By Yuko Kurahashi
In early June 2017, I visited my family and friends in Tokyo, Japan. An additional purpose of this trip was to present a paper on theatre education in the United States at the Japanese Society for Theatre Research Conference held on the campus of Keio University located in Hiyoshi, Yokohama, about 12 miles west of the central Tokyo, my alma mater. During my stay, I also visited the Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the most famous fish markets in the world. This essay is about the Tsukiji Fish Market.
The Tsukiji Fish Market
On June 9, 2017, I visited the Tsukiji Fish Market, Japan’s most famous wholesale fish market located on the east side of Tokyo. My mother said she and her mother-in-law used to go there to buy fresh fish in preparation for New Year’s celebration.
The market began as a riverside fish market, Uogashi (uo means fish and gashi means a riverside) built in the sixteenth century. It was run by fishermen from Osaka (located in the western part of Japan), who were invited by the Tokugawa Shōgun Iyeyasu (1543-1616) to provide fish for the population of his government at the Edojo (Edo Castle, present-day Imperial Palace).
The neighborhood of the Tsukiji market has many historical sites that commemorate the development of modern Japan in the nineteenth century.
I took a self-guided tour, visiting some of the historical sites and markers. These include the birthplace of Akutagawa Ryunosuke (1892-1927, one of the most famous literati in modern Japan), the St. Luke International Hospital founded by Dr. Rudolf B. Teusler in 1902, and “The Birthplace of Keio University,” one of the most prestigious universities in modern Japan. Its monument is to the “ranjuku” (ran school, or a Dutch school) which was founded by Fukuzawa Yukichi in 1858.
In the midst of a park filled with children from a nearby daycare center, I found a bust of Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German physician and botanist who introduced Western science and medicine to Japan. Walking further east, there is the site of The Tsukiji Shō Gekijo (The Tsukiji Small Theater), Japan’s first permanent theatre for new drama (shingeki, which means drama of realism such as Ibsen and Chekhov) founded by Hijikata Yoshi and Osanai Kaoru in 1924. Sadly it is now a parking garage.
The market in the Tsukiji district started its contemporary operations after the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1923. For over 95 years, Tuskiji has remained the top fish wholesale market. The market district consists of a central area for fish auctions every morning and surrounding retailers and restaurants. The daily auctions target retail outlets and restaurants. The general public (tourists) can go inside the central market after 10AM; until then they can enjoy strolling and eating in the area around the market that is crowded with small retailers and restaurants.
I arrived at the central market around 10:30 AM. My goal was to buy sea urchin there, which is delicious but very expensive. Most of the wholesalers were busy washing containers and cutting boards, being oblivious to tourists. I was almost hit by a bucketful of water as I was passing through small aisles of the market. However, some wholesalers are willing to sell fish and seafood to tourists and let them take pictures. I successfully found and purchased sea urchin, which I enjoyed with my mother that evening.
The Tsukiji market has been a subject of the public and political debate; beginning in 2001 when Shintaro Ishihara, then the head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, proposed a plan to relocate the Tsukiji market to the Toyosu district of the Kōtō ward because of the deterioration of the facilities and the overcrowding of the space.
The relocation site, Toyosu, is a man-made island created in the 1930s and is located about 2.5 miles southeast of Tsukiji on a plot of land that was owned by the Tokyo Gas Company before the Tokyo Metropolitan Government purchased it in 2011 for relocating the Tsukiji market.
The negotiations over the purchase ignored serious environmental problems, however. Since then the groundwater and soil of the Toyosu site have been found to be contaminated with a high level of chemicals including benzene, arsenic, and cyanide. The groundwater “contains benzene levels 100 times over the safety limit” (The Japan Times, March 20, 2017). In the new building’s basement, “mercury levels between five and seven times the national air quality standard were found.” (The Guardian, 9 November 2016). As a result over 70 percent of wholesalers at the Tsukiji fish market are opposing the relocation.
Yet the Tokyo Metropolitan Government continued going forward because they had already spent so much money for construction and cleaning of the site. The site cleaning has already cost over 588 billion yen ($ 5.3 billion). Despite this, the level of contamination is still much higher than the “safety level.”
On August 31, 2016, the newly elected head of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Yuriko Koike suddenly put a halt to the relocation, which was to take place in November 2016. For 10 months, opposition to the relocation has continued, while Koike has not brought forward a long-term solution for the problems.
On June 17, 2017, Koike finally announced her policy for the relocation of the market to the Toyosu waterfront district. This policy includes further clean-up measures, but no accurate data about targeted toxic levels have been released. On the same day, at a meeting of wholesalers at the Tsukiji fish market, Koike apologized for “the metropolitan government’s failure to keep hazardous substances detected at the Toyosu market below environmental standards.” (The Asahi Shinbun, June 18, 2017)
Then on June 20, 2017, Koike announced her “revised” plan to redevelop Tuskiji to retain its “cultural legacy.” This means the market will move to the Toyosu site while Tsukiji is renovated and redeveloped to be reopened for some wholesalers and retailers mostly catering to tourists. Details and a budget have not been revealed and the public sees her “plan” with skepticism and some call her “delusionary.” I listened to her being interviewed and I found her explanation extremely convoluted and ambiguous. The ambiguity might be part of her strategy for her party to win in the upcoming elections in July.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the geography of the island and a paragraph about toxicity relating to schools and other facilities has been removed.
Author’s Note: For Japanese names, I used the first name/last name order for contemporary people and the last name/first name order for people in the past.