Naotaro Endo’s documentary “Tsukiji Wonderland” opened in Tokyo — in Tsukiji, in fact — two weeks ago. Under normal circumstances, such an accomplished and beautiful film would be evaluated on its aesthetic and edifying merits, but the timing of the release makes such judgments problematic.
“Tsukiji Wonderland” is about the greatness of the titular wholesale seafood market, the largest in the world, which handles 1,700 tons of fish a day, representing ¥1.6 billion in transactions. The market is a well-oiled machine because of the professionalism and expertise of the people who work there, not to mention the exacting demands of their highly motivated clientele. All the aspects that make it a unique commercial enterprise and worthy of anthropological study are described in the film. But in the end, none of it means anything because Tsukiji is destined to close very soon, and that fact isn’t mentioned until the last line of dialogue in this 110-minute movie. As a topical film, it’s immediately irrelevant.
And if “Tsukiji Wonderland” were really a requiem, which is how the movie is being marketed, it would have to address the forces that conspired to relocate the market to Toyosu, where it will be cut off almost completely from its main customer base — the Tokyo restaurants in Shinbashi, Ginza and Nihonbashi. Though Endo includes a number of foreign experts in the film to praise Tsukiji’s methodology, the business is extremely local, or at least it is with regard to what counts as the film’s main theme: The close interaction and feeling of trust between sellers and customers. A good portion of the running time is taken up by interviews with restaurateurs who harp on the fact that they would not be as successful as they are if it weren’t for Tsukiji market. That success, as Endo points out several times, is based on proximity — these chefs can easily walk or ride a scooter to Tsukiji. Toyosu is not so far as the crow flies but, since it is located in one of the lesser developed landfill tracts on the Tokyo waterfront, it isn’t convenient.
Despite some interesting historical revelations and explications about Tsukiji’s working environment, the movie is just another tribute to Japanese food culture. As such it reflects how the media ignored the Tsukiji-Toyosu problem until the new Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, decided to postpone indefinitely the scheduled move in November because of problems with the structure in Toyosu and lingering worries about contaminated soil.
The Asahi Shimbun finally put the controversy in a proper, coherent context with a four-part series earlier this month and, given the market’s situation right now, the series could have been the basis for a more illuminating documentary.
For many years, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been trying to develop the Tokyo waterfront through force of will. In the mid-’90s they tried to hold a World City Expo there, but the governor at the time, Yukio Aoshima, cancelled it, saying it was a waste of money. All those casinos that resort owners and city officials want to build would be on the waterfront, but the central government has yet to legalize gambling. The Tokyo Olympics was conceived and promoted not so much as an “international sports fair,” but as a way to bring more infrastructure and construction to the waterfront. However, the centerpiece new National Stadium is going to be built where the old one was, in the heart of the city.
While Tokyo Gas, the company that previously owned the land where the new seafood market is being built, wanted to sell it after closing down a processing plant, it legally couldn’t until it cleaned up all the chemicals the plant had left behind. That would have cost a lot of money, which Tokyo Gas didn’t want to pay, so Tokyo bought it from them at a steep discount. For years now the city government has been unable to find a use for the land.
A new highway link slated for the area around Tsukiji provided an excuse to move the facility, but some experts, according to Asahi, say the highway doesn’t require the market to move. In any case, Toyosu was chosen as the new location, and while there is some argument over just how contaminated the site is, we’re talking about a place where food is sold, and one thing’s for certain: The highly disciplined palates of the kind of people who patronize Tsukiji are not going to stand for even the slightest taint of benzene, even if it is far below allowable government levels. With the added hassle of a more difficult commute, it seems more and more unlikely that they will continue to patronize the market after it moves to Toyosu.
Sixty-one of Tsukiji’s 670 wholesalers have already done something about this problem. They plan to not move to Toyosu but rather to a new Tsukiji fish market built by Chuo Ward not far from the present one. It will include all the functions Tsukiji is famous for, including auctions, only on a much smaller scale. More significantly, it has better access to transportation than Toyosu does. As the president of the market told Asahi, the purpose is to “maintain the Tsukiji brand as the best seafood market in the world,” and he made it clear that by definition you can’t do that if you’re in Toyosu.
This is all being reported, but, as Endo’s movie illustrates — albeit indirectly — that attention is coming way too late. Where was the media when Tsukiji’s move was finalized by the metropolitan government? The decision was always treated as a foregone conclusion because that’s how the press interacts with the bureaucracy. Newspapers and TV stations now cover Tsukiji every day in tones of sadness and longing, with the result being that when the market recently held its annual fair, attendance was four times bigger than usual.
As Joni Mitchell once sang, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Tsujiki isn’t moving. It’s being killed off.
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