Tsukiji reopens tuna auctions to the public

by Mariko Kato

The Tsukiji fish market, one of Tokyo’s most popular tourist attractions, reopened its early morning tuna auctions to the public Monday after a monthlong ban.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which runs the gigantic wholesale market in Chuo Ward, temporarily banned onlookers, 90 percent of whom are foreign tourists, from the tuna trading floor Dec. 15, citing visitors’ bad behavior among other reasons. The ban ended Saturday, and the first auctions took place Monday.

“We decided to reopen because we had said we would only close for a month,” said Yoshiaki Takagi, deputy head of the venue, officially called the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market.

Even after the ban was imposed, a few dozen people a day continued to show up in hopes of catching a glimpse of the bidding, Takagi said. Before the temporary closure, as many as 500 people would watch the auctions.

“We were so lucky that we were able to see the auctions today,” said Danish visitor Rikke Grundtvig, who was one of a group of international MBA students on a study visit from the Berlin School of Creative Leadership at Steinbeis University Berlin.

“We have many nationalities in our group, South African, Brazilian, American, and we all wanted to see the fish this morning before we started studying,” she said.

The central observation area, which measures about 30 sq. meters and has room for about 60 people, opened at 5 a.m. with the auctions starting at 5:30 a.m.

Security guards were deployed on the auction floor and handbills in five languages outlining acceptable behavior were distributed to observers.

According to Takagi, media reports that cited visitors’ poor behavior as the main reason for the tentative ban were not entirely accurate.

“We closed mainly because around the New Year’s period the auctions get very busy. More trucks pass through the market and it gets dangerous,” he said, adding it is difficult for the auctioneers to walk around the observation area.

But Takagi acknowledged that onlookers were causing a hygiene risk and disruptions.

“Some tried to touch the fish and used flash photography, which made it difficult for the auctioneers to see the buyers, who signal by hand,” he said.

Last April the market established rules urging visitors to voluntarily “refrain from coming.” But, Takagi said, “these measures weren’t very effective.”

“It’s shocking that tourists would try to touch the fish. If I were running the market I would have shut it down, too,” said a visitor from Los Angeles who identified himself only as David. “But it would have been a real shame if the auctions had been closed today, as it’s been the highlight of my Japan trip so far.”

Tsukiji market did not set out to be a tourist attraction, Takagi said. “It’s first and foremost a place of work,” he said, though adding he wants tourists to watch because “it reflects Japanese food culture”.

The metro government announced Thursday that Tsukiji market will move to a new location in Koto Ward in 2014. The next venue will be more welcoming to visitors, Takagi said.