It was 5:30 a.m. Monday and the tuna auction was ready to begin at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market, with more than 100 frozen tuna laid out in order. The bell rang and visitors cheered, happy to see an event that was off-limits to them just the day before.
They snapped pictures as the auctioneer called out prices like he was chanting a sutra; buyers bid with quick and subtle hand signals. The auction proceeded at a tremendous speed, and one by one tuna were marked with their buyers’ names. The untrained eye would doubtless have a hard time telling who won what.
“I was dreaming of seeing the auction,” Francois Delahaye, 54, chief operating officer of the French luxury hotel firm Dorchester Collection, said as he waited in line at about 4:30 a.m. to get access to the auction. “I wanted to come here, but the auction was closed.”
Tsukiji fish market, part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, on Monday once again began accepting visitors to its popular frozen tuna auction–but with a significant new rule. The Tokyo metropolitan government, which oversees the market, now limits the number of auction visitors to 140 a day on a first-come, first-served basis.
A magnet for foreign tourists, Tsukiji market has been in the headlines recently over some visitors’ obstructive behavior, such as using flash photography in prohibited areas and touching fish–some people have even kissed them. In 2008, the metropolitan government began allowing sightseers to view the auction only from a designated area.
Nevertheless, the auction continued to be plagued by its growing popularity. Metropolitan authorities finally decided to temporarily close it to the public after more than 500 people crowded into the makeshift observation spot, which has a capacity of only 70, on April 5.
Tsukiji’s popularity has increased through word of mouth and its listing in many travel books as a must-see destination. Also, the annual number of tourists visiting Japan has jumped about 60 percent to more than 8.3 million since the government launched its “Visit Japan Campaign” in 2003.
April usually sees a higher number of foreign travelers due to the cherry blossom season, and an unprecedented number swarmed the Tsukiji market early last month.
But there seems to be more behind Tsukiji’s popularity.
According to Yasutake Tsukamoto, director of the Tourist Information Center run by the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), foreign tourists have become more interested in “experience-oriented” sightseeing.
“Tsukiji starts its day early. Ten years ago we believed foreign tourists went there because of jet lag,” Tsukamoto said. “In recent years, however, they seem to view Tsukiji as a microcosm of Japanese society. By eating at small, crowded eateries shoulder to shoulder with Tsukiji workers, they also feel they’re part of the marketplace.”
Manabu Tsujimura, 57, a member of the Japan Guide Association who gives foreign tourists guided tours to Tsukiji, has been well aware of the entertaining aspects of Tsukiji market, especially the tuna auction.
“I don’t have to explain the auction. Foreign tourists enjoy themselves just by watching it,” he said. “I remember one tourist described Tsukiji as ‘chaos in order.'”
Workers at Tsukiji are astonishingly skilled at handling fish. Only a few kilometers away from the sophisticated Ginza shopping district, the world’s largest fish market handles more than 2,000 tons of fish and other seafood, worth 1.74 billion yen, every day.
American Jason Rice, who visited Japan last year, vividly remembers his experience at the market.
“I most enjoyed the frantic order and chaotic calm to the place,” he said. “People were running around in such small areas with the precision only capable of an experienced professional.”
The market dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867), when Tokugawa Ieyasu invited fishermen from Osaka to Edo (present-day Tokyo) to ensure supplies for his castle, and allowed them to sell the remaining fish near Nihombashi bridge. Destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and rebuilt in its current location in 1935, the market has been what its Web site calls “a kitchen for 12 million people in Tokyo.”
Located at a crossroads for both domestic and international trade in seafood, Tsukiji is a symbol of the global fish industry. When a trade ban on bluefin tuna was proposed under the Washington Convention, media worldwide carried pictures and footage of the Tsukiji market and reported the opinions of workers there.
Harvard University Prof. Theodore Bestor, an American anthropologist who conducted extensive fieldwork at Tsukiji market, called it “a genuine attraction that does nothing to promote itself as such.”
“Tsukiji is closely attuned to the subtleties of Japanese food culture and to the representations of national cultural identity that cloak cuisine, but this is also the market that drives the global fishing industry, from sea urchin divers in Maine to shrimp farmers in Thailand, from Japanese long-liners in the Indian Ocean to Croatian tuna ranchers in the Adriatic,” he wrote in his book, “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.”
But not everyone is happy. Market participants have been ambivalent about their workplace becoming a tourist attraction.
“We’ve never tried to attract people to Tsukiji as a tourist spot, but it became one,” said Yoshiaki Takagi, the market’s deputy chief. “There are still many calls to close the auction to the public.”
Large numbers of people wandering around with cameras often inconvenience market workers and cause problems in temperature control and sanitation management. Motorized carts running at a high speed also pose a risk to visitors–about 400 accidents have been reported each year.
Flash photography can blind auction participants whose finger signals affect multimillion yen trades.
“This is a wholesale market. Basically, we don’t want ordinary people to come in here,” said Fumihiro Ogawa, vice chairman of the Tokyo fish market wholesalers’ cooperative federation.
The metropolitan government is planning to relocate the 23-hectare market to a larger location in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, and is considering setting up a better visitors area in the new facility. However, the relocation itself appears to be up in the air as the new site was found to be polluted, fueling opposition to the plan.
In the meantime, the JNTO is aiming to boost the annual number of foreign visitors to Japan to 15 million by 2013.
“For Tsukiji workers, their livelihoods are at stake. We can’t push them to open the market more to tourists because it’s not a tourist site,” Tsukamoto said. “But we hope we’ll find ways to create a win-win situation.”