Tokyo’s new fish mar­ket may end up a white ele­phant

The Straits Times - - OPINION - Robin Hard­ing

TOKYO There are cracks in the con­crete and an army of rats left be­hind, but as the US$3.5 bil­lion (S$4.8 bil­lion) re­place­ment for Tokyo’s Tsuk­iji fish mar­ket fi­nally opens, one fear looms largest of all: that the city has sac­ri­ficed its best tourist at­trac­tion for a white ele­phant.

Speak­ing at an open­ing cer­e­mony last week, Tokyo gover­nor Yuriko Koike said the new mar­ket in Toyosu, 2km across the bay from Tsuk­iji, was safe. She de­layed the mar­ket’s planned move last year be­cause of wor­ries about soil con­tam­i­na­tion.

But as fish­mon­gers pre­pare to move into their cav­ernous new con­crete home, some crit­ics al­lege the new mar­ket is al­ready ob­so­lete – a sym­bol of Ja­pan’s re­luc­tance to change in the face of an age­ing pop­u­la­tion and mod­ern dis­tri­bu­tion tech­niques.

“The new Toyosu mar­ket will place a huge bur­den on tax­pay­ers with­out ad­dress­ing the need for sweep­ing re­forms,” said Pro­fes­sor Masayuki Ko­matsu, a se­nior fel­low at the Tokyo Foun­da­tion.

“Ja­pan’s rep­u­ta­tion for qual­ity food is partly thanks to the tech­niques and spe­cial ex­per­tise de­vel­oped by mid­dle­men in the whole­sale mar­kets,” he said. “But it’s not nec­es­sar­ily com­pet­i­tive any more.”

The move will also di­vide the whole­sale mar­ket, fa­mous for its early-morn­ing tuna auc­tion, from the outer mar­ket of res­tau­rants and shops. They will stay be­hind in Tsuk­iji, leav­ing res­tau­ra­teurs to fret about whether tourists will visit one, both or nei­ther.

“I think the tourists will fall off to some de­gree,” said Yoshiyuki Hashimoto, who runs a sashimi bar called Kashigashira in the outer mar­ket. “They’ve changed it from a mar­ket to a dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre.”

Thou­sands of tonnes of seafood pass through Tsuk­iji’s ram­shackle stalls ev­ery week on their way to the world’s most de­mand­ing sushi chefs and con­sumers. The ex­otic fish on dis­play and sheer scale of “Ja­pan’s Kitchen” have made it an oblig­a­tory stop on Tokyo’s tourist trail.

But what charmed vis­i­tors up­set Tokyo of­fi­cials, who wor­ried about hy­giene and in­ef­fi­cient city cen­tre lo­gis­tics. In 2001, the city de­cided to build a mar­ket on the site of a for­mer coal-to-gas plant in Toyosu. Ms Koike said the dis­cov­ery of a 10m crack in the new build­ing did not re­open con­cerns about soil con­tam­i­na­tion, as al­leged by protesters.

The fish traders will grad­u­ally move to Toyosu be­fore the mar­ket opens fully on Oct 11. City ex­ter­mi­na­tors have spent weeks seal­ing up Tsuk­iji so its res­i­dent rats do not in­vade the ritzy shop­ping dis­trict of Ginza when their food sup­ply is cut off.

“It’s a cut­ting-edge fa­cil­ity, and it’s all in­doors, so it’s quite a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment to Tsuk­iji which is com­pletely open to the air,” said Ms Koike, mean­ing the doors are open and the fa­cil­ity is not cli­mate con­trolled.

Crit­ics said that while the clean­li­ness and con­struc­tion of Toyosu may be cut­ting-edge, the struc­ture of the mar­ket it­self is stuck in 1923, when Ja­pan cre­ated its unique sys­tem of mu­nic­i­pal whole­sale mar­kets.

They were set up in re­sponse to an out­break of rice ri­ots, said Pro­fes­sor Hiroji Fu­jishima of Tokyo Seiei

PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Tokyo’s new Toyosu mar­ket (fore­ground), the $4.8 bil­lion re­place­ment for Tsuk­iji. Crit­ics said that while Toyosu’s clean­li­ness and con­struc­tion may be cut­ting-edge, the struc­ture of the mar­ket it­self is stuck in 1923.

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