End of an era for the world’s most famous fish market

Tokyo’s iconic Tsukiji market is leaving the location it’s occupied for more than 80 years

By Shoko Oda / BLOOMBERG

The end of an era has finally come for the world’s oldest, biggest — and arguably most famous — fish market.

The outer market shops and vendors sell everything from dried foods to kitchenware

On Oct 6, Japan’s Tsukiji fish market began the move from its current spot near the upmarket Tokyo shopping area of Ginza to a location that used to house a gasworks close to Tokyo Bay, a move that’s been under discussion since 2001. The new market is set to open its doors today. 

On a typical day, about 1,628 tonnes (3.6 million lbs) of seafood pass through Tsukiji, with a value of about ¥1.6 billion (RM59.2 million). The bustling inner-city market carries about 480 types of seafood and 270 types of other produce.

As Tokyo’s iconic fish market enters a new chapter, here’s a look back at it through the years.

The history of the Tsukiji area can be traced back to 1657, when the government reclaimed land along Tokyo Bay and named it “Tsukiji” — literally translated as “constructed land”. In 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed much of central Tokyo, along with the Nihonbashi fish market. In 1935, the market was relocated to its current site near Ginza, where it transformed the Tsukiji area into a bustling town.

Workers cut a fresh whole tuna at the 1st auction of 2014, at a Sushi Zanmai restaurant

The market is one of the top tourist destinations in Tokyo, attracting as many as 42,000 visitors a day.

Each year the symbolic New Year auction often attracts media attention, as buyers battle to outbid each other. Bidders use hand signals to dictate their price, with the fish usually selling within seconds.

Kiyomura Corp, whose owner Kiyoshi Kimura runs the Sushi Zanmai restaurant chain, has frequently been the highest bidder. The most expensive tuna sold at the market went to Kiyomura in 2013 for ¥155.4 million.

Fish are checked for radiation levels at Tsukiji fish market in 1954, the year of the American “Castle Bravo” hydrogen bomb test near Bikini Atoll. The fishing boat Lucky Dragon No 5 — along with its cargo and 23 crew members — suffered radiation exposure from the blast. The poisoning of the haul, dubbed the “A-bomb tuna”, drove down prices of other fish in the market, prompting Tokyo’s government to stamp approval on fish that passed radiation tests, according to a Mainichi newspaper report. Workers drive mini-forklifts outside Tsukiji.

Buyers gathering for the final auction on the closing day of the market on Oct 6

Employees zipping around on these little vehicles, known as “turret trucks” are a familiar market sight.

In August 2017, a fire broke out at Tsukiji, burning for 15 hours before it was extinguished, according to media reports. Safety concerns were cited as a key reason to push through the move to a new location. 

Moving the market has proved no easy task. Tokyo Metropolitan Government first decided on the relocation to Tokyo Bay in 2001, but concerns over tainted soil at the new site and the cost of the move led to more than a decade and a half of delays.

In recent years, Tsukiji has featured in movies such as “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”, the 2011 documentary about Jiro Ono, one of Tokyo’s most notable sushi chefs.

A buyer driving electric turret trucks through Tsukiji market

According to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government website, the cost of moving the market is estimated to be about ¥392.6 billion. Governor Yuriko Koike has faced criticism over the price tag.

Not everyone is happy about the move to Toyosu. While some shop owners have decided to relocate to the new site, others have chosen to close down.

Tsukiji isn’t just a place to buy fish. The outer market shops and vendors sell everything from dried foods to kitchenware. Visitors wander in search of soba and ramen noodle restaurants, and can satisfy a sweet tooth with Japanese confectionery.

While the wholesale market will move to Toyosu, the busy outer shopping area will remain in its current location. The rest of the site will be redeveloped into a transport hub in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.