Tsukiji Fish Market: So long and thanks for all the fish

It was 3.35am, Monday 18th May.

The air was cool, saturated from a recent burst of rain.  Forklift trucks, carrying white polystyrene crates stuffed with bounties of fresh fish and produce, momentarily lit up puddles with their yellow headlights before ripping through them as they darted into the concrete cavern that is Tsukiji Market.

Tsukiji market early morning

Amidst this organised chaos were two bewildered tourists. Of course, it was Shoji and I. 

We had a sleep-deprived yet adrenaline-fuelled demeanour about us; a combination that can only evolve from a night spent singing Taylor Swift in a local kareoke bar, drinking Japanese alcopops and dressing as a penguin and French maid.

Slat drink Japan
Grapefruit Slat: it packs a citrusy punch
Japan kareoke
Taylor Swift didn’t know what hit her
The vastness of Tsukiji Market had swallowed us; we were utterly lost. Our mission was to get to the Visitor’s Centre where we could sign up to see the world-famous tuna fish auction.

Despite its growing popularity, the auction itself remains an authentic and professional event rather than one geared towards the camera flashes and guide books of visiting tourists. The down side to this is there isn’t much help in terms of signs, so we were faced with navigating our way through one of the largest wholefood markets in the world, stuffed with inner markets offering fresh seafood and produce and outer markets selling specialised goods. Tsukiji Market is called the ‘kitchen of the nation’s capital‘ for a good reason.

Only 120 visitors are permitted to watch the world famous tuna fish auction each day – the maximum number the site can accommodate. The auction starts at 5.30am, and according to online sources, arriving between 3.30 and 3.45am was ideal – any later than that and you were going to struggle to get a spot. 

Time was of the essence.

In an attempt to regain control of the situation, we decided to run. Clutching a rucksack filled with salted cashews and cans of ‘Slat’, Shoji and I sped in the general direction of the Tsukiji Market visitors centre, only to find ourselves at a dead end once again.
The Slat’s had gone from fizzy alcoholic refreshments to flat, luke-warm slush; a reflection of our moods.
Thankfully, at that very moment, a forklift driver took an interest in us. Whether out of pity or simply the goodness of his heart, this generous man offered us a ride. Stepping onto the bare forklift platform, we were carted towards the Visitor’s Centre, probably resembling the glistening, gaping fish he had recently delivered.
Forklift fun!
The Visitor’s Centre in sight..
Five minutes later, at 3.40am, we arrived at our destination.
A short, stocky man dressed in a tight pebble-coloured suit and regimental hat stood between us and the warm Visitor’s Centre. He looked at us – two ragged and damp individuals who had just arrived on the back of a forklift – and encouraged us to follow his eyes to a sign. It read:

No more visitors allowed. Maximum capacity reached”. 

Not only were we in the ‘struggle’ demographic, but in the ‘absolutely no f’ing chance’ demographic.

At this point, my initiative kicked in. Rummaging through the rucksack, I found my purse. Unzipping it as fast as possible, I whipped out my crisp white business card and offered it to the guard with both hands. I encouraged Shoji to tell the guard that I was a food journalist, and would love to cover the tuna fish auction.

This story was not emotive enough for Shoji, so he took it into his own hands: Not only was I a journalist, but I had flown to Japan solely to witness the auction on that specific day. As my ‘assistant’, he sacrificed his own chance of seeing the tuna fish, suggesting that if there was only one space made available, I – the devoted journalist – should take it.

The guard looked at us. His expression was unreadable. He turned round and entered his office, then emerged a nail-biting minute later with not one but two green vests.

They were the ugliest garments I had ever seen, made from smooth, neon green fabric punctured with rows of holes, giving them the resemblance of a hybrid football bib/fishing net. But, as the gateway to the Tsukiji tuna fish auction, Shoji and I accepted our slimy green bibs with pride, seeing them as an emblem of power, success and celebration.

We were in.

Everyone looks so happy to be there.

Once we stepped inside the Visitor’s Centre, we were met with a mass of blue and green coloured bibs and gormless faces. Individuals wearing green bibs were in the first time slot, entering the tuna fish auction at 5.20am, with the blue group following lead at 5.50am.

The baseball caps of American tourists floated amidst a sea of other nationalities, like pasta shells in minestrone soup. A guard who had been working at Tsukiji for three years said that this demographic was normal for May: Tourists flock to Japan in the warm summer months, and a string of Japanese national holidays results in a higher proportion of national citizens visiting the Market at this time too.

Speaking to several visitors, it was clear that the determination to wake up at 3am was not to do with a long-lived interest in Tsukiji Market history nor the international bluefin tuna trade, but more as a ‘tick box’ exercise in the ‘Top 10 things to do in Tokyo’. As one Californian couple put it, “we’re just about the Japanese food, there’s not much more to say”. 

This is exemplary of a wider Western culinary trend – that of a shift away from red meats towards an Asian/Mediterranean inspired diet of rice, fish and vegetables. In this, sushi has gone from ‘trash to treasure’, becoming a global sensation demanded particularly by American and European consumers. An article, summarising Bestor’s How Sushi Went Global’ (2000), reflects on this:

“It has gone from a traditional element of Japanese custom and cuisine to a far-reaching status cuisine…In fact, the success of sushi fishing has come to influence how fishing around the world is done. Its rise as a status symbol and its overwhelming demand has shifted even America’s fishing focus toward tuna…[something that] was barely suitable for cat food a few decades earlier” 

The question is, has Tsukiji Market’s tuna fish auction adapted to this growing sushi sensation and shift in the international seafood commodity trade? We were about to find out.

Tsukiji fish market
The slimy green bibbed people being carted to the auction

At 5.20am, several guards led our slimy green mass to the entrance of the tuna fish auction. One by one, we stepped out of the fresh morning air and through a small door that led to the auction place. The air temperature was noticeably lower, thanks to the liquid nitrogen used to fuel its cooling system, keeping the frozen tuna turgid and plump for inspection. 

Our group of 60 tourists bundled like sardines into a small spectators area. Standing in puddles of melting ice, smelling the subtle aroma of tuna fish, you are slap bang in the middle of the room.

On one side, the fish lie frozen in tidy rows along the cold, grey floor. They have a thin sheet of frost over them, resembling blue-grey torpedoes. Here, you can witness several dozen men using pick-axes and bright torches to scrutinise the fish.

Tsukiji tuna fish auction
Tsukiji tuna fish auction torch

The tail is cleanly cut off, exposing the vertebrae surrounded by dark red flesh. The men use their pick-axes to poke small holes into the thawing tuna fish.

Some are bold enough to use their axe to scrape off a small chunk of meat. Placing it in their palm, they rub it between their forefingers, some lift it to their nose (or maybe mouth) and inhale before discarding the fish on the floor to be trodden on by the next inquisitive trader.

This inspection seems so regimental and unemotional at first, treating the tuna simply as blocks of flesh in a morgue. However, if you look closer, it is clear that every action is done with care. The marketplace is not just a commodities trading platform, but a complex playground of social hierarchies and cultural exchanges between buyers, wholesalers, buyers, auctioneers and, above all, their relationship to the tuna fish. 

tsukiji tuna fish
tsukiji tuna fish pick axe

Behind you, the auction itself takes place.

As a spectator, understanding this is impossible; all you can see is a man standing on a little wooden stool, shouting ‘Ho ho ho’ and ‘Hey hey hey’ in response to seemingly invisible nods and glances from buyers. It was utterly perplexing, going against ‘classical economic’ ideas of commodity exchange and auctions, and doubly so when you remind yourself that these ‘ho ho ho’s and ‘hey hey hey’s are the basis of selling tuna fish for as much as $1.7 million for 222kg.

auction tsukiji market tuna fish
Tuna fish auction tsukiji
The auction taking place

Witnessing this makes you realise that the whole experience is very different to what it says on the tin. The fact that it is a ‘tuna fish auction’ suggests that formal financial deliberations are the main event, but I would say otherwise: it is about the cultural exchange.

Bestor (2000) also reflects on this: “It becomes a platform for producers and consumers to interact and create new relationships across economic, geographic and political boundaries”. Despite the globalisation of the sushi industry and the international trade of bluefin tuna, the Tsukiji Market combines strict environmental regulation and trade norms from the West with traditional bartering and cultural practice. Globalisation doesn’t necessarily homogenise cultural differences nor erase the salience of cultural labels. Quite the contrary, it grows the franchise”. 

With Tsukiji Market being relocated in 2016 to a new site, making space for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it will be interesting to see whether this new, modern ‘shopping mall’ structure will impact this wonderful blurring of tradition and the global fisheries trade. The new site will include more infrastructure, including an express way for more visitors, cleaner facilities and sanitary control. 

All I can say is that I am glad to have seen the original site, despite its chaotic labyrinth of market stalls and damp interior, and would choose a spontaneous journey in a forklift truck over an express way any day.

Tsukiji market history
Tsukiji Market over time…a blend of chaos and structure, culture and markets
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