The plan unveiled by Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike to relocate the Tsukiji wholesale market to the new site in the Toyosu waterfront area — while also redeveloping the Tsukiji site in five years without selling it off as scheduled — seems to raise more questions than answers over the relocation of the famous market, which she put on hold last year over ground soil and underground water pollution concerns at the new site. Koike needs to quickly flesh out the plan — disclosed just three days before campaigning begins for the metropolitan assembly election, whose outcome will be crucial for her own new party and her administration of the capital — to show that it will be a practical solution to the protracted mess over the relocation.
The aging Tsukiji market in Chuo Ward was initially scheduled to be moved to the Toyosu area of Koto Ward last November. Right on the heels of her election as governor in a landslide victory, Koike put that on hold in August, citing pending underground water tests at the Toyosu site, on which used to stand a Tokyo Gas Co. plant and where high concentration of toxic chemicals had been found.
Subsequent revelations that the metropolitan government had failed to cover the site with thick layers of clean soil to insulate the new market buildings from the pollutants, as had been advised by experts in the original plan, and findings of harmful substances in underground water samples that well exceeded environment standards (even though it was pointed out that pollution of underground water will not significantly affect safety of the market itself because such water would not be used in its operation) added to food safety concerns, throwing the market’s relocation to Toyosu in limbo. Questions were raised over the ballooning cost of building the new Toyosu market, as well as the decision to move the wholesale market to a polluted site in the first place.
After keeping the public and people with stakes in the wholesale market in suspense for months, Koike said Tuesday that the metropolitan government would move the Tsukiji market to the Toyosu site as planned, after additional work is done to shield the market complex from the harmful substances. Although the governor did not specify a time frame, media reports show that the relocation would take place as early as around next May.
Koike also said the site of the Tsukiji market won’t be sold off as initially planned, but will be redeveloped in about five years as “a new market equipped with the function of a food theme park” to retain Tsukiji’s “tradition and brand.” While the site will be redeveloped as a tourist attraction, some of the market’s functions will return to Tsukiji, and traders will be able to come back to Tsukiji once it’s redeveloped, she said. Given that the Toyosu market alone is projected to incur billions of yen in annual operating losses after it opens, the governor said using both Tsukiji and Toyosu will be the “wisest” decision.
The feasibility of the plan will need to be verified. The metropolitan government’s initial plan was to use the proceeds from the sale of the Tsukiji site, estimated to reach some ¥400 billion, to pay for the more than ¥300 billion debt incurred in the ¥600 billion construction of the Toyosu market. Specifics on how the debt should be repaid without selling off the Tsukiji site, Koike said, are still being explored. Whether there will be enough demand to sustain both markets, how the operation of the two can be coordinated, or what will be the cost of maintaining them against revenue, will be among the questions that need to be asked.
Koike unveiled the plan just as the campaign for the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election was about to open, in which her own fledging Tomin First no Kai (Tokyoites First) party is aiming to win a majority with its allies on the strength of the governor’s strong popular support. The Liberal Democratic Party, whose candidate lost to Koike in the gubernatorial race last year, has been calling for a quick relocation of the Tsukiji market to Toyosu and accusing the governor of indecision on the closely watched issue.
There is speculation that Koike’s decision is aimed at avoiding alienating either proponents or opponents of the relocation to Toyosu, while also differentiating her position from that of the LDP. Aside from political considerations, whether the plan will be practical should be examined soberly.