Mon, Aug 27, 2018 - Page 4 News List

Tokyo losing part of its soul as fish market moves

The Guardian, TOKYO

A vendor cuts a tuna at a stall after the first auction of the year at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo on Jan. 5.

Photo: Bloomberg

The thousands of wholesalers who keep Tsukiji fish market running day and night have been at work for several hours when it starts filling up with weekend shoppers and tourists eager to sample the ultimate Tokyo culinary experience — a sushi breakfast.

Long lines form outside restaurants as traders whizz past on small trucks laden with boxes of every type of seafood imaginable: huge slabs of tuna, hunks of whale bacon, octopuses, scallops and sea squirts.

If it lives in the sea and is edible, there is every chance it can be found among the hundreds of stalls at the world’s biggest fish market and the sprawling nerve center of a multimillion-dollar commercial operation.

The shouts of shopkeepers beckoning customers mingle with tourist chatter in a host of languages.

However, much of the market is to fall silent soon. In October, the core of its business — the hundreds of wholesalers that provide seafood, meat, fruit and vegetables to restaurants and shops across Japan — are to move 2km east to new waterfront premises in Tokyo’s Toyosu District.

The many shops and restaurants crammed into the maze of narrow streets on the market’s periphery would remain, but its commercial heart — the wholesalers — would be transplanted to a new building that holds none of the charm of the market, which has stood on the same site since 1935.

About 1,800 tonnes of seafood, worth billions of yen, pass through the Tokyo central wholesale market — its official name — every day. In addition to almost 500 varieties of fish, it sells 270 types of fruit and vegetables imported from around the world. Its 42,000 workers keep the market running around the clock.

The loss of the shitamachi (“downtown”) atmosphere that has turned Tsukiji into a major tourist attraction is not the only problem occupying the minds of market workers.

They were supposed to have said farewell to their overcrowded, aging premises and moved to Toyosu in November 2016.

However, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike abruptly halted the relocation after evidence emerged that the new site — built at a cost of ¥588 billion yen (US$5.3 billion) — was contaminated with dangerous toxins.

Surveys revealed levels of arsenic and cyanide above government standards.

Benzene up to 100 times the limit was detected in groundwater, while mercury levels between five and seven times the national air-quality standard were found in the new building’s basement.

Red-faced authorities struggled to explain why contractors had failed to fill hollow concrete chambers beneath the building’s floor with clean soil to prevent chemical leaks.

“No one has any idea how this is going to work out,” said Yoshinobu Uka, whose business specializes in tuna sushi from the Kochi region on Japan’s Pacific coast. “There will probably be a dip in customers to begin with and road access to the new site is going to be a problem. Lots of people who work as wholesalers will leave, so that will affect the atmosphere.”

Polls taken among the market’s 500 or so wholesalers found that most were against the move.

However, earlier this month, Koike confirmed the new market would open on Oct. 11 after experts declared the area, formerly the site of a gas plant, safe following a cleanup operation.

“Safety has been secured in the market’s ground area with consideration for future risks. It won’t affect human health or perishable foods,” said Tatemasa Hirata of the Open University of Tokyo, who headed the panel of experts.

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