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As relocated Toyosu fish market prepares to open, plans for old Tsukiji site in limbo

The Tsukiji market, foreground, is seen in Tokyo's Chuo Ward. At rear is the Toyosu Market in Koto Ward. (Mainichi)

The sprawling Tsukiji Market in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, known as one of the world's largest fish markets, will close on Oct. 6 for relocation to the Toyosu area of the capital's Koto Ward, bringing 83 years of history at the old site to an end.

Plans to move the aging market, familiarly referred to as "Japan's kitchen," were set in place roughly three decades ago. Over that time, distribution routes have changed and the amount of marine products that the market handles has dropped by half -- factors shaking the old market's role.

At 5 a.m. small turret trucks, known in Japanese as "taare," run quickly through the maze of narrow paths within the wholesale fish market where mountains of polystyrene foam containers packed with ice and fresh fish stand, while fishmongers and sushi restaurant owners go to and fro. The steel frame holding up the roof of the market has suffered corrosion, and some parts of the roof leak. In the summer, workers make it through the hot and humid weather with electric fans alone.

The Tsukiji market, which handles about one-quarter of all of the marine products handled by Japan's central wholesale markets, opened in February 1935 following the merger of the fish market in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo, which was destroyed by fire in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the fruit and vegetable market in the Kyobashi district of the capital. Single-story buildings are spread throughout the market which spans roughly 23 hectares -- five times the size of the Tokyo Dome baseball stadium.

The structure of the inner market remains the same as when it was built, when freight trains carried fish and vegetables to a spot near the sales floor. But with trucks now forming the main means of transportation, it is extra work to have to pack and unload products away from the sales floor. This design was left unchanged without major renovations for 83 years. But in an open-plan market with no walls, managing the quality and freshness of products was difficult.

On the grounds that the market was becoming dilapidated, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided at the height of the "bubble" economy in 1986 to renew it. The following year, the amount of marine products handled at the market peaked at 810,000 metric tons per year, and enlarging the market also became an urgent issue. As the market continued operating, however, construction work faced major delays while the projected cost surged. The initial estimate of 100 billion yen was expected to balloon to 340 billion yen, and in 1996, five years after construction began, the work was called off.

During this time, the suggestion of relocating the market to a spot of reclaimed land in the Toyosu area of Koto Ward arose. There were no other places in the center of Tokyo where it was possible to secure 40 hectares of land -- roughly double the size of the Tsukiji market.

"To cover all of Japan's kitchens, the market has become too old, small and dangerous," former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara declared during an inspection in September 1999, stressing the need to remodel it. In December 2001, the metropolitan government overrode local resistance from Chuo Ward and others opposed to the market's relocation and decided to move it to the Toyosu site. But the place where the market was being relocated had previously been occupied by a factory operated by Tokyo Gas. Co., and levels of the toxic chemical benzene that greatly exceeded environmental standards were detected at the site. The metropolitan government then went ahead with measures to combat the contamination, and it was decided that the newly constructed market would open in November 2016.

After Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike was elected to her position, however, she noted a problem with safety, and put off relocation only about two months before the new market was due to open. It also emerged that there was no soil to protect against contamination under the buildings, so additional work was performed at a cost of 3.8 billion yen. After this additional work, levels of benzene exceeding the environmental standard were found in groundwater, but the airborne level on the ground did not exceed the designated standard, and in July this year, a panel of experts at the metropolitan government determined that the site was safe, and the governor also gave the all clear.

As a result of the two-year delay in the new market's opening, the amount of compensation paid to businesses who were unable to move has already reached 9.2 billion yen. Opening of the Loop Road No. 2 passing through the old site that will serve as a path for transportation during the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games was also delayed, and during the games, it will serve as an interim route with only one lane on each side of the road.

To accommodate those opposed to relocation of the market, there were suggestions of converting the Tsukiji Market into a food theme park. However, operators of a sightseeing facility next to the Toyosu market site complained that this would result in competition between the facilities. Opening of the facility in Tsukiji has thus been delayed until after the Olympic Games, and remodeling plans for the old market have yet to crystalize.

One wholesaler who has operated a business at the Tsukiji market for over 50 years commented, "We have been at the mercy of governors at the time, which took a toll on our time, money and energy. I feel no sense of delight or deep emotions."

In contrast with the Tsukiji Market, the Toyosu Market opening on Oct. 11 -- at a cost so far of some 600 billion yen -- consists of buildings resembling large warehouses. It is a closed-style market with air-conditioning essential for freshness and hygiene control. The metropolitan government is underscoring the "cold chain," or temperature-controlled supply function of the new market, extending from production areas to stores. However, this is nothing new nowadays. In fact, one could say Japan's largest fish market has merely caught up with standard practice.

(Japanese original by Akiyo Ichikawa, Kentaro Mori and Tatsuya Haga, City News Department)

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