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