Tsukiji or Toyosu? Koike Opts for Both


Last year incoming Tokyo Governor Koike put a hold on the long-planned move of the fish wholesaling hub in Tsukiji to a new home in Toyosu. This June she finally approved the move to Toyosu, but she also declared that the Tsukiji site is to be redeveloped as a food center. Will it be possible to make a success of both operations?

To move or not to move? This was the question that Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko faced regarding the aging Tsukiji Market, Japan’s biggest fish wholesaling hub, which was due to be relocated to a modern facility in Toyosu, about 2 kilometers southeast of the current site. The move from Tsukiji had been scheduled for November 2016, but in August, at the end of her first month in office, Koike put it on hold because of serious concerns about toxins at the Toyosu site. As the reconsideration process dragged on, the governor came under criticism for inability to make up her mind. She finally announced her decision on June 20 this year, just three days before the official start of the campaign for the July 2 Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election: The market operations in Tsukiji will be transferred to Toyosu, and the site of the Tsukiji Market, after serving as a transportation hub during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, will be redeveloped as a new facility with market functions.

The governor’s message—to implement the move to the already-built market in Toyosu and also to give Tsukiji a new lease on life—has an appealing ring, but the policy she announced is a fudge aimed at conciliating both supporters and opponents of the move from the old market to Toyosu.

A Severely Contaminated Site

It was in 2001 that the Tokyo metropolitan government officially decided to move Tokyo’s central fish market from Tsukiji to Toyosu. The Tsukiji market facilities were showing their age, and the idea of rebuilding on the same site while keeping the market in operation was considered impractical. But in 2008 the relocation project came under strong criticism after the soil at Toyosu site was found to contain benzene at levels up to a staggering 43,000 times the environmental standard. People declared that such a site was not appropriate as a place for handling fresh food.

Tokyo Gas, the previous owner of the Toyosu property, had operated a refinery there, and when the metropolitan government acquired it, it was aware that the soil contained toxins. But the level of contamination was much higher than the Tokyo authorities had imagined. The metropolis ended up spending a massive ¥80 billion on work to address this problem.

The metro government started the decontamination job in the summer of 2011, making use of what it said were Japan’s most advanced know-how and technologies. The work was completed three years later, in 2014, and after review by an expert technical panel, the authorities declared that the safety of the site had been assured.

Design and construction work proceeded apace, and the new market in Toyosu was scheduled to open on November 7, 2016. But then came the August 31 decision by Governor Koike to postpone the move from Tsukiji because of lingering concerns about Toyosu’s safety. Specifically, the report of the final results from the monitoring of groundwater at the site was not going to be ready until after the scheduled opening date.

Subsequent to Koike’s postponement decision, a new problem came to light: There were empty spaces under buildings at the Toyosu site where the planned layer of clean soil had not been added. This revelation exacerbated the mistrust of Tsukiji merchants toward the metro government.  On top of that, the results of the final round of groundwater testing released in mid-January revealed benzene at a level 79 times the maximum allowed, along with cyanide, which is not allowed to be present at any detectable level. As a result, negative sentiments regarding Toyosu became more widespread.

People came increasingly to question the original decision by the metro government to acquire the Toyosu site even though it was known to be contaminated. In March and April this year the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly summoned witnesses to give testimony before a special committee empowered to investigate the matter. The witnesses included Ishihara Shintarō, Tokyo’s governor from 1999 to 2012, and Hamauzu Takeo, who served under him as deputy governor. The committee also summoned the bureaucrats who had successively headed the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (the metro government’s organization in charge of the Tsukiji Market) during the relevant period. But the hearings failed to produce substantive results.

Expert Panel Declares Site Surface Safe

The planned move from Tsukiji to Toyosu seemed to be up in the air until a committee of outside experts came out with a finding that, while some contaminants were present at excessive levels in the groundwater under the site, the surface was safe and could be kept that way through appropriate measures to deal with the groundwater. This opened the way for Governor Koike to give a green light to the Toyosu site.

On June 17 Koike visited the Tsukiji Market and apologized to those doing business there for the metro government’s failure to meet the environmental standards that had been a precondition to the opening of the new wholesale market in Toyosu. Three days later she held a press conference to announce her decision, as noted above, to implement the move to Toyosu but also to hold on to the existing site in Tsukiji and redevelop it.

Shortly after this, the official election campaign for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly got underway. In the July 2 vote, her new party, Tomin Fāsuto no Kai (Tokyo Citizens First), made a very strong showing, and along with Kōmeitō and other groups allied with her, she emerged with a large majority of backers in the assembly. Koike has pledged to reform the metro government, and the Tokyo public has great hopes for her to deliver results. But her June announcement regarding Tsukiji and Toyosu marked merely the starting line for efforts to reach a successful conclusion to this issue; numerous problems remain to be addressed.

The first step now is to implement additional safety measures regarding the soil at Toyosu. The ground in the empty spaces under buildings where the additional layer of clean soil was not added is to be topped with concrete, new ventilation equipment will be installed, and the drainage capabilities of the groundwater management system are to be upgraded.

Governor Koike has indicated that steps will be taken to keep the businesses at Toyosu from suffering stigmatization due to contamination fears, but as of mid-July the only move that had been seen was a “declaration of safety” based on the additional measures. Meanwhile, the date of the move from Tsukiji remains undetermined; it is to be set on the basis of consultations with the businesses involved.

It is currently expected that the move to Toyosu will take place sometime before the end of 2018. And after the new market is opened, further steps will be taken to increase its freezing and refrigeration capacities and improve processing functions so as to make it a comprehensive logistics hub benefiting from convenient access to Haneda and Narita Airports.

Redeveloping Tsukiji: A Pipe Dream?

The other plank of Koike’s plan concerns the future of the Tsukiji Market site. She has decided that instead of selling the land, the metro government should hold on to it. After being used as a transportation hub for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, the site will be redeveloped by around 2022 as a new market and food center. The governor’s decision reflects the sentiments of the Tsukiji merchants who do not want to move to Toyosu and of ordinary citizens who want to see the area preserve its traditional role. But confusion is widespread among the merchants, and it remains to be seen whether it will be possible to come up with a redevelopment plan in keeping with Koike’s intentions.

Some wholesalers have come out against the idea of creating two markets in close proximity. One such business has already invested around ¥100 million in large-scale freezers and other equipment for its new location in Toyosu. It is hard to imagine that such operators will reestablish presences in Tsukiji five years from now.

Fish brokers, meanwhile, ask where they are supposed to buy fish in Tsukiji if the wholesalers are gone. Buying fish from Toyosu wholesalers and carting it to Tsukiji for retail sale there will be inefficient. And if the redeveloped facility in Tsukiji houses no more than a collection of brokers and retailers, it will be little different from the existing “outer market” at Tsukiji, where retail food shops and restaurants serve the general public (as opposed to the “inner market,” which is limited to wholesalers). It will hardly be what one could call a wholesale center.

Opposition to the two-market concept has also emerged from Man’yō Club, the company that is slated to open a complex within the new Toyosu market featuring restaurants and hot-spring baths catering to tourists and domestic visitors (who will not have access to the wholesale market proper). If Tsukiji is redeveloped as a bustling tourist attraction, this Toyosu establishment will find it hard to draw enough customers to meet its target as a profitable operation, and the company is suggesting that it may pull out of the project.

We can expect to see specific plans for Koike’s proposed redevelopment of Tsukiji emerge in due course, but meanwhile even the timing of the move from Tsukiji to Toyosu remains undecided, leaving merchants on tenterhooks.

Koike’s backers won big in this summer’s metro assembly election, thanks in part to her deft defusing of the Tsukiji-Toyosu issue with the pre-election announcement of her two-market concept. But will it actually be possible to make a success of both markets? The true worth of her proposal will become clear only as concrete plans are drawn up and implemented in the months and years to come.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 31, 2017. Banner photo: The Tsukiji Market in Tokyo on June 23, shortly after the announcement that its wholesale operations will be moved to Toyosu and the site redeveloped as a market serving as a food center for tourists and the general public. © Jiji.)

Tokyo Tsukiji Koike Yuriko Toyosu Toyosu Market Tsukiji Market