So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

It’s almost time to scratch off a century-old landmark that is on nearly every Tokyo “must-see” list:  Tsukiji Fish Market is winding down, as Japan moves the world’s largest fish market to a brand-new location. Since the Kanto earthquake of 1923 destroyed its predecessor, the market has withstood war and changing times. The wholesale market on the banks of the Sumida River several minutes from Ginza opened in 1935 and is best known for its predawn tuna auction. The world's biggest and most famous fish and seafood market is due to move in November to a massive complex further south in Tokyo Bay, making way for redevelopment of the prime slice of downtown real estate.  With plans to run a traffic artery directly through it and build an Olympic press venue there, the Japanese government plans to wipe out world-famous and legendary fish market before the 2020 Olympics.  


Plans have been in the works for almost 20 years to move Tsukiji, which is a visibly old-school operation.  Merchants and vendors scrawl orders and keep their books on paper, and many question the safety of the existing facility.  It sits on prime Tokyo real estate - just a mile (1.5 km) south of Tokyo Station.  Yet it is a critical part of the Japanese economy.  An estimated 17% of the world's total fish catch passes through its gates. It is also uniquely Japanese; although architects attempted to study European and American markets to find an ideal design, they had to come up with their own design to meet the vast needs of the Japanese public: A quarter circular shape, which allowed easier access and handling for freight trains and the steel structure above allowed a wide, continuous space free from columns and subdivisions.  


The new site will be high-tech, modern, expensive - and also not exactly designed for tourists.  It is across Tokyo Bay and not easily accessed by subway or train. It is a far cry from its origins; the first market in Tokyo was established by Tokugawa Ieyasu during the Edo period to provide food for Edo castle. Tokugawa Ieyasu invited fishermen from Tsukuda, Osaka to Edo to provide fish for the castle. Fish not bought by the castle was sold near the Nihonbashi bridge, at a market called uogashi (literally, "fish quay") which was one of many specialized wholesale markets that lined the canals of Edo.  The Great Kantō earthquake in 1923 devastated much of central Tokyo, including the Nihonbashi fish market. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the market was relocated to the Tsukiji district and, after the construction of a modern market facility was completed in 1935.  


Time is running out - the last famous New Year’s Tuna auction took place in January. Visitors are lining up every morning at 3 a.m. to watch the frozen tuna auction, which takes place between 5:25 a.m. and 6:15 a.m.  If you wish to attend, check out the market’s website at:  The final move has been set for November 7, 2016.  


Less certain is the fate of the neighborhood of shops next to Tsukiji, the "outer market" (jōgai-shijō) shops, a network of small, family-owned retail shops selling fish and meat, seaweed and sweets, knickknacks and kitchen supplies.  While the "inner market" (jōnai-shijō) is set to move, the outer market will ostensibly remain, although no one knows what will happen to the neighborhood after Tsukiji leaves.  There are plans to build a new retail market in Tsukiji’s place as well. 




The Economist

The New York Times

Yahoo News

The Japan Times