Just a short walk from some of Tokyo's most chic addresses, the smell of fish permeates the air. But not for long, if the government gets its way. In one of the most jarring scenes in Tokyo, fishmongers carry baskets loaded with their fresh catch at Tsukiji market, minutes away from the glitz of the Ginza district packed with luxury shops and corporate headquarters.
The world's largest fish market, which produces fresh sushi and sashimi flown daily to top restaurants the world over, has been in Tsukiji for seven decades, long topping must-see lists for first-time visitors to Tokyo. But Governor Shintaro Ishihara, re-elected in April with an overwhelming mandate, is set on evicting Tsukiji, where fishmongers rub shoulders with business commuters at the subway stop.
Ishihara, an outspoken nationalist known for his political determination, believes the market is an anachronism and wants to send the fishmongers packing by 2012 to a new waterfront development in Toyosu, a few kilometres (miles) away. He believes the land in cramped central Tokyo could be better used. He has proposed making the former fish market the main media centre for a potential 2016 Tokyo summer Olympics, the governor's pet project.
"The site is narrow, dangerous, not really clean, and asbestos is used in various spots in the facilities, although they are sealed up," Ishihara said in a recent news conference.
"What happens if a natural disaster occurs and asbestos scatters in the air? We have to deal with this issue by considering these problems." But many fishmongers are up in arms, saying that even if the new location is cleaner and more spacious, the move strikes at the heart of culture in the land of sushi.
"The relocation could destroy culinary culture as small middlemen may be forced out of the market. They may not be able to afford the higher fees to pay for the expensive facilities of the new market," said Makoto Noze, 69, the chairman of a wholesalers' group opposing the relocation plan. "We don't have any problems doing business here. In contrast, we'll face problems of water shortages and an expected rise in facility fees, in addition to the worst problem -- land pollution -- at the new address," he said.
The new site is owned by Tokyo Gas Co., which revealed in 2001 that the area was polluted with deadly cyanogen and arsenic. "How can we move to land heavily polluted by cyanogen and arsenic? We, people who deal with fish, one of the staples for the Japanese," Noze said.
The Tokyo government promised to replace polluted soil with fresh earth to a depth of 4.5 metres (15 feet) and says the problem has been solved. But faced with fierce opposition, Ishihara pledged in March -- in the midst of his campaign for a third four-year term -- to reinvestigate possible land pollution. While Ishihara stands by the 2012 move date, the schedule has been delayed.
The government was supposed to pick a contractor in March for the relocation but delayed it due to the new probe of potential pollution, said Kenya Tanaka, a senior official of the Tokyo Metropolitan government. -- No more buying fish by bicycle -- Opponents also complain about poorer access to the new site by subway and train and point out that the periphery area of middlemen dealers, or "off-Tsukiji," would be pulled apart from the main market under the relocation. "I wonder what would happen to small buyers who come here by bicycle and drop in at several middlemen traders," said Masayuki Uchiyama, 54, an intermediate wholesaler who buys and sells frozen fish. Indeed, about two-thirds of the middlemen have no plans to move out with the main market, according to Akio Suzuki, president of the off-Tsukiji merchant association.
Owners of the fish shops and restaurants who are the market's major customers, also say they could feel the pinch. But the move has supporters, who say the fish market needs more modern facilities and must change with the times. Despite the worldwide boom in sushi, fish consumption has been gradually declining in Japan, with a recent farm ministry study saying that meat consumption may outpace fish as more people embrace a Western-style diet. "We've already studied an option to refurbish the market without moving and concluded that it's impossible. There's just not enough space," said Hiroyuki Ito, the chairman of the wholesales cooperative of the Tokyo Fish Market.
"On top of that, Tsukiji needs to compete with big supermarkets and discount shops which skip the wholesale market by directly buying from fishermen," he added. The annual trade volume at Tsukiji has dropped to 570,000 in 2006 from about 800,000 tons in 1986. "A majority of the members of our cooperative say that they need space for processing fish to serve supermarkets' needs," Ito said. "If we don't have this, the wholesale market may disappear from this world."