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The Toxic Saga of the World’s Greatest Fish Market

More than 16 years and 600 billion yen later, the fate of Tokyo’s Tsukiji market is still up in the air

Tsukiji is the most exalted fish market on earth, the sort of humbling place that causes the likes of globally worshipped god-chef René Redzepi to deem it one of the “seven culinary wonders of the world.” With nearly 671 licensed wholesale dealers selling more than 500 different kinds of seafood — $17 million worth a day, and more than 700,000 tons a year — the 23-hectare market is so vital to the global commercial flow of fish that it’s almost impossible to imagine how the international sea critter industry would fare without it.

But the occupants of this oceanic oasis have been dancing to a slow swan song. Last November, after more than 80 years in its current location, Tsukiji’s inner market, the fish-slinging heart of the operation, was supposed to move to Toyosu, a man-made island about 1.5 miles south, where a freshly constructed, state-of-the-art space had been built. Tuna wholesalers scheduled the shutdown of their refrigerators; new contracts were arranged with outside shippers; shrimp mongers tied up loose ends for delivery routes. A stunning film about the market, Tsukiji Wonderland, was released to commemorate the historical moment. Nostalgia was in the air.

The move never happened. Today, Toyosu sits empty, and Tsukiji teems with life, its fate still hanging in the air. This is the, er, fishy story of what happened.

With a layout that’s akin to a tipped-over Greek amphitheater, Tsukiji is a menagerie of things both living and recently alive. The outer market spills into the taxi-jammed streets with its offerings — oversized vegetables, patterned dishware, mom-and-pop noodle shops — and crawls with tourists in their sandals and DSLR cameras, ogling bowls of slurp-worthy udon, boxes of chestnuts, and shiitake mushrooms, phallic and forearm-thick.

The inner market, where tourists are banned but for a limited window each day, possesses a decidedly factory-like quality: At every turn, piles of discarded Styrofoam loom, while hoses spray away fish guts, blood, and sweat in equal measure. Stapled advertisements for concerts and now-defunct fish companies have yellowed almost beyond recognition. Everything looks like a fire hazard, though nothing feels out of place. Birds peck around the periphery, and on one morning, I watched an emboldened hawk swoop in and pick up a rogue piece of fish from the concrete.

Built in 1923 on the site of a former imperial naval base, Tsukiji is a testament to an older way of doing business — that just happens to sit in the middle of a grid of impeccable city planning. Take a comfortable stroll a few blocks northeast, and you’ll find the fancifully hooved streets of the Ginza district, where you can literally eat breakfast at the Gucci store, just like in the Kanye song. Meander down another path, and you’ll run smack into the drab concrete towers of salarymen, who scuttle in and out like worker bees serving the inscrutable whims of company queens.

Real estate developers have argued for decades that the land underneath Tsukiji is too centrally located to remain a fish market. In the 1970s, city planners considered moving the market because they believed that “the land in the major business and entertainment districts could be put to much better use,” Harvard professor and Tsukiji expert Theodore Bestor wrote in his 2004 book, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.

The main reason for the most recent push to relocate Tsukiji’s inner market, though, is the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. A new multi-lane highway critical to the city’s Olympics infrastructure is slated to run through the center of the market, connecting the Olympic Village directly to the National Stadium. Today, that thoroughfare sits half-built, with construction arching directly into the lip of Tsukiji like a post-apocalyptic rainbow into a pot of fish guts. Without it, many are concerned that traffic will be a nightmare as athletes attempt to trek between their temporary homes and the primary stadium, making Tsukiji a literal roadblock of the highest order.

There’s also the rumbling, but never directly stated, sense that Tsukiji just doesn’t quite project the image Japan wants to show the world. As with its aggressive modernization campaign going into the 1964 Olympic Games — to spotlight just how far the country had come in the aftermath of World War II — Japan seems intent on showcasing a country that is modern, orderly, and forward-thinking. Tsukiji, on the other hand, is structurally outmoded in every possible way. On the morning I visited in mid-October, skidding across the water-slicked floors of the inner market, it quickly became clear that Tsukiji is a living, breathing organism unto itself, luminous in its gore.

Yoshikatsu Ikuta, an intermediate wholesaler of fresh tuna and the author of 11 books about different ways to prepare fish, has been one of the most vocal advocates for relocating Tsukiji, having spent years appearing on television to speak out in favor of what he believes is a necessary step towards modernization. Because the majority of his fellow fishmongers oppose the relocation, he asked to meet me just outside of Tsukiji — this did not stop him from glad-handing passersby like a politician, scanning the street for folks to greet with a toothy grin and a wave — so we found ourselves settled in front of a nearby shrine that pays homage to Tsukiji and the wares sold therein: egg, shrimp, scallops. Ribbon-covered trees draped the space, and bells the size of cabbages rang out as visitors came to pray.

“The market is going to move still,” Ikuta said. “It has to move!” He wore a shirt emblazoned with a cartoon drawing of two tunas with legs, kind of like inverted mermen, their fists raised. (“It’s me and my brother!” he said, lightly mimicking fisticuffs.) “When you go to these conveyor belt sushi restaurants across Japan or in America, the sushi chefs are basically wearing astronaut suits in order to serve the fish or touch it,” he explained. “If they could only see what it looks like where the fish actually comes from! We have to keep up with the rest of the world. We have to be cleaner. Toyosu is clean.”

After an extended period of construction bidding, work began on the new space in 2012. Located in the ward of Koto, about a 20-minute train ride from Tsukiji, the initial renderings of the Toyosu site reflected an Epcot-like, futuristic vibe. It was to be a surgically sterile place for handling precious edible cargo, coupled with a distinctly separate area for tourists where the hungry and shutter-happy could enjoy snacks in a contained environment and soak in hot mineral baths. On a chilly autumn afternoon when I toured the site, the overcast sky and sprawling, boxy complex seemed to fuse together into one indistinguishable landscape that was 180 degrees of difference from Tsukiji. Grey and lifeless, the Toyosu market has an exterior — huge, polished and shiny — that could just as easily be found in Austin, Texas, as in Tokyo. Scraggly trees had been planted to give it some semblance of vibrancy, but the impact was minimal.

It’s also fairly obvious that the fishmongers weren’t widely consulted during the construction process. The shiny new stalls for vendors are closed off in an attempt to be more sanitary, but the design deeply limits the mobility of the fishmongers, especially when cutting large hunks of fish. (In one television program about the new space, a wholesaler showed just how difficult it is to go about his business of slicing tuna as his elbows repeatedly bumped up against the cubicle-tight walls.) The Toyosu space has multiple levels, which means that fish will have to be carried up and down stairs, sloshing liquid all the way. Dangerous slip-and-falls seem guaranteed. There’s also only one access point for trucks to unload and pick up wares, which many wholesalers worry will create traffic and workflow problems.

In general though, despite their evident dissatisfaction, few vendors at Tsukiji want to discuss the move, and most will quietly stop talking if pushed on the topic. One woman, who was merrily chatting about her family’s history of omelet making, simply backed away slowly from our conversation, trailing off all the while, when I asked about her thoughts on the relocation. “We’ll be staying here because the outer market isn’t going to be a part of the move,” a bean-paste-selling octogenarian explained to me quietly. “Also, I’m an old woman! I live nearby! There’s no way I could make the commute to the new location.” I nodded my head in agreement that it is, indeed, more difficult to get to.

At the end of the day, no one being asked to move really has a choice in the matter. The land that Tsukiji sits upon is owned by the Tokyo Municipal Government, and sellers simply rent their stalls from the city. “I’ve been here 26 years, and we don’t have an option because it’s not really our land,” the proprietress of an on-site sushi restaurant told me. “Of course, under the current conditions, I’d prefer to run the business here.”

Plans to relocate Tsukiji to Toyosu were put into motion under former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a novelist-turned-politician who was regarded during his tenure, from 1999 to 2012, as a hawkish, corrupt leader. In 2001, the Ishihara administration finalized the decision to build the new market on land that had been occupied by the Tokyo Gas Company from 1966 until 1988, an area known to be heavily polluted with industrial chemicals. Testing in January of that year had revealed that benzene levels (among other things) were 1,500 times higher than the allowed maximum, but Ishihara’s administration pushed forward. To sanitize the site, the ex-governor approved a plan to replace the defiled dirt with a 4.5-meter-thick layer of clean topsoil as one of a series of “chemical countermeasures” that would, in theory, neutralize and seal off the hazardous materials, preventing them from oxidizing or affecting the market’s products or workers in any way.

This, however, never came to pass. Last September, Yuriko Koike, the newly elected governor of Tokyo, held a press conference to announce that the necessary improvements never actually happened. Koike, the former environmental minister, revealed that not only was the soil still loaded with arsenic, cyanide, hexavalent chromium, cyanogen, lead, and benzene from the gas company’s tenure, but the protective layer of topsoil was never added beneath the Toyosu site in the first place. Instead, contractors created hollow concrete chambers in place to separate the dirty soil from the ground floor of the market. The public and vendors alike had been duped, and now a very real danger was present in the new space. The move was immediately tabled, barring new soil testing. “At this point, we still can’t say the relocation is a sure thing,” Koike told reporters, noting that the delay would, obviously, impact preparations for the Olympics. “It is regrettable the delay has caused so much trouble, but right now the most important thing is to ensure safety.”

For people like Mikio Wachi, though, this all came as no surprise. One of the most adamant, and vocal, opponents of the move, the 71-year-old Wachi is a second-generation frozen-tuna wholesaler who resembles a Japanese Martin Sheen, tufts of white hair kicked out in all directions, and he has no chill when it comes to the Tsukiji move. At one point while explaining the dangers of chemicals in the soil to me, Wachi became so animated that he fell backwards into several wooden pallets, arms flailing, then bounced right back up like a rubber ball.

In October, at a meeting between the Tsukiji fishmongers and Tatemasa Hirata, the top chemist responsible for Toyosu soil testing, the scene devolved into a screaming match, with Wachi making his voice heard above the crowd. He recalled the scene to me: “I raised my hand and asked a question: ‘What is your opinion about the arsenic ... detected in the groundwater?’ Hirata said that the arsenic level in the underground water is less than the tap water. So, I told him, ‘Everyone is saying that you should drink the groundwater if you say the level of arsenic is less than the tap water!’ Then I told him, ‘I cannot trust you.’

“When we had a break,” he continued, “Hirata came to me and asked me to withdraw my earlier comment when I said I cannot trust him because the meeting was broadcasted through the Internet. But I did not. This time, they also said that the mercury level was seven times more than allowed! What I am afraid of is that the panel might report to the governor that they have done the checkup, and the governor trusts them, and they decide to move.”

By the end of 2016, that still hadn’t happened. Koike urged former and current government officials to come forward as whistleblowers and admit their involvement in the deceit in exchange for, essentially, immunity. For months, no one took her up on the request. “The former governor refuses to admit to anything, and has essentially gone into hiding,” Magdalena Osumi, a reporter for the Japan Times, told me in October. “He keeps saying that he’s too old and sick to remember what happened a few years back when he was making the plans for the move, and that he can’t recall whether or not he signed off on anything.” She paused. “But he’s out speed walking every morning — like we all can’t see him!”

Koike, though, is everywhere. Since taking office last July, Tokyo’s first female governor has attempted to position herself as a foil to the “old-boy networks” of her predecessors. And it seems to be a popular move so far. Her approval rating hovers steadily above 60 percent, and many believe she will be the next prime minister of Japan. Over and over, she has reiterated her commitment to putting the “people first” above all else. “The Koike regime does not make decisions just because something is already ‘decided,’ or built, or a prearranged plan,” she said to reporters about the Tsukiji relocation. “Among the decisions that have been made until now, many are not based on the idea of ‘people first.’ We will see them with the people’s point of view, disclose the information, and make the process clear.”

In November, the governor slapped pay cuts on officials who illegally made under-the-radar changes to Toyosu’s chemical countermeasure plans, ignoring the recommendations of scientists to put clean topsoil in place. By early 2017, Koike aroused the ire of Ishihara, the former governor, so much that he finally broke his silence on Tsukiji, pinning the blame on his underlings, and noting that he is neither an expert on architecture nor the environment, so he couldn’t possibly understand the details.

The chemical problems persist. In March, during the 10th round of groundwater testing, it was revealed that, among other things, levels of benzene, arsenic, and cyanogen still exceeded allowable limits; the amount of benzene was 100 times higher than is acceptable, clocking in, at its peak, at 1 milligram per liter for groundwater.

For those dedicated to the move though, it seems that even the risk of poison can’t change their minds. “This is all just crazy,” Ikuta told me, shaking his head. “All this nonsense about chemicals and why we shouldn’t move — it all started with the communist newspaper here. And now it’s in the major newspaper! And people are believing it!”

Tsukiji fishmongers continue to wait. It’s a logistical and, in many ways, monetary nightmare: How do you operate a business when you might be uprooted again at any moment? Reparations to the fishmongers from the government, to the tune of 9 billion yen (about $80 million), haven’t been ruled out as a means of making up for lost wages. Perhaps worst of all, one sushi chef confided to me that while they waited, fishmongers from outside of Tokyo were attempting to swoop in and lure away business from restaurants supplied by Tsukiji; supply and demand pauses for no government.

In June, Koike made an out-of-the-blue announcement: The fish market would move to the Toyosu site as originally planned, with Tsukiji revitalized (read: rebuilt) as a revenue-generating “culinary theme park” to offset the excessive cost of Toyosu’s construction — more than 600 billion yen — which ran billions of yen over budget. And while some may argue the Tsukiji outer market is tipping toward an unplanned, quasi-theme park direction already (it is, after all, sardined with people), the vague plans for the new Tsukiji seem more like a fishy Disneyland than anything organic: just as slick, well-varnished, and ready-for-primetime as Toyosu. “I have concluded that using both sites would be the wisest decision,” Koike explained during a press conference, shocking many in what seemed like a dramatic (and sudden) compromise after months of dogged, scrupulous digging and research.

The timeline for both the move and Tsukiji reconstruction is still unclear, with May 2018 currently the rumored date. Koike noted that increased safety measures at the Toyosu site are critical to the move, including an advanced water-pumping system and two years of meticulous chemical monitoring. Most importantly, perhaps, there will be no Olympic obstructions this way: The governor assured the public that construction on the road slated to run through the Tsukiji site for the 2020 games would now continue as planned.

Doubts linger, though, about the viability of Toyosu, and the seemingly abrupt decision to preserve the “culinary legacy” of Tsukiji by arguably destroying it. But if any group of people are resilient enough to pursue their craft in the face of continued uncertainty, it’s the people of Tsukiji. “I have a tattoo, right here, on my ribcage that says, ‘the sea,’” I told a fishmonger when we chatted, during one of my visits, over a tub of fire-engine red tentacles. I pointed to a spot on my side for reference.

He laughed in a way that made me wince. He then traced over his body: a jagged scar on his hand from a knife, a gash on his bicep from a crate of kelp, a once-broken rib or three. “I have tattoos of the sea here, and here, and here…”

Sarah Baird is a writer and editor based in New Orleans. She reported this story as a US-Japan Fellow with the International Center for Journalists.
Wesley Verhoeve is a photographer and writer based in New York City and San Francisco.
Fact checked by Samantha Schuyler
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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