Tsukiji fish market relocation facing delay by new Gov. Yuriko Koike

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Staff Writers

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has reportedly decided to postpone the planned November relocation of the famed Tsukiji fish market amid ongoing concerns over soil contamination at the new Toyosu site.

Koike will reach a decision after groundwater test results are released in January, Kyodo News and some other media outlets said Tuesday.

The famous market in Chuo Ward was scheduled to close its doors Nov. 2 and re-open Nov. 7 at the new multistory site standing on 400,000 sq. meters of land in Toyosu on Tokyo Bay.

Koike, who was elected last month, pledged during the campaign that she would review the relocation project.

Many fish merchants in Tsukiji, in particular tuna wholesale businesses, have opposed the move on the back of concerns about soil pollution at the Toyosu site and shortcomings in the planned alternative facilities.

Other merchants have called for a postponement because the relocation is to take place right before their busiest and most profitable season.

“Postponement is good. I have seen problems with the relocation in November. November and December is one of the busiest seasons for us,” Tai Yamaguchi, a worker at Tsukiji-based fish dealer Hitoku Shoten, told The Japan Times on Tuesday.

“I’m also worried about pollution, and the facilities in Toyosu are so bad. We don’t want to move to Toyosu until every problem is addressed.”

The pollution problem emerged in 2001 when Tokyo Gas Co., which operated a gas plant at the site from 1956 to 1988, revealed that the soil contained high levels of toxic chemicals such as lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, cyanogen and benzene.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has claimed the new site won’t pose any health problems either for Tsukiji workers or fish consumers. The metropolitan government has removed surface soil to 2 meters in depth at Toyosu and replaced it with new soil. It also plans to keep monitoring the groundwater for contaminants.

However, a group comprising wholesalers, workers and consumer representatives has alleged the metropolitan government deliberately hid information about ground contamination to speed up construction at the new site.

The group, named Tsukiji wo Mamore (Protect Tsukiji), has also pointed out that the allocated stall spaces for many fish merchants in Toyosu are too small to cut huge fish like tuna, and that the new market also won’t have enough room for transport trucks.

Eiji Ikuine, president of the Tsukiji-based fish dealer Eikoh-Suisan, said poor communications between the metropolitan government, construction firms and merchants in Tsukiji in the early planning stages resulted in the current situation.

“In the early stages, people who do not know much about the market proceeded with the project. It is the reason we see problems like these now,” Ikuine told The Japan Times.

Fish dealers should have more actively participated in the project from the start, he said. At the same time, Ikuine said he was not too worried about the reported pollution problems.

Fish dealers in Tsukiji, who have cooperated with health authorities for years, have a good record when it comes to sanitation and dealing with fish, he said.

“We often have meetings with sanitary inspectors. If there are any serious (pollution) problems, they would be played up more, but I haven’t heard of any such cases,” he said.

Koike’s decision could affect the construction of a highway connecting the central area of Tokyo to the proposed athletes village for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The decision could also prompt compensation claims from businesses that are preparing for the Nov. 7 relocation date.

Tsukiji, the world’s largest wholesale seafood market, has long been popular with tourists who watch the early morning tuna auctions as well as many top Japanese restaurants that seek out its fare.

It has been operating at the current 230,000-sq.-meter site since 1935.

Soon after Koike took office Aug. 1, she met with wholesalers and officials representing both the Tsukiji and Toyosu markets.

On Aug. 16 she visited both sites and ordered her staff to re-examine conditions at Toyosu.

Koike said last Friday the groundwater tests were supposed to be completed Nov. 18, nearly two weeks after the planned relocation. The results are now expected to be announced in January.

The metropolitan government said during the administration of Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe that it had conducted all necessary tests recommended by a special panel in charge of the contamination and rejected claims to the contrary.

The decision to relocate the market was finalized by Masuzoe, who resigned in June over money scandals. His predecessor, Shintaro Ishihara, decided to move the market to Toyosu, claiming the current site is too old and “dirty.”

Koike monitored Tsukiji issues as environment minister from 2003 to 2006.