National

History on ice: Workers and tourists say ‘sayonara’ to Tokyo’s Tsukiji market

by Sakura Murakami

Staff Writer

With scores of plump tuna lining the floor, auctioneers rhythmically called out prices and bidders signaled with their hands. It was before daybreak, and the Tsukiji fish market looked like it was starting a normal business day.

Yet it would never be the same again.

The auctioneers were holding the very last tuna auction at the renowned market that had supplied top restaurants for more than eight decades and attracted tourists from around the world with its gritty charm.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government closed the Tsukiji market for good on Saturday, citing the aging of the 83-year-old facilities, a shortage of space and preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The public wholesale food market is moving to a pristine facility in Toyosu, about 2 kilometers south in Koto Ward, and will begin operations there on Thursday.

The last day at Tsukiji looked much like any other, with workers in caps and rubber boots carefully examining fresh fish and produce and closing deals for their customers. However, workers at the fresh tuna auction also heard speeches from the presidents of wholesale companies — some with their lips pursed, others with tears in their eyes.

An auctioneer yells during the final tuna auction at the landmark Tsukiji fish market, the last day of the market
An auctioneer yells during the final tuna auction at the landmark Tsukiji fish market, the last day of the market’s operations before it closes, in Tokyo on Saturday. | AFP-JIJI

Some took photos and videos of the auctions, lest they forget the daily scenes at Tsukiji that once seemed so humdrum and routine.

When one wholesaler made a winning bid of about ¥80,000 for a pack of matsutake mushrooms at the produce market, his fellow bidders erupted into applause and cheers.

Fresh produce wholesalers examine a pack of tomatoes before the last auction at the Tsukiji fruit and vegetable market in Tokyo
Fresh produce wholesalers examine a pack of tomatoes before the last auction at the Tsukiji fruit and vegetable market in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward on Saturday. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

“There are still a great many issues we will have to deal with, even after our relocation to Toyosu,” said Takeshi Yoshida, president of Tsukiji Uoichiba Co., one of the market’s seven seafood wholesalers.

“However, I believe that we can overcome those issues, just as we always have throughout the 83 years of history at this market,” he added in the closing speech for the fresh tuna auction.

The landmark Tsukiji fish market holds some of its final auctions on Saturday before closing its doors for good.
The landmark Tsukiji fish market holds some of its final auctions on Saturday before closing its doors for good. | AFP-JIJI

The 23-hectare (57-acre) Tsukiji site was one of the largest wholesale fish and seafood markets in the world. On an average day in 2016, 1,541 tons of fish and seafood, worth a whopping ¥1.6 billion ($14 million), changed hands at the market.

Located next to the Ginza luxury shopping district, this was the place where ritzy restaurants relied on wholesalers to select the best catches of the day for them.

Yet behind the hustle and bustle of the market were long-standing problems with its aging facilities.

A wholesaler checks the quality of fresh tuna on Saturday at one of the last tuna auctions before the Tsukiji fish market moves to the Toyosu site.
A wholesaler checks the quality of fresh tuna on Saturday at one of the last tuna auctions before the Tsukiji fish market moves to the Toyosu site. | REUTERS

The buildings had no air conditioning and wholesalers had to use ice to keep their produce fresh. Rusty steel beams would fall off the deteriorating buildings, and thousands of rats reportedly live within the compound.

The market started undergoing renovations in the early 1990s but the plan was abandoned due to mounting costs. In 2001, the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market decided that Tsukiji would relocate to the site of a former gas plant in Toyosu.

Wholesalers check the quality of fresh tuna on display at the last tuna auctions at Tokyo
Wholesalers check the quality of fresh tuna on display at the last tuna auctions at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market before it moves to the new Toyosu market in Koto Ward. | REUTERS

In 2016, however, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike announced that the move was being postponed indefinitely due to concerns over soil and air pollution at the new site. Toxic materials exceeding legal limits were found in the soil of the market-to-be the following year, and safety concerns have plagued fish dealers and split them into two groups: one opposing the relocation and the other promoting it because they have already heavily invested in the Toyosu site.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has maintained that Toyosu will pose no health risks and that the new facilities, which have undergone some repairs, are safe for use.

The relocation was finalized despite the controversy and concerns voiced by wholesalers over the new site.

Workers were dispassionately preparing for the big move on Saturday. “Like it or not, today is the final day,” said Yutaka Hayama, president of the Tokyo Fish Market Wholesale Cooperative. “But let’s take all of the grit, skill, wisdom and strength we have cultivated here at Tsukiji to the new market. We will start a new chapter of our history there.”

Some businesses, unable to foot the bill for the move, are opting to shut down.

“Everyone was pouring their heart and soul into their trade until the very end,” said Hiroyasu Ito, chairman of Tsukiji Market Association.

“We’ve all worked so hard like this, and I couldn’t help but feel deeply about how it will come to an end today,” he said. “But I did overhear people saying, ‘See you at Toyosu’ to each other, and it has been very heartening to know that what we have now at Tsukiji will continue to live on at Toyosu.”