist. “The pollution problem is fine,” Inagaki says. “We have changed the soil, and we’re going to put a distance between the land and the building.”

In addition to the fish market is the replacement for Tsukiji’s rambling, cacophonous outer market of shops, restaurants, and bars selling and serving every imaginable thing. At Toyosu, the outer market will be uniform, highly designed, and called The Marketplace.

Manyo Club Co., a nationwide operator of hot spring onsen bathhouses, won the private bid to create what appears to be a theme park– style shopping mall and entertainment complex, with a 24-hour onsen, restaurants, and a gleaming new hotel tower. The Marketplace will open in 2018, the hotel a year later.

The move will happen over four days, each vendor assigned a designated shift. “Because if everyone moves at once, there will be panic,” Inagaki says.

On my last morning in town, I return once more to the old fish market, I sit at one of its tiny sushi bars for the Tsukiji benediction: breakfast. The place, along with the other family-run sushi bars in the market, surely won’t be able to afford the move. Even if it could, how could it fit in with the high rent and theme park surroundings? I eat one final breakfast and bid goodbye to yesterday and hope for the best for tomorrow, whatever it brings.

It is 8 A.M., and the clock has counted down yet one more day before the move.

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