Loss Of A Historic, 78-Year-Old Marketplace : A Way Of Life Moves With A Market

Big changes are ahead for Tsukiji, the world’s largest seafood market. Tokyo is spending $4.5 billion to relocate the 78-year-old fish market to accommodate modern truck traffic — a move critics call another blow to a vanishing way of life. The move is part of a broader face-lift Tokyo is planning before the 2020 Olympics…The neighborhood was now bracing for the loss of a market that drew hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and pumped some two trillion yen, or $20 billion, annually into the local economy, mostly from tourism and the market’s main business of distributing seafood…

a-way-of-lifeEach day before dawn, the world’s largest fish market comes to life in frantic activity, a last holdout of an older, quainter Japan. Built in 1935, the market is also a popular tourist destination. Workers in rubber boots slosh through inch-deep water, while others dart by on motorized carts carrying plastic-foam boxes with every manner of creature that can be hauled from the sea, from dagger-shaped silver sardines and spider-like crabs to the deflated protoplasmic blobs of mysterious deep-sea predators. In one corner, auctioneers loudly hawk the huge frozen torsos of prize tuna laid in rows on the floor. Nearby, fishmongers in open-air stalls carve the tuna flesh into ruby-red bricks for sale to sushi bars and grocers.
Soon it will be gone. The city is planning to spend $4.5 billion to relocate the market — nicknamed Tsukiji for the neighborhood that surrounds it — to a modern, climate-controlled distribution center on a manufactured island in three years. The move is part of a broader face-lift Tokyo is planning before the 2020 Olympics.
For the many who have opposed the change, the relocation will bring not only the loss of a historic, 78-year-old marketplace, but also another blow to a vanishing way of life. Tsukiji has been a place where merchants haggled face to face, and where even the lowliest fishmonger displayed the obsession with freshness that helped Japan bring sushi to the world. Its passing is part of a broader transformation, away from the tiny mom-and-pop shops specialising in everything from tofu to rice cakes that have been increasingly replaced by big-box supermarkets and fast-food chains.
Officials say they want to redevelop the market’s approximately 50 acres of land — valued in the billions of dollars — into high-rise apartment buildings and a tunnel that would connect Tokyo to the islands that will house new Olympic sites. They, and many who work at the market, also say the move is necessary to keep up with changing times, as the same fast-food chains and supermarkets that have changed Tokyo’s urban landscape have increasingly shunned Tsukiji as too expensive and slow.
Opponents counter that the relocation is yet another example of the skewed priorities of Japan’s development-happy bureaucrats, who they say want to tear down what has become one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations to enrich big construction companies and real estate developers. “Tsukiji was the beating heart of the sushi culture that spread across the world,” said Kazuki Kosaka, a former local assembly member who opposed the relocation. “And now it will be redeveloped into condominiums.”
When moving Tsukiji was first proposed 14 years ago, it spurred widespread opposition, even leading to rare street protests. They were led by so-called middle wholesalers, the traditional middlemen who buy from big wholesalers and sell to restaurants and other retailers; they feared the new market would allow large corporate wholesalers to squeeze them out. In 2001, the plan appeared doomed after the discovery of toxic contaminants at the new site, which had housed a refinery for converting coal into natural gas.
But city officials were undeterred, chipping away at opposition by offering subsidies to help pay for the move. Last year, the union representing the middle wholesalers, who number about 700, switched its position and came out in favor of the move, which is considered a done deal barring some last-minute reprieve.
“The Tokyo Government is using the Olympics as an excuse to distract people from the contamination issue,” said Makoto Nozue, 76, who has bought and sold tuna at the market for six decades. “Tsukiji is a globally known brand name and a cultural treasure. Why throw this away?” Despite continuing concerns about pollutants, many critics say they have already resigned themselves to the inevitable loss of the fish market. They are now trying to figure out how to prevent the relocation from also causing the loss of the more than 400 restaurants and shops outside the market’s entrance.
Known as the “jogai,” or “outside the market,” this busy maze of stores also springs to life by 6 a.m., when throngs of sleepy Asian and Western visitors fill its narrow passageways. Hiroyuki Ushioda, whose shop specialises in pickled mackerel and dried mullet roe, said he remained optimistic that the jogai had enough name recognition to thrive even without the market. “I suppose it is inevitable that the market must change with the times, but that doesn’t mean the neighborhood will disappear,” Mr. Ushioda, 33, said.
Still, he and other merchants said the neighborhood was now bracing for the loss of a market that drew hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and pumped some two trillion yen, or $20 billion, annually into the local economy, mostly from tourism and the market’s main business of distributing seafood. Uzumi Yoshida, deputy head of Chuo ward, the boroughlike district in Tokyo that includes Tsukiji, said the ward would spend $23 million to build a much smaller replacement market on what is now a nearby parking lot in the hopes of persuading some of the middlemen to stay.
Even with the new, smaller market, Mr. Yoshida admitted that it might be hard to retain the neighborhood’s cramped, energetic atmosphere. City officials say one of the market’s biggest shortcomings is that it was built in 1935 to handle trains, not today’s trucks, leading to congestion every morning as hundreds of vehicles line nearby streets waiting for a loading berth to open.
Without a new market built to handle more trucks, they say, there will be no way to reverse the steady decline in the amount of seafood going through Tsukiji: according to the city, the market handled 497,000 tons of seafood in 2011, down 15 percent from 2006. The vice president of the middle wholesalers union, Tadao Ban, said it was that decline, and not the subsidies, that convinced the union it needed the new market to survive — and to keep alive another tradition: the passing of business to the next generation. “Without the new market, we won’t have businesses left,” said Mr. Ban, 68, who inherited his tuna wholesale company from his father, and hopes to hand it down to his son. “I grew up in this market, and have spent my life here, but I also want to have a future dream to pass down to my children.”


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