Tokyo’s Tsukiji, dubbed “the fish market at the center of the world” for its influence on the global seafood trade, is being forced to move to a site laced with benzene and cancer-causing chemicals.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is pushing ahead with plans to relocate the world’s largest fish market to an artificial island in Tokyo Bay in 2014. The move, a pet project of Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, will be financed by selling the existing site, two blocks from Japan’s most expensive land in the Ginza shopping district and worth at least ¥188 billion.

Tenants of the market, including Haruo Yamazaki, formed a group to oppose the move, saying food won’t be safe at the new site, once occupied by Tokyo Gas Co., after arsenic, benzene and petrochemicals were found in the soil. The government promised to spend ¥58.6 billion to clean up the waste.

“We want the people of Tokyo to feel safe,” Ishihara told a news conference following the announcement. “We’re doing something that has never been done in Japan before,” he said, describing the scale of the cleanup.

Food supply is a charged political issue in Japan, where the government is trying to boost the country’s self-sufficiency rate to 45 percent by 2015 from 40 percent — lowest among developed countries — partly to protect rural areas from economic decline.

“The planned cleanup isn’t enough,” Yamazaki’s group of Tsukiji wholesalers, known as the Ichiba o Kangaeru Kai, or Association to Study Tsukiji Market, says on its Web site. The group has organized workshops at bars and event halls to raise awareness of the toxin issue and claims 10,000 people joined a rally protesting the move last July.

The metropolitan government is still working out the details of the cleanup, Hiroshi Mochizuki, an official working on the project, said Jan. 28. The Asahi Shimbun reported Jan. 27 that the toxins run deeper than the top 2 meters of soil studied by the metropolis.

“The government will assure the safety of a new market,” Mochizuki said when asked about the Asahi report.

Tsukiji is listed among Japan’s most popular attractions by the Japan National Tourism Organization. An estimated 500 visitors a day gather as early as 4 a.m. at the market to observe tuna auctions, where buyers use hand signals to bid for fish that are later sliced with meter-long carbon-steel knives. Tsukiji, the size of 43 football fields, is crammed with stalls selling giant crabs, bright red octopus and potentially fatal fugu.

The new site will lengthen the trip from the center of Tokyo for both tourists and about 40,000 regular buyers and sellers who visit the market daily.

“People miss the markets because they associate them with the old mercantile culture of big cities,” Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy,” said in an interview. “Moving them reflects the new mercantile culture of cities — global hubs of consumption.”

Ishihara said opponents are using safety fears to obstruct efficient land use. The metropolitan government’s ¥58.6 billion cleanup budget is lower than an initial estimate of ¥100 billion because it will use new technology, he said.

The capital said installing conveyor belts — wholesalers now move fish around the market in hundreds of high-speed carts — and electronic tagging will improve hygiene at the new market.

The metropolitan government could make ¥188 billion from selling the 231,000-sq.-meter site, based on a current value of ¥820,000 per sq. meter in the area, the land ministry said.

Other cities have made similar moves, including New York, where the Fulton Fish Market relocated to the Bronx from near the Brooklyn Bridge in 2005. Plans to relocate or refurbish Tsukiji have been discussed since 1975.

This wouldn’t be the Tokyo market’s first move to less fashionable surroundings, Harvard University anthropologist Theodore Bestor wrote in “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.” Tsukiji, literally “landfill” in Japanese, relocated to its current home next to the Sumida River from the Nihonbashi business district before World War II.

The plan comes as the market’s — and Japan’s — role in the global fish trade is shrinking because of rising consumption in Europe, the U.S. and China, and as Japanese eat more meat. Tokyo’s Central Wholesale Market, which oversees Tsukiji, handled 622,207 tons of fish in 2007, the latest full-year figure, compared with 692,263 tons in 2002, government data show.

Some argue the changing dynamics of the global fish industry, in which catches reach markets by air, make the move logical. Tsukiji’s new site is linked by major roads to Tokyo’s highway system and will cut journey times to Narita and Haneda airports.

“These kinds of decisions always bring out a sense of nostalgia that part of the city is being lost,” Issenberg said. “The reality is that no one wants to build condos next to a stinky fish market.”

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