The first anniversary of the costly and contentious relocation of Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market from Chuo Ward to the site of a former gas plant 2 km south along Tokyo Bay was commemorated by a tuna auction Friday morning.
With seafood consumption in Japan declining and the list of complications at the new site growing, it remains to be seen whether the Toyosu market will attract enough business to match the famous Tsukiji brand.
The Toyosu wholesale market occupies a 40-hectare site — making it roughly 1.7 times bigger than Tsukiji — and boasts airtight buildings with better temperature control and on-site food processing and packaging facilities, a combination that supposedly makes it possible to deliver products with consistent refrigeration.
However, frequent accidents involving heavy machinery and poor traffic access are just a few of the issues that have plagued Toyosu since it opened in October 2018, said Makoto Nakazawa, secretary-general of the Tokyo Central Market Labor Union, whose primary concern is the burden thrust upon many customers who now have to travel further to reach the market.
“Tsukiji may have been old but the layout of the facility and traffic access made it an efficient, incredibly well-run market,” Nakazawa said. “Toyosu, on the other hand, is crisscrossed by a complicated network of roads that make it inefficient in regards to vehicular access and food transportation.”
The decline of Tokyo’s main fish market, however, began long before the relocation. A growing number of Japanese are seeking alternatives to seafood at the same time more retailers are bypassing wholesalers to buy directly from ports.
According to statistics from the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, the volume of marine products handled at Toyosu over a 10-month period starting in November 2018 was 6.24 percent lower than the amount handled at Tsukiji over a similar 10-month period from November 2017. The amount of money handled at Toyosu was over 4 percent lower than Tsukiji in the same periods.
“It’s a fact that the number of fish caught and consumed in Japan is decreasing and the amount of seafood bought and sold at wholesale markets continues to decline,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike told reporters at a weekly news conference earlier this month. “Under these circumstances, it’s important that we work to establish the Toyosu market as a hub for seafood distribution in the eyes of producers, consumers and traders alike.”
The higher operating costs at Toyosu present an additional challenge for small fish merchants.
Annual operating costs, including labor and utility expenses, are expected to reach ¥16 billion, or triple what they faced at Tsukiji. A 2017 estimate by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government predicted the new market will incur losses of up to ¥10 billion a year.
A spokesperson for the Central Wholesale Market maintained that fish trading is thriving.
“We are happy to see that seafood and produce from around the world have traded hands at the market since Toyosu opened its doors,” the spokesperson said in a written statement sent to The Japan Times. “Moving forward, we hope to cooperate with (businesses) as we look for ways to help Toyosu grow,” it said.
The decision to move from Tsukiji to Toyosu was made in 2001 after it became clear the former was showing its age. Poor temperature control and outdated equipment led to concerns the seafood was not being properly refrigerated.
At Toyosu, Nakazawa said the high humidity in his office — which is two stories above the sales floor —is dampening the documents inside and causing mold to grow on the hinges of a table. While Nakazawa said a number of businesses on the same floor are experiencing similar issues, he made it clear he has not seen this problem anywhere else at the site. It remains unclear whether this has had any effect on the seafood.
Hiroyasu Ito, chairman of the Toyosu Market Association — formerly the Tsukiji Market Association — said business over the past year has been very smooth and praised the market’s advanced temperature and hygiene controls, which were not possible to install at Tsukiji.
However, in a recent interview with Diamond Online, run by a magazine publisher, Ito said that Toyosu’s products were not being delivered under constant refrigeration through a “cold chain” as the metro government claimed. The entrances for the delivery trucks are being left open for long periods of time, and reports have emerged that rats and cockroaches are making their way inside.
Tsukiji established its brand over the course of 83 years through the efforts of fish merchants providing high-quality seafood all within walking distance of the upscale Ginza shopping district. About a decade ago, it became a hotspot for tourists around the world looking to eat fresh fish and witness the market’s legendary early morning tuna auctions.
However, the tourists at Toyosu are prohibited from walking around the wholesale floors and, for sanitation reasons, are separated from the auction floor by glass walls.
“The Tsukiji brand has been all but lost,” said Tai Yamaguchi of Hitoku Shoten, a fifth-generation family-run fish merchant that relocated to Toyosu last year. “It was a world famous market but it seems that reputation is slowly disappearing.”
Hitoku Shoten’s sales have shrunk nearly 40 percent since the move, and other small businesses are suffering the same fate, Yamaguchi said.
“My children and grandchildren work with us and we want them to take over the business so we have no choice but to keep trying,” she said. “Our livelihoods depend on it.”
The demolition of the old market is well under way, and the space will be used as a parking lot for buses, shuttles and other vehicles during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games before the property is developed into a “theme park” designed to celebrate Japan’s food culture.
Originally slated for November 2016, Tsukiji’s relocation was postponed in September that year by Koike to investigate soil pollution concerns at the new site, which was in the midst of construction.
The total cost of the relocation, including work to install the water-management systems needed to sample toxic chemicals in the groundwater, was about ¥600 billion.
Metropolitan bureaucrats at the time said groundwater and air surveys at Toyosu showed the concentrations of benzene and arsenic—both carcinogens—were below government-set safety limits, and experts believed they didn’t pose any danger.
While some were concerned that the food and produce being handled at the market could be contaminated, others said that fear was born out of insufficient or sensational reporting by the media.
The regulations pertaining to potentially toxic chemicals in groundwater are as strict as those for tap water.
According to the Environment Ministry, if a person drank 2 liters of contaminated water from the Toyosu site every day for over 70 years, the chances of getting cancer would increase by 0.001 percent.
“The standards are for drinking water, and since nobody was ever going to drink the water under Toyosu, it was never a problem in the first place,” said Minoru Yoneda, a professor in the division of integrated biosciences at Kyoto University’s Graduate School of Engineering. “If the media had reported it properly and explained to the public what these numbers meant, there never would have been so much fuss.”
Surveys of groundwater since then have indicated little change in the concentration of toxins beneath Toyosu.
But just because the concentration is below state-set regulations it doesn’t mean there is a zero risk, according to Akio Hata, former president of the Japan Association on Environmental Studies.
In the event of a natural disaster, he added, damage to buildings in the Toyosu market could expose fish and other food products directly to the contaminated groundwater.
“What I’m afraid of is an earthquake or storm surge causing cracks in the ground that would allow the groundwater to rise to the surface,” Hata said. “Since that risk will always be there, this problem will continue semi-permanently.”
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