Culture Reportage Travel

Why Tsukiji, Tokyo’s Amazing Temple of Fish, Is In Danger

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Hiroyuki Hirai has been here for 50 years, each day much the same as the last. He smells strongly of saltwater and cheap soap. His face is friendly and flat as a beaten coin.

He chuckles a lot, especially at his own jokes, and his smile animates the deep lines on his face.

When he moves about his stall he does so eagerly, with the hunched hustle of a boxer that demands respect from his fellow workers.

Hirai-san is the 3rd generation in a family of shrimp merchants at the Tsukiji (pronounced “ski-gee”) fish market in Tokyo. He is one of 1,500 traders that helps move 2,500 tons of fish and create $20 million of business a day; and owner of one of the 1,677 stalls in the biggest fish market in the world whose future is uncertain.

In a proposal that has been around from some 16 years, to-ing and fro-ing between rejection and acceptance, the local government has confirmed a $4.5 billion project to relocate Tsukiji to a modern, climate-controlled complex on nearby Toyosu Island in late 2016.

In the rhetoric of local government, the market is “too dirty and unsafe” and, because of its very central location in Tokyo, causes gridlock when the fish are delivered.

Moreover, with the 2020 Olympic Games on the horizon, the government wants to free up space and improve transport in the city. Seen through administrative eyes. the market is an inefficiency that must go.

———-

Using his hands, which swell like two knotted ginger roots from his forearms, Hirai-san tests the temperature of the brine.

These hands are the result of a half-century’s shrimp handling, of sharp crustacean husks, spikes and thousands of writhing legs. Yet for all their gnarled unsubtlety they are as sensitive as scales. Hirai-san can tell the exact weight of a prawn by merely picking it up.

“I have been doing this for so long I just have a feeling for what its weight might be,” he says.

He plucks one out of the ice-cold water, shuffles it like a deck of cards, and then offers a number: “40 grams,” he croaks. He then places it on the scales and waits, looking distinctly unsurprised when it confirms his estimate. He is rarely wrong.

In a nearby stall two young men are stacking white polystyrene boxes—one of the more ubiquitous sights at the market. The older of the two puffs on a cigarette beneath a no-smoking sign, working slowly and unenthusiastically, while the younger buckles under the weight of his boxes.

They begin to argue, one accusing the other of laziness and the other retorting with excuses of a sore back.

But when they notice Hirai-san they immediately stop their bickering.

The pair bow deeply in his direction, but Hirai-san doesn’t see them, staring out obliviously into the marketplace. His face is drawn-out and tired-looking. It’s 3:30 a.m. and he, like the rest of his fellow vendors, is beginning his day at Tsukiji.

In the auctions shed, outside of the main marketplace, wholesalers begin to lay out fish ready for auction. Hulking tunas, squid, eel and gelatinous sea urchins are crammed onto tiny pallets amid much shouting and squabbling.

The fish arrived at around 10 p.m. the previous evening in juggernauts that are still blocking up the main road outside of the market.They were bought by Tsukiji’s wholesale brokerages or auction houses from fishing cooperatives at ports all over the world.These seven auction houses, huge multinational companies, bring fish to Tsukiji to sell them to intermediate wholesalers—small family businesses that normally specialize in one type of seafood. Once purchases are made, the intermediate vendors sell the fish on to retail outlets and restaurants, who in turn supply the consumer.

In the tuna shed a familiar miasma of brine, tobacco and thawing blood fills the air. Some 3,000 tuna—frozen and fresh—lay goggle-eyed and slack-mouthed on large wooden pallets.

They are graded and placed in accordance with their quality: the fish labeled “number 1” is deemed the catch of the day. Each tuna’s tail has been severed to reveal its ruby red flesh, creating shallow pools of diluted blood around each of the pallets.

This is done for the same reason that a car’s bonnet is lifted on a forecourt, so that the customer might glean something of its inner workings.

Among these bloody ranks wander the buyers, or the intermediate wholesalers, who have spent the greater part of their lives examining tuna carcases.

The men crouch next to the tuna, checking the curve of their bodies, flashing their torches inside chest cavities and examining the colour of the eyes.

To the frozen tuna the buyers take tekagi, small hand-picks, which they use to extract flesh from the tail. Some linger more than others, but by and large each man fulfills the same routine as his incumbent.

“By checking the flesh from the tuna’s tail the bidder can get an indication of its inner colour,” Kiyoshi, a market guide, tells me. “By rubbing it between his fingers he can assess its fat content and if the fish has any parasites. The higher the fat content the better the fish.”

No one wants to allude to their preferred tuna, so most buyers skulk about the shed with their thoughts hidden behind ambiguous expressions and worried frowns.

Some vendors, however, are not skilled at dissimulating their feelings.

One man, young and eager looking, beams his concern through a suppositious smile, while his equally callow colleague whispers behind his coffee cup and makes (unsuccessfully) furtive phone calls with his back turned. The morning is a cagey game of deference and deception.

———–

At 5:30 a.m. the auctions begin. A wiry man wearing a cap and a cantankerous expression stands atop a chair. He is a serinin, a professional auctioneer, who is employed by one of the seven wholesale brokerages to sell tuna to the intermediate wholesalers.

With a violent yelp he signals the beginning of the auction, proceeding to squawk out prices in the harsh warble of a seagull. He starts off with the best fish to rouse interest and then moves from lot to lot with the rapidity and rhythm of a slalom skier skipping between gates.

In response, the bidders cluster and clamour and launch their arms in the air. They contort their hands into arcane shapes but maintain passive expressions. Teyari, as these gestures are known, is how buyers communicate their bids at Tsukiji.

According to Theodore Bestor, in his book Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World, each gesture signifies a number from 1 to 9—with a wag of the hand signalling the doubling of a digit and clench of a fist the transition from one number to another.

The auctioneer continues to yelp and yowl as he moves further down the line of tuna. His assistants scuttle along behind, assiduously noting the price per kilogram of each fish on thick wads of paper.

Elsewhere other auctions strike up and the bidders follow these like anxious schools of mackerel, uniting and dispersing to the underlying commercial current of the day. On average, a tuna is sold every 5 seconds.

After the auction ends, some 20 billion yen having changed hands at the tuna auction alone, the fish are dragged and dropped onto trolleys and raced by breathless porters to the expectant stalls of the buyers.

It’s now around 7 a.m. and the market trade is beginning in earnest. Everywhere, the menacing petitions and indecipherable gestures of merchants are seen and the persistent slippery squeak of rubber boots heard.

The smell of salt and seaweed is implacable, as the fishmongers gut and fillet their produce in a butchering symphony of syncopated scrapes, chops and bone-crunching wallops.

A young vendor, short and with a nervous tick, brandishes a 2½-metre-long knife called a maguro bocho. Carefully, and with the help of his assistant, he cuts into a tuna’s flesh, commencing what the market regulars at Tsukiji call “the conversation of the tuna.”

“We call it this because the carver has to listen very carefully to the fish as he begins to fillet it,” says a veteran tuna vendor. “The sound indicates how he should cut it, and his timing must be perfect.”

All the stall workers gather around, clamouring to get a look at the Bluefin and hoping that the day’s purchase has been a good one; it cost them almost $28,000.

To their great relief the young man seems pleased and a squall of celebratory pats, hugs and “what if” jokes ensue. The “conversation of the tuna,” however, continues calmly.

While all this is going on a squadron of determined customers scurry between the stalls: checking, smelling, deliberating, choosing and then questioning their judgement.

At one stall, laden with gasping white fish, a wholesaler has hushed conversations with two official-looking buyers.

The men wear boxy sports jackets and rubber boots, their cologne mixing vilely with the reek of salt and fish guts.

While these two men refer to their phones and tablets, the vendor, a handsome man of about 60 talks to his staff in conspiratorial whispers.

“These customers seem to be new to the stall,” Kiyoshi tells me, “so the seller is talking to his helpers in a sort of code so as to disguise the prices. If you’re not a regular client, it’s unlikely you’ll receive the best price of the day.”

According to Bestor, very rarely are prices posted at Tsujiki, and even more rarely are negotiations conducted out in the open. Like everything here, pricing is subtle and based on trust and a repeat custom.

The vendors speak in fucho, a marketplace dialect, so as to conceal the prices given to different clients.

Not every visitor to the stall receives the same price, and not every potential customer is urged to buy at a certain stall. Prices are often set by the depth of the vendor’s personal connection with his client.

After much deliberation both parties seemed satisfied. The businessmen cross off their various objectives on various apps and make their various important calls, while the vendors set about reserving boxes of the elected fish.

In a series of bows and greetings they make their way to the cashier (choba) where two impassive women sit.

Competing with laptops, toppling towers of paper, and intertwining telephone cables, the ladies ask for signatures and documentation, and allow courteous smiles to form on their previously enigmatic faces.

Bestor says that it is very rare to see a woman at the front of a stall selling fish, for they are almost always working in a choba.

Some say, in line with the rhetoric of sushi chefs, that this is because the temperature of a woman’s hands fluctuates too much to handle raw fish; while others put it down to the more sexist aspects of Japanese culture.

Nevertheless, with their hands, changeable or otherwise, on the $5 billion that go through the market every year, these women hold a position that powerfully belies their hidden, wardrobe-sized offices.

As trade picks up the market moves with greater ferocity. Electric carts are driven at high speed through ever-narrowing spaces and swelling crowds. Chinese and Korean immigrants carry improbable cargos on dilapidated carts.

Blood spurts, guts fly, ice melts, the water runs and shouts grow louder and more raucous. But in this implacable chaos everything is controlled, as if memory and tradition had dug out deep canals of commerce down which everything and everyone flows.

No matter how narrow the gap the cart driver knows he can make it; for he did so yesterday and the day before.

———–

At Tsukiji there is a great trust in the past as a portent of the future.

The market was built in 1935, but many businesses here can trace their origins back to its predecessor in Nihonbashi, which was founded in the 17th century and burned down in 1923.

The Takari family, famous tuna wholesalers, were as recognised at this market as they are today at Tsukiji, their firm some 400 years old. Indeed, much like the Takaris, the longevity of the enterprises at Tsukiji has to do with the fact that most are family-run.

Bestor notes that eldest sons feel compelled to succeed their fathers, marriages are arranged with other Tsukiji households and unorthodox measures are taken to preserve the family legacy. It is common that sons are sent to apprentice with rival traders before eventually returning to take over their inherited shops. This, he argues, allows the younger generation to learn the secrets of the trade while reducing potential friction within the family, and also creates mutual trust between vendors that is very rare in other capitalist environments like it.

Moving through Tsukiji there aren’t many signs, at least superficially, that the market is in its last year of trade.

One veteran trader tells me that he is disappointed about the move and wishes the market would stay where it is, while others tell me that when the proposal was first voiced there were protests and a great outcry from the intermediate wholesalers who thought their unique way of business would be squeezed out by larger co-operations.

Now, however, that the move is all but inevitable, most people refuse to say much about the closure and instead give vague answers about having to accept what has been decreed.

As my guide Kiyoshi tells me: “The decision has already been made, it is going to happen, and whether the people like it or not, they have to accept it.”

It’s now around 10 a.m. and the market is beginning to wind down. Squeaky polystyrene boxes pile up toward the ceiling, fish-heads lay strewn across the floor, blood drips from idle knifes, and harsh, waxy overalls are replaced with worn jeans.

On the other side of the market Hirai-san has finished tidying his stall. He is done for the day and tomorrow he will return to do the same.

For now, like the rest of the workers at Tsukiji, he finds comfort in his routines, warding off an uncertain future with a hectic present.

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