Midori and Takashi Nakao, 55 and 61, are the owners of Ichifuji, a shop selling Japanese crockery in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. Established in 1951, the store is located in one of the oldest buildings in the jōgai shijō or outer market. More than 5,000 types of Japanese tableware are available to buy, most of which are displayed in large plastic boxes on the sidewalk. Famous for its variety, high-quality goods and low prices, Ichifuji supplies cups and dishes to many izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) and sushi bars not only around Japan but also abroad. Business has been slow in the last few months, but nothing can cloud the skies for the two who still laugh nonstop at each other’s jokes.
Midori: A limited vocabulary should not stop anyone from talking. My English is really poor. I can’t make full sentences, so I use simple words to ask foreigners questions, such as, “Country?” “Private?,” “Business?,” “Kyoto?,” “Asakusa?” They understand what I’m trying to ask and reply at length. I understand a lot more than I can speak, so we can chat like this for a long time. “Korea?,” “France?” and so on.
Takashi: Business must adjust to the customers. We get up at 2:30 in the morning. That’s actually late because by that time, most people are hard at work in the market. Midori does the laundry while I make us some onigiri (rice balls) for lunch. By 4 a.m., we are here in Tsukiji. Sometimes customers are already in line in front of our shop by that time. They come from Gunma and Saitama prefectures — from all over Japan.
M: Location is everything. Tsukiji is the world’s largest wholesale fish market. Everyone comes here to shop and browse. The tuna auction attracts both the professionals, who come to buy fish for their restaurants, and the spectators, who are here just to take photos. The auction starts around 5 a.m., but restaurant people who come from many different parts of Japan to shop for fish, don’t attend the auction. They are mostly done with their purchases by 4 a.m., and that’s when they visit us with the list of dishes they need for the particular kind of fish they bought that day.
T: Japanese people don’t like to go against the grain. We prefer to go with the flow, even if it’s in the wrong direction. Our beloved Tsukiji fish market is moving to the Toyosu area in Tokyo. I think nobody in this market wants to relocate, yet no one has organized a demonstration or any type of antimoving activity. We just shake our heads and think, “Oh well, that’s the way it goes. This might be the end for us.” It probably will be. We can’t afford to move, and once the market moves, our good business here will be over. We have a few more years in Tsukiji; then, who knows?
M: Life is not as tough as it feels. We complain about the economy and our business, but compared to what people in Tohoku are going through, we are lucky.
T: Mom-and-pop shops survive the toughest of times because the owners work for free. My wife began working five years ago mostly because the economy was getting worse and we figured that very soon we might need the cheapest workforce possible. That’s called family! We used to have six salesmen in this small space, but as our business suffered, we had to let them go one by one. Now it’s just the two of us. We can survive as long as the market is here, but once it is gone so are we.
M: Unless the Japanese economy gets stronger, we can’t support the Tohoku region as much as we would like to. The quake and the tsunami were a tragedy that seriously damaged Japan. Next, the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster dealt a horrible blow to our country — and the world. But it’s the surging yen that is killing Japan. Politicians talk about rebuilding the Tohoku region, which is a very important task; but without financial reform, not only Tohoku but the whole country will need to be saved.
M: Never take advantage of people, even when they ask you to. Five years ago, one of our suppliers passed away. After the funeral, his widow offered us all the company’s dishes for free as she was going to close down the business. My husband didn’t say anything, he just went into the warehouse. He was there for hours. When he came out, he gave the widow an inventory on sheets of paper, and he quoted the same prices he used to pay her husband. He said he couldn’t accept a single plate for free, and he didn’t want a discount either. The total price was about ¥1.5 million. She cried and asked that we’d take it all for free, but my husband wired her the total amount he offered the next day. I respected him, although a tiny voice inside of me also called him slightly crazy.
T: Before “saving the world,” help your neighbors. My wife volunteers in a few groups that promote green ideas. But I think the most important volunteering she does is fulfilling the needs of others in our own backyard. Our neighbors are older than us and some of them live alone. Every day she cooks more than we need and she delivers it to our neighbors. It makes them so happy because all they need to cook is rice and miso soup, she brings the rest. I’m proud of her.
Judit Kawaguchi loves to listen. She is a volunteer counselor and a TV reporter on NHK’s “journeys in japan” Learn more at: juditfan.blog58.fc2.com. Twitter: @judittokyo