Story won’t end with fish market’s move to Toyosu

Tokyo’s new Toyosu wholesale food market opens for business on Thursday, taking over from the renowned Tsukiji market, which ceased operations last Saturday and ended its 83-year history. The shutdown of the nation’s largest wholesale market, which in recent years was also a popular tourist spot for both Japanese and visitors from abroad, was widely regretted. But Tsukiji’s function as a fresh food market, with its aging facilities and narrow space, had been nearing its limits.

The Toyosu market, built on a site 1.7 times larger than Tsukiji and featuring up-to-date equipment, is touted as allowing its operation to be more efficient and the quality control of its food products to be better. However, improved hardware alone will not guarantee that the market’s operator and the traders who use the facility will enjoy strong business, which, along with the safety of the food the market handles, will be needed for its operation to be sustainable

The relocation of the Tsukiji market, which opened in 1935, was discussed for decades until the 2001 decision by its operator, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, to build a new market at the Toyosu site. Ground pollution at the Toyosu site — where a Tokyo Gas plant formerly stood — was a major source of concern about the relocation and toxic substances well over environment standards were detected.

Just three months before it was originally scheduled to take place, the opening of the new market was put on hold in August 2016 by newly elected Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who cited unresolved questions over the environmental safety of the Toyosu site. The subsequent revelation that the ground below the new market’s main building was not covered with layers of clean soil — as had been planned — and the detection of toxic substances in the groundwater at the site added to the confusion, at one point throwing in doubt the feasibility of relocating the Tsukiji market to Toyosu.

The Toyosu market is finally opening after a delay of nearly two years — after the metropolitan government’s expert panel concluded in July that following the additional work done on the site to contain the pollution problem, the safety of the new market for the people working and the food sold there has been secured. The project’s price tag, including the cost of work to deal with the pollution, has ballooned to about ¥600 billion.

But the successful relocation to the new market will not be the end of the story for its operator and traders. They now face the daunting task of carrying over the “Tsukiji” brand of the old market — a reputation that had been established over decades through the efforts of fishmongers to trade in quality products. Whether the new market, about 2 km to the southeast of the former site in the capital’s waterfront area, can attract the same number of visitors as the Tsukiji market — which was within walking distance of the Ginza shopping area — remains to be seen. The site of the Tsukiji market, whose demolition will now proceed, will first be used as a transportation hub for the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games and then is scheduled to be redeveloped into a tourist spot with a food culture theme.

The business environment surrounding public wholesale food markets has been worsening in recent years and the famed Tsukiji market was no exception. The volume of foodstuff handled by these markets has been on a long-term decline. Food consumption itself is falling as the nation’s population ages and declines, and direct sales from producers to retail chains, restaurant operators and consumers are expanding. The volume of marine products handled at the Tsukiji market had declined by roughly 30 percent over the past decade. How to put the brakes on the decline will be a tough challenge for the new market.

The Toyosu market will also have its own financial problems. According to an estimate by the metropolitan government last year, the new market expects to incur a loss of up to nearly ¥10 billion each year — as the cost of running the facility, including the air conditioning needed to control the temperature inside the facility, will be much higher than that of the Tsukiji market. Steps must be taken to trim the losses by making further efforts to streamline the market’s operations and increase its transactions.

The market’s relocation from Tsukiji to Toyosu is about to be completed after years of twists and turns, but that will not resolve all the questions about its future.