Time catches up with old men and the sea

by Michael Hoffman

HAKODATE, Hokkaido –Kenji Fujita sits among his crabs, the wood fire in a tin bucket at his feet a thin defense against the predawn chill. It’s minus 3 degrees at Hakodate’s famed morning market, the pitch darkness of 4 a.m. adding layers to the cold.

“The next generation,” Fujita murmurs glumly, “won’t be doing this.” His own two children work in company offices. “This finishes,” he says, “with me.”

Not anytime soon, though. He’s 52 now, and plans to work till he’s 70. Still, the frenetic pace that once characterized this market is gone.

“Young people prefer to shop in department stores; only old people and tourists come here now,” says Isamu Tsukamoto, whose stall, stocked with cod roe, salmon roe, trout roe and whale bacon, is within hailing distance of Fujita’s. They are members of the same union, one of four that serve the 100 morning-market fish outlets.

Like Fujita, Tsukamoto, 50, claims 30 years in the trade. Also like Fujita, and like most other vendors, he took over his business from his father. His two children, however, will not take over his.

“People today,” he says, “want more comfortable work.”

Sachieiko Hamaya, who with her husband Kazuhiro sells salmon roe and sea urchin (the latter imported from Canada and processed in Hakodate), doesn’t blame them. “It’s unfair to the wives,” she says.

Her three children grew up, as did she and her husband, with the lopsided hours of the trade — in bed by 7 p.m., up at 2 a.m., at the stall by 4. Her daughters-in-law didn’t, and the adjustment, she concedes, would have been too much to ask of them, given modern conceptions of the good life.

“You’re looking for a youngster?” says Yoshiko Itaya, a 40-year veteran. “Him! He’s young enough to be my son!”

The man she indicates is Akihito Ogasawara, busy stacking Siberian king crabs on beds of ice, his face barely visible between a hood and a ski jacket zipped up to the chin. He’s 35, and, unlike most vendors, was not born to the business.

“Why am I doing this job?” he says. “Because I have a family to feed!”

He took it on 10 years ago, after quitting a bento factory. Of course he’s worried about the future, he says.

“We have to find new ways of marketing our product. Like the Internet. Four years ago, we started selling via the Internet. It went really well at first — but now, of course, everyone’s doing it.”

Itaya remembers tougher times. When she was young, fishwives hauled their husbands’ catches to market on their backs and sold them. A hard life was taken for granted, and they didn’t ask themselves whether it was fulfilling or not.

However, while the morning market caters to restaurants and shoppers, 1 km away is the Hakodate City Marine Products Regional Wholesalers’ Market. Participation there is restricted to 250-odd fishmongers, brokers, supermarket buyers and food-processing company representatives, and the resignation in the air at the morning market is utterly absent here. There’s no time for it. There is no time for anything except the business at hand, which is loud, frantic and, to an uninitiated observer, utterly chaotic.

Two hundred tons of fish change hands here on a very good day — or one ton on a very bad day.

The action unfolds in a cavernous room 150 meters long. Forklifts rule the concrete floor, hauling crates of fish. On one bit of floor space, a worker drags squirming octopuses out of blue crates and slaps them on a scale. A bell rings, signaling, on another bit of floor space, the start of an auction. Buyers, green tags pinned to their caps, bend over Styrofoam containers of freshly caught flatfish, some still beating their fins. The auctioneer’s calls echo insanely off the walls. An outsider listens in vain for a familiar syllable.

“It’s a special market language,” Shintaro Yamagami, manager of the auctioneering firm Hakodate Uoichiba Co. Ltd., explains later. “Each market has its own. At Tokyo’s Tsukiji, they use hand signals. Here they speak so fast, you can’t hear a word unless you’re used to it.”

And yet underlying the frantic activity is the same gloom that more openly pervades the morning market — the gloom of an industry on a seemingly irreversible skid. Thirteen years ago, Yamagami says, 35 billion yen of fish was sold on the market’s concrete floor. Last year’s sales totaled 2.1 billion yen.

Back at the morning market, it’s broad daylight and warmer. Daigoro Ueno, 77, has been selling crab and salmon roe from a stand on the market’s main street for 45 years. He’s independent — not affiliated with a union. How’s business?

“Terrible! Worse every year. Look . . .” He shows his empty money pouch. “The crowds here around New Year used to be so thick we had to move our stands onto the road so they could pass. My pouch would be jingling with money.”

He must like the work, I suggest, since he keeps on doing it in spite of such poor returns.

“Like it?” He guffaws. Clearly I have missed the point.

“I don’t like it, don’t dislike it. It’s like the air!”

The air of a vanishing world.