Plan to move venerable Tsukiji market draws fire

Ishihara assurances that toxic soil at Toyosu site would be purified called pure theater


Trucks transporting ice, fish and produce traverse a maze of narrow alleys, threading their way through throngs of visitors.

The concrete walls, said to contain asbestos, are beginning to chip, and rusty pipes run bare across the ceilings below the buzzing crowds of tourists scouring the warren for its famed eateries and fresh fare, and the auctioneers selling off giant frozen tuna for millions of yen.

This is the current state of Tsukiji, Japan’s largest, busiest and best-known fish and vegetable market, on the waterfront east of Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza district. Run-down, yes, but beloved and also besieged.

That’s because the Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to relocate the market by 2012 to Koto Ward’s Toyosu district, on a stretch of toxic, man-made island, not far from the Odaiba waterfront area. And if the market is moved, the prime land it sits on could fetch a cool ¥2 trillion.

Experts and Tsukiji players have grave questions about the safety of the new site, which harbors a host of toxins in its soil. And the city’s promises to “purify,” pave over and reinforce the troubled land — even enough to weather the occasional earthquake — are proving a tough sell.

“As long as the soil in Toyosu is toxic, it’s obvious that no food should be traded above it,” Yukio Sakamaki, former vice chairman of the Japanese Association for Environmental Studies, said in a recent interview.

Safety at the new site first came into question in 2001. Tokyo Gas Co., which had a factory on the land, revealed that the area contains high levels of lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, cyanogens and benzene. In last April’s gubernatorial election, Gov. Shintaro Ishihara’s opponents sharply criticized his support for moving the market to a site so heavily polluted.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has acknowledged that the soil in Toyosu contains these contaminants, but after coming under a fusillade of criticism during the campaign, Ishihara on Aug. 2 dispatched a team of researchers to re-examine the site.

The plan to relocate Tsukiji, which has been operating on its 230,000-sq.-meter site in Chuo Ward since 1935, dates back to the mid-1970s.

Despite the growth in trade — it handles more than 3,300 tons of marine products and vegetables worth ¥2.1 billion a day — and its transformation into a tourist spot, proponents of relocation say Tsukiji wasn’t designed for easy access and lacks a sufficiently hygienic environment for food.

When the relocation was first proposed in the mid-1970s, it was voted down by market workers. By 1997, the old Tokyo Gas factory site in Toyosu emerged as a top candidate for the new location.

With Ishihara, who was first elected governor in 1999, putting his weight behind it, the plan finally began to move forward.

Ishihara has maintained that the current market is unhygienic and too old and small to bear its heavy distribution load. Subsequently, the metro government announced in December 2001 the market would be relocated to Toyosu by 2012, promising a cleaner environment more suited to small and bulk traders alike while permitting ready access for tourists.

So far, Tokyo has purchased about a third of the projected site at a cost of ¥62.7 billion. Total relocation costs have been projected at no less than ¥128.7 billion — and that doesn’t include buying the property and refurbishing parts of the land.

To quell opposition, the metro government has announced it is ready to replace or purify the soil at the Toyosu site to a depth of 4.5 meters and cover the surface with asphalt. It is also proposing to drive a special stake into the ground that theoretically would neutralize the substances, metro officials said.

But environmentalist Sakamaki, whose specialty is geology, argues such countermeasures would prove fruitless.

“There is no method to contain the toxins and it is unlikely that such a technique will be invented soon,” said Sakamaki, calling the metro government’s efforts mere theater aimed at projecting an image of safety.

Sakamaki said that based on his observations of liquefaction from the recent earthquake in Niigata Prefecture — in which wet soil became as fluid as liquid due to the severe shaking — he speculates that a huge earthquake in Tokyo could easily cause the toxins at the Toyosu site to surface. That would be of particular concern because some of those chemicals are carcinogens, he said.

Sakamaki’s association for environmental studies lodged an official protest against Ishihara, suggesting his ulterior motive behind the relocation is to set up a media center for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in the vacant Tsukiji lot, even though the chances of Tokyo winning the Olympics are “extremely low.”

According to the protest, selling the Tsukiji plot would net Tokyo a cool ¥2 trillion, while handing huge profits to the real estate industry through development projects.

However, Kenya Tanaka of the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the metro division that manages Tsukiji and other wholesale markets in Tokyo, insists the government is acting solely in the public’s interest and that the land inspection is being conducted properly. The results will be publicized by the end of September, he said.

“Considering previous test results, it is unlikely that the current re-examination will suggest any cancellation of the relocation,” he said, largely because the measures to neutralize the toxins and top the soil with asphalt will work.

“But if the results show that additional measures are required to assure safety, Tokyo will act accordingly,” he added.

Tanaka said keeping the market at its current location is impractical, arguing that necessary repairs would take at least 20 years. That, he said, would hurt sales and snarl distribution.

Market workers remain divided.

Many of the cozy, but highly popular eateries in and around the Tsukiji complex see the move away from the throbbing Ginza shopping, hotel and eating hub as the kiss of death, and they feel they would have no choice but to fold, although some would grudgingly opt to join the move.

Wholesaler Hiroyuki Kawaguchi, who buys vegetables used at upscale restaurants in Tokyo’s Ginza and Roppongi districts, including ginkgo nuts and wax gourds, said safety concerns over Tsukiji’s aging facilities is one reason he favors relocation.

“As long as safety in Toyosu is assured, a new market would attract new clients, including mass retailers and supermarkets, which have avoided Tsukiji because it’s so overcrowded,” he said.

Kawaguchi, vice chairman of a cooperative of 80 vegetable and fruit wholesalers at Tsukiji, said his group voted in favor of moving to Toyosu, but the issue has divided wholesalers in general.

“I think a little over half are against the relocation,” he said. “But at our cooperative, a little over half are in favor of it.”