National / Media | BIG IN JAPAN

Emotions run high over Tsukiji fish market's move

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

In 1590, more than 2½ and a half centuries before Edo was to become Tokyo, the city’s first central fish market, named Uogashi, was established on the bank of Nihonbashi River.

That location was to prove fortuitous: Nihonbashi came to be regarded as the geographic center of Japan. As shown in old woodblock illustrations from the period, the district bustled with commerce. Even today, centuries-old businesses still operate on either side of the river, including the Nishikawa bedding company (its first store was founded there in 1615) and the Mitsukoshi department store (originally a kimono shop named Echigoya, which opened in 1673).

The old Nihonbashi fish market was devastated by the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. Realizing it had outgrown its allotted space, the city obtained a large plot of reclaimed land from the Imperial Japanese Navy in Tsukiji, on what was formerly a settlement set aside for foreign residents in present-day Chuo Ward. The new Central Fish Market was completed in 1935.

But the Tsukiji market — located just a few blocks east of Ginza’s famous shopping district — also outgrew its allotted space. Pointing to the traffic congestion and other problems, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara pushed through a plan in 2008 to transfer the “dirty, small and unsafe” market to Toyosu in Koto Ward, where it is due to open in November.

Like so many other infrastructural plans — the 1978 transfer of Tokyo’s international airport from Haneda to Narita is another example — the move to Toyosu has been controversial from the start, and Friday magazine (July 8) issued a reminder that concerns over the new location are far from settled. The Toyosu site was previously utilized as a plant by Tokyo Gas, and after the new site was picked, environmental inspectors found it to have residues of lead, cyanogens, mercury, benzene and other toxic substances in excess of environmental standards.

“The capacity of the water filtration equipment currently in use at Tsukiji is 3,000 tons per day,” Kazuko Mizutani, an architect, tells Friday. “As it was not ascertained that seawater could be safely obtained initially at Toyosu, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had requested that ‘pumps not be used’ and that salt be added to fresh water and this be utilized. The water obtained from the river dike at Toyosu is extremely dangerous.”

“Metro Tokyo is saying that the soil cleanup is finished,” Mizutani adds, “but checks have only been completed on 333 out of 579 sectors. There’s a very high danger that underground water from the site will be released into the ocean, and this may contaminate the fish in the market.”

As much of the merchandise at the new market will be kept alive in vats using this water, which likewise will be used for the cleaning of work areas, the implications for food safety should be obvious.

With less than six months before the scheduled move to Toyosu, Friday notes that concerned parties had sent a list of their worries to Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, but he was too occupied with fending off attacks prior to his recent resignation to give the issue his full attention. These potential threats to health and safety may turn out to be an “amber warning” light that spells trouble for the move.

Tabloid Nikkan Gendai (Jun. 25) has another bone to pick over Toyosu. It claims that the boring survey used to determine the geological stability of the Toyosu site for building foundations will leave the new facility vulnerable to a major earthquake.

Mizutani, the architect quoted in the aforementioned Friday article, told the tabloid newspaper, “Even though it’s considered common sense to conduct a survey for seismic vulnerability even for a small condominium of four stories, the metropolitan government was informed that since the area had already undergone surveys for road construction and waterworks, a new survey is unnecessary.”

But concerns have arisen that the pilings beneath the new buildings may snap in the event of a major temblor.

“Even robustly fixed pilings can be damaged by lateral shaking. Since most of them will not flex, if the shaking is powerful enough, it’s possible they could snap,” construction analyst Takashi Moriyama told Nikkan Gendai. “Should that happen, the floorings and ceilings of the new buildings would be rattled apart, and the walls split open.”

The article urges that the opening of the Toyosu facility be delayed pending further studies.

Though most of the 140 or so restaurants at Tsukiji market’s “Uogashi Yokocho” are expected to shift their operations to Toyosu, many people have been descending on the shops for a last nostalgic meal in the run-up to the big move, according to the Nikkei Marketing Journal (June 12).

A 53-year-old housewife came all the way from Sagamihara in neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture to patronize a sushi shop named Mizutani, which serves limited set breakfasts of homemade chashu (braised pork belly) with a fried egg, salad, rice, pickles and miso soup for ¥1,300. She sat down just before the last set was sold out.

“I ordered the mixed fried seafoods,” the woman told the NMJ reporter. “It was superb, all the more so to be able to eat it in this old-style atmosphere.”

The NMJ describes such farewell visits as “sayonara mōde,” the second word meaning the act of making a religious pilgrimage, such as when going to worship at a Shinto shrine in the new year — or, in a secular sense, to pay homage.