Uncertainty Grows over Tsukiji Market Relocation


Following newly elected Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko’s decision to halt the long-planned relocation of the Tsukiji Market to Toyosu, it was discovered that a planned layer of clean soil was never added to the new facility and that groundwater at the site contains toxins beyond accepted levels. Businesses dependent on Tsukiji are in limbo as to if and when the relocation will take place.

Fifteen years after being set in motion, the relocation of Japan’s largest fish market from Tsukiji to Toyosu remains on hold. On August 31 newly elected Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko postponed the move just two months before it was scheduled to finally be carried out. Since then, investigators have uncovered serious issues with the project, including concerns over tainted soil and unexplained changes to construction plans.

Paying to Wait

Putting the relocation on hold at this time has raised the hackles of many, including Tsukiji Market Association Chairman Itō Hiroyasu, who lashed out by questioning whether the municipal government seriously considered the cost to companies. Businesses at Tsukiji have already sunk over ¥20 billion into preparing the new location, including procuring industrial refrigeration and waste disposal systems, running phone lines in offices, setting up employee cafeterias, and installing lockers.

Koike did not make her decision lightly, however, citing concerns over safety, cost, lack of financial transparency, and insufficient public information. She has also expressed her intention to establish a team of experts to investigate the issue and craft the measures needed to address it.

The safety of Toyosu, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, has been a primary concern from the beginning of the project. The site was once the location of a gas refinery; project planners were forced to carry out a massive cleanup after tests in 2008 uncovered benzene and other toxins at levels well over 40,000 times the accepted limits.

Moving Before Tests Are Complete

With guidance from experts, the Tokyo metropolitan government moved ahead with a cleanup of the site. In November 2014 it also launched a two-year program to monitor groundwater samples from Toyosu in a bid to assuage concerns over toxins. Results from seven tests conducted through August this year found readings below accepted limits. The final battery of tests is slated for January 2017; in this connection, Koike has strongly questioned the decision to schedule the Tsukiji move in November, before they take place.

The Tokyo government consulted with businesses at the market in deciding the opening date, but with the clock ticking down to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, officials were anxious to break ground as soon as possible on a vital new road that will run through the current Tsukiji site.

Companies at Tsukiji largely preferred to schedule the move for February, as November is when preparations for the busy New Year season get underway. According to a person involved in negotiations, however, the various business associations at the market bowed to the will of the metropolitan government in agreeing on November 7 as the official date.

Mystery of the Missing Dirt

Following Koike’s decision to postpone the move, the Tsukiji Market Association reacted by saying this would result in mayhem. So far, though, the governor has stuck to her guns. To help ease concerns, she has promised to minimize the impact on the companies by working to resolve the issues as quickly as possible. She has also said she is open to the possibility of reparations.

Stuck in limbo, market vendors have strongly urged a prompt decision by the metropolitan government. The situation became more convoluted, however, when on September 10 investigators discovered that at some locations the planned layer of clean soil was never added; in its place was an empty underground space.

As part of cleanup operations at the new site, workers removed 2 meters of topsoil. An additional 4.5-meter layer of clean soil was added as an extra precaution against contamination. But after construction was finished, the authorities discovered that this was not carried out under the market’s chief seafood and produce wholesale and supply facilities, covering around a third of the entire site.

No One to Blame?

The absence of the soil, a primary component of the relocation project, is baffling. The metropolitan authorities selected this approach based on advice from a panel of experts and announced the plan to the public via the Tokyo government website, among other channels. They also included it as part of the environmental assessment report filed before construction got underway.

Compounding the problem, up to 20 centimeters of water has been found in the basements of structures where soil was not added. While so far this water has been found to fall within accepted limits for toxins, and officials are explaining that drainage systems and regular monitoring of groundwater will be part of this basement design, these measures do not address the bigger issue of who is responsible for the layer of clean soil not being added in the first place, going against the experts’ design recommendation. Most of those who have served as head of the wholesale market in recent years claim that they were unaware of the design change.

The governor has been strongly critical of this debacle, calling it the result of systemic unaccountability. While she has pledged to pull out all the stops to get to the bottom of the issue, chronic miscommunication within the metropolitan government makes it seem unlikely that the truth will see the light of day.

Calls to Pull the Plug

Businesses at Tsukiji have been on tenterhooks since the start of the fiasco and have grown increasingly distrustful of the government’s ability to guarantee the safety of the Toyosu site. The results of the eighth round of testing released on September 29 only exacerbated this mistrust by showing levels of benzene and arsenic that had climbed above accepted limits.

Seafood suppliers and wholesalers are justifiably concerned about the effects to their bottom line. Many have voiced concern that even if the new site can be declared safe, which is by no means guaranteed, there is a good chance that the public will be wary of seafood coming from the market.

As the situation goes from bad to worse, Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly members from the Japanese Communist Party have led the call to abandon the relocation plan. They have been joined by a number of groups opposing the move, which are pressing the government to revive an earlier plan to renovate the Tsukiji Market.

No one could have foreseen a plan with such hard-won support from all stakeholders hitting such a major roadblock just months before completion. Even as the outcome hangs in the air, though, business will carry on as usual at Tsukiji. Koike will be expected to make good on her election promise of putting Tokyo residents first, but the repercussions of her decision will likely be felt in fishing ports across the country, greatly affecting the entire seafood industry.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 3, 2016. Banner photo: Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, front left, during an inspection of the Tsukiji Market on August 16, 2016. © Jiji.)

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