Asia

Tsukiji fish market to make way for Olympics

Published: 4:02 AM, September 18, 2013
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TOKYO — Each day before dawn, the world’s largest fish market comes to life in frantic activity, a last holdout of an older, quainter Japan. In one corner, auctioneers loudly hawk the frozen torsos of prize tuna laid on the floor. Nearby, fishmongers in open-air stalls carve the tuna flesh into bricks for sale to sushi bars and grocers.

Soon, it will be gone. The city is planning to spend US$4.5 billion (S$5.7 billion) to relocate the market — nicknamed Tsukiji for the neighbourhood that surrounds it — to a modern, climate-controlled distribution centre on a man-made island in three years. The move is part of a broader face-lift Tokyo is planning before the 2020 Olympics.

For the many who have opposed the change, the relocation will bring not only the loss of a historic, 78-year-old marketplace, but also another blow to a vanishing way of life.

Tsukiji has been a place where merchants haggled face to face, and where even the lowliest fishmonger displayed the obsession with freshness that helped Japan bring sushi to the world.

Its passing is part of a broader transformation, away from the tiny mom-and-pop shops that have been increasingly replaced by supermarkets and fast-food chains.

Officials say they want to redevelop the market’s estimated 20 hectares of land, valued in the billions, into high-rise apartments and a tunnel that will connect Tokyo to the islands that will house new Olympic sites.

They, and many who work at the market, say the move is necessary to keep up with changing times, as the same fast-food chains and supermarkets that have changed Tokyo’s urban landscape have increasingly shunned Tsukiji as too expensive and slow.

Opponents counter that the relocation is another example of the skewed priorities of Japan’s bureaucrats, whom they say want to tear down what has become one of the city’s most popular tourist spots to enrich big construction firms and real estate developers.

“Tsukiji was the beating heart of the sushi culture that spread across the world,” said Mr Kazuki Kosaka, a former local assembly member who opposed the relocation. “Now, it will be redeveloped into condominiums.”

When moving Tsukiji was first proposed 14 years ago, it spurred widespread opposition, leading to rare street protests. In 2001, the plan appeared doomed after the discovery of toxic contaminants at the new site, which had housed a refinery for converting coal into natural gas. But city officials were undeterred, chipping away at opposition by offering subsidies to help pay for the move. Now, the move is considered a done deal barring last-minute reprieve.

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