Sat, Sep 15, 2018 - Page 13 News List

Operation Tsukiji: Tokyo battles rats as iconic market shuts

After a fabled 83-year history, the world’s biggest fish market, which is also a huge tourist magnet for its pre-dawn tuna auctions, will move to a brand-new facility


Fish brokers gut fish early this month at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.

Photo: AFP

The operation must be ruthless, thorough and silent. Without alerting the watchful enemy, a unit of highly trained Japanese agents will throw up a ring of steel to block any escape from the vast battleground.

Despite being vastly outnumbered, the unit’s chief commander is confident of total victory against the enemy army — tens of thousands of rats expected to scurry loose when the world-famous Tsukiji fish market closes next month.

The 23-hectare (57-acre) market near Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district is home to “not thousands but tens of thousands” of rats, attracted by fish offcuts and the market’s maze of sewers, according to Tatsuo Yabe, a rat expert.

After a fabled 83-year history, the world’s biggest fish market, which is also a huge tourist magnet for its pre-dawn tuna auctions, will move to a brand-new facility in Toyosu, about 2.3 kilometers away on the waterfront.

The moving operation is unprecedented. Some 900 businesses handling 480 kinds of seafood worth US$14 million daily — as well as 270 types of fruits and vegetables — will relocate over a period of five days.

Thousands of trucks and forklifts will take part in the move, with tonnes of waste produced in the process — manna from heaven for the furry denizens of the sewers.

“They will likely start moving en masse once they notice something unusual... The week after the market closes on October 10 will be the major battle,” a Tokyo government official who commands the Tsukiji anti-rat operation said.

To prevent a mass exodus from Tsukiji, Tokyo officials — helped by veteran rat exterminators — are busy blocking pipe and sewer exits and plugging holes in fences with corrugated sheets. Before the market is torn down, they will erect an impregnable three-meter steel wall around the site and slowly move in through the perimeter to “corner and catch” the rodents, said the operation’s commander, who asked not to be named.

In addition, they will install 40,000 sticky sheets to catch rodents, along with traps and use 300 kilograms of rat poison.


Restaurants and bar managers in the area surrounding the market are on red alert for a possible influx of unwelcome rodent visitors. “It’s frightening,” said the owner of one restaurant in Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most fancy wining and dining districts just a stone’s throw from the market.

“We heard rats scrabbling around when an old theater building was torn down in this neighborhood,” said the 56-year-old restaurateur, who wished to remain anonymous.

“Some of our neighbors are even feeding stray cats now. That is how defensive we are getting.”

The Ginza Street Association, which brings together local businesses, even created a special anti-rat taskforce last year.

Tokyo exterminator GP Corporation is telling clients in the area to keep their eyes peeled. “We are calling on them to stay vigilant and not even keep the doors open because sewer rats may come right in once the moving starts,” said Kazuya Takahashi from the company.


Hiroyasu Ito, a veteran fish trader as old as the Tsukiji market itself, has known Tsukiji since the days when buyers and sellers communicated via telegram.

Now chairman of the Seafood Wholesalers’ Association, Ito is aware of the venerable market’s issues.

“We have many problems. Birds fly in, and many things like rats come in and out freely,” he said about the open-air facility. But he stresses that the market has an impressive food hygiene record. In recent decades, market players have made the utmost sanitary efforts, with special inspectors in white jackets checking on food safety every day.

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