TOKYO -- The famed Tsukiji market, "Japan's kitchen," will close on Oct. 6 after 83 years in operation -- decades which witnessed some of the most difficult periods of this country's modern history. War, the booms and busts of the business cycle; Tsukiji has survived it all since its official founding in February 1935 as part of recovery efforts from the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake. And amid the tumult, it has helped develop Japan's cuisine culture.
Tsukiji actually got its start as a temporary market on navy-owned land, after the fires that followed the September 1923 temblor destroyed the Nihonbashi fish market, which had been in operation since the early Edo period some 300 years before.
Twelve years later, the temporary market became Japan's second central wholesale market, following the first established in Kyoto, as part of the post-quake "Imperial Capital Reconstruction Project." Tsukiji market building 6, where sushi restaurateurs and fishmongers purchase their stock, was constructed by Taisei Corp. -- formerly Okura Doboku Co. -- and the rest by Konoike Construction Co.
The market was built in the shape of a fan, so that long freight trains could run on curved tracks inside the premises. Structural engineering department head Masafumi Ogawa of Konoike Construction's Tokyo headquarters stated, "(The construction was) a nationwide project. We used cutting-edge technology." Konoike Construction mobilized a total of 76,594 workers for the project.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, the government took control of perishable goods. The wholesale broker system was abolished in 1941, and Tsukiji market became a perishables distribution center. After Japan's surrender in 1945, the Allied occupation forces took over some sections of the site and turned them into laundry facilities.
The wholesale broker system was restored in 1950 and 1,600 wholesalers were approved to join the market. Auctions started again, and by 1961 -- three years before the first Tokyo Olympics -- Tsukiji was booming. Eighty-year-old Hiroyuki Ito, the second president of seafood wholesaler Minokei Co. -- a firm founded at the same time Tsukiji opened -- started work during that boom.
The total daily volume of fish passing through the market every year peaked at 810,000 metric tons in 1987, but began to decline as Japan's high-growth period came to a screeching halt with the collapse of the economic bubble. Bulk purchasing by major supermarket chains and other businesses increased, and it became common for sellers and buyers to directly negotiate prices without ever setting foot in Tsukiji. Only a fraction of seafood products, like tuna and sea urchin, are now auctioned at the market.
"Traditional (wholesalers with) trained eyes, who can judge (the quality) of a fish and choose the right value, aren't wanted anymore," lamented Ito. However, though a large number of Tsukiji's wholesalers are expected to have a hard time when they move over to the new Toyosu market, Ito believes that "young people can open a new path."
(Japanese original by Akiyo Ichikawa, City News Department)