Tsukiji Fish Market was the largest wholesale fish market in the world. Covering 230,000 square meters in central Tokyo, Tsukiji Fish Market was a global hub for seafood imports and grew from a commercial fish market to include restaurants and retail outlets, making it a major tourist destination. Although daily tuna auctions took place at Tsukiji, it was the first tuna auction of the year which made international headlines as wealthy Japanese businessmen bid far beyond true market prices for the honour and prestige of buying the first tuna of the New Year at the market. In his 2004 book The End of the Line the journalist and author Charles Clover summarised Tsukiji and its importance to Japan:
Tsukiji is more than a market; it is a national shrine to what one of its wholesalers describes defiantly … as the ‘inexhaustible sea’. It is a place where national obsession is indulged and foreigners visit to be amazed … They say that if it swims in the sea, it will end up here in Tsukiji.
Since the early 2000s there had been talk of relocating the fish market at Tsukiji to a new site, with many prominent Tokyo politicians backing the move. This eventually happened in October 2018 when the inner market at Tsukiji (which housed the auctions and commercial wholesalers) closed and was moved to a new purpose-built site one and a half miles away at Toyosu. The move was controversial due to the high cost and the long history of Tsukiji, although the outer market remains open and trading in its original location [at the time of writing in May 2019].
Origin of the Market
Tsukiji Fish Market opened in 1935, replacing the nearby Nihonbashi Fish Market which was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1920s. The Tsukiji Fish Market was built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, with the word Tsukiji translating into English as “constructed land”. The market was divided into two sections: the inner market and the outer market. The inner market was the area where the commercial fish wholesalers operated, preparing their fish and auctioning it to restaurants and licenced fish buyers. The outer market was designed to be more tourist and retail focused, featuring sushi restaurants, shops and a wide range of market stalls selling fresh seafood and related products.
Day to Day Operation of the Market
As the world’s largest commercial fish wholesalers the inner market was a busy workplace where tourists were only allowed on a restricted basis. As many as 900 different wholesale business operated on any given day, selling a combination of between 700 and 800 different species of fish, shellfish and marine plants. These ranged from small fish such as herring and mackerel and inexpensive seaweed to high-priced caviar and controversial shark and whale meat. Exotic (and sometimes endangered) species from across the world which had been transported to Japan by sea or air were also available every day. As Charles Clover states in The End of the Line “if it swims in the sea, it will end up here in Tsukiji.”
The market was also famous for its ‘turret trucks’ – small forklift-like vehicles which were driven by a standing driver and used to quickly transfer stock around the market, but Tsukiji’s inner market was best known for its tuna auctions. These would be held very early in the morning, with only specially selected groups of tourists allowed to attend and watch restaurant owners try to outbid each other for the best quality tuna. Huge bluefin tuna up to 600lb in weight would sell for anywhere between a few thousand dollars to well over $20,000 depending on the size, quality and fat content of the meat. As an active workplace which many Japanese people relied on for their livelihood the inner market was not known as the most tourist-friendly of places, with many travel writers describing the relationship between the workers and tourists as being fractious and tense. Although organised viewings of the fish auctions were tolerated it was common for planned observations of the auctions to be unceremoniously cancelled with little notice, or tourists to be temporarily banned from the inner market for several days with no reason given. The reason for this was put down to complaints of tourists’ camera flashes distracting auctioneers, people stepping into areas there were prohibited from and touching the fish were waiting to be auctioned were common.
Although the inner market has been closed and relocated the outer market remains open. Unlike the inner market, this is (and always has been) a place where tourists were very much encouraged to attend. It features a wide range of sushi restaurants allowing people to sample fresh and locally caught fish as well as sushi and sashimi dishes. There are also a number of shops and stalls selling all manner of fresh food, spices, groceries and cooking utensils and it remains a major tourist draw today, although there are fears that it may have lost some of its appeal due to being separated from the inner market and the fish auctions and wholesalers which were located there.
Annual Tuna Auction
Although tuna auctions happened on a daily basis at Tsukiji, it was the first tuna auction of the New Year which made international news. This first tuna has symbolic significance in Japan, bringing good luck and prestige to whoever purchases it (as well as publicity). It also helps set and maintain a high price for all other tuna that are auctioned over the forthcoming year. For these reasons, bidding can reach incredible levels and the price of the fish is hugely and artificially inflated way beyond its true market value. In 2013 Kiyoshi Kimura, a Japanese businessman who is known as the ‘Tuna King’ and owns the Zanmai chain of sushi restaurants, paid over ¥155 million yen (£1.3 million) for a 490lb bluefin tuna after a bidding war with a Hong Kong restaurateur. This was the highest price ever paid in the New Year tuna auction at Tsukiji.
Related article: Atlantic Bluefin Tuna
At the first-ever New Year tuna auction at Toyosu in 2019 Kimura set a new record, this time paying ¥333.6 million yen (£2.2 million) for a 612lb tuna, almost doubling the amount he paid when setting the previous record in 2013.
Some poorly-informed media outlets use this first auction of the New Year as a guide to the overall price of tuna, leading them to claim that any bluefin tuna caught anywhere in the world is potentially worth well over one million pounds. This is of course nonsense and premium bluefin tuna will sell for £10 – 30 per kilogram in UK prices, although this can be vary depending on the quality and fat content of the tuna and the availability of tuna at that time. Kiyoshi Kimura’s £2.2 million tuna would work out at over £10,000 per kilogram – a completely unrealistic and artificial price and not a figure which should be used to calculate the value of any other tuna.
Economics of Tsukiji Fish Market
Tsukiji Fish Market was the largest wholesale fish market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any type anywhere in the world. According to Bloomberg.com on a typical day over 1,600 tons of seafood was sold at Tsukiji, with the market turning over $14 million (around £10 million) per day. Around 9,000 licenced fish traders worked out of Tsukiji Fish Market, and when the supply chain and support and maintenance staff were taking into account as many as 60,000 people were employed (or had employment directly relating to) the market.
Relocation of the Market
After years of rumours and speculation it was confirmed in the early 2010s that Tsukiji Fish Market would be relocated to the site of a former gas works in Toyosu, a mile and a half away in the east of Tokyo. There were a number of reasons for this decision: the buildings housing Tsukiji Fish Market were old (having been constructed in the 1930s) and there were concerns over earthquake resistance and the fire safety of the market. It was also claimed that Tsukiji Fish Market was antiquated and that the whole market would operate more effectively in a modern building which had been specifically built to house a large commercial fish wholesalers. However, many suspect that the real reason is that the valuable real estate which Tsukiji takes up could be redeveloped into lucrative retail, entertainment or tourism-related opportunities. Tsukiji Fish Market is only a short distance from the upmarket Ginza shopping district which is home to upscale department stores and high-price boutique shops, with many Japanese politicians believing that Tsukiji Fish Market was negatively impacting on the image of the area.
The decision to relocate Tsukiji Fish Market has been controversial. Surveys of workers and auctioneers at Tsukiji showed an overwhelming number in favour of remaining at Tsukiji, and protests aimed at preventing the relocation attracted hundreds of people. There were concerns that the new market at Toyosu would be soulless and lack the authenticity and history of Tsukiji, as well as fears that tourists would be reluctant to visit Toyosu due to its location away from the city centre. Despite this powerful political figures such as the then Governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara were proponents of relocating the market, and eventually, plans for the move were confirmed. The initial date for Toyosu to open was in 2016 but the discovery that the land there was contaminated by the gas works which had previously been built on the site led to a delay of two years while the area was cleaned up. The inner market and all commercial fish wholesale and auction activities at Tsukiji officially closed in October 2018, with Toyosu Fish Market opening shortly after this. As stated, the outer market at Tsukiji with its restaurants, shops and stalls continues to trade today.
The cost of relocating Tsukiji Fish Market to Toyosu has also become controversial as the cost has increased way beyond initial estimates. Yuriko Koike, the current Governor or Tokyo, has come in for heavy criticism after the cost of the relocation reached almost ¥400 billion yen (£2.8 billion).
The New Toyosu Fish Market
Toyosu Market retains the title of the biggest fish market in the world, with the site being larger – in total floor space at least – than that of Tsukiji. There are two main buildings for the fish wholesalers and tuna auctions and a separate building for other food sellers. The issue with tourists hindering and interfering with auctions has been resolved at Toyosu. There are now well defined areas where tourists are allowed and specially built viewing platforms for tourists to watch the tuna auctions, although this now happens behind a glass screen. Toyosu market is connected to Tokyo’s public transport system, making it easy to reach and there is no charge for entry. However, the travel website TokyoCheapo.com states that Toyosu has a “sterile atmosphere” compared to the old-fashioned and ramshackle Tsukiji Fish Market, and although tourists are welcome at Toyosu they are kept on the outskirts of the market so that they do not interfere with running of the business. There are a number of shops and restaurants at Toyosu, although this is smaller than the numbers at Tsukiji Fish Market.
At the time of writing [May 2019] there are still no official plans for what will happen to the site at Tsukiji. It is being temporarily transformed into a car park for the 2020 Summer Olympics which will take place in Tokyo. There have been no further announcements on the fate of the Tsukiji Fish Market site, although they are plans to retain a much smaller fish market of some sort at the location.
While the outer market at Tsukiji continues to trade [as of May 2019] there are concerns over its future. Reports have found that tourist numbers are much reduced and that businesses will be hit by no longer being able to say that they get their seafood direct from Tsukiji Fish Market, but it has also been claimed that it is still too early to tell how the remaining outer market at Tsukiji will fare following the relocation of the main fish market, and that the tourist demand for Japanese sushi and sashimi may well mean that the remaining market has a bright future at Tsukiji.