Farewell to Tsukiji Market: Tokyo’s space battle and political battle


According to Japan’s Kyodo News Agency, the Tsukiji Seafood Market in the Central Ward of Tokyo, Japan, ushered in the last business day on the 6th of this month. The market, which opened in 1935, closed all trading at noon that day, bringing an end to its 83-year history. After the relocation, Toyosu Market will open on the 11th, about two years later than originally planned.

In early August 2017, when Tsukiji Market suffered a serious fire, author “Cashier Xiaoqiu” wrote for Interface Culture (ID: Booksandfun), saying that the fire not only caused physical damage to Tsukiji, but also added a new layer of firewood to the long-burning debate surrounding the relocation of Tsukiji Market. As the curtain comes down on Tsukiji Market, we revisit our old article to review the history and fate of Tsukiji Market, as well as the discussions behind it about urban space and power games.

A brief history of the space of Tsukiji Market

Today, Tsukiji Market is a famous attraction in Tokyo. One of the largest fish markets in the world, it attracts visitors from all over the world with its culinary treasures and unique culture. According to the latest official data, in 2015, the market accounted for 400,000 tons of aquatic products, of which fresh fish accounted for 34.7%, ranking first. On the other hand, Tsukiji, known as a fish market, is actually an important fruit and vegetable market in Japan. A total of 270,000 tons of fruits, vegetables and eggs were transported to Tsukiji. Taken together, the market can trade more than 500 billion yen per year.

The “Tsukiji Market” is divided into two parts: “on-site” and “off-site”. The on-site market is occupied by fresh fish and vegetable suppliers, auction houses and intermediate wholesalers’ markets, which do not face individual customers. The OTC market consists of retail shops and restaurants. This time the fire occurred in the over-the-counter area, and it did not have a particularly large impact on the trading of the market itself. Tourists or local citizens are not allowed to enter the market most of the time, except for regular visits organized by market officials. The workers of the on-site market, on the other hand, pride themselves on the professionalism of their profession and believe that the space they occupy is the real Tsukiji.

In fact, Tsukiji’s past has nothing to do with the fish market. As its name suggests, the area was built during the Edo period by reclaiming land from the sea. Thanks to the flourishing incense of Honganji Temple in the region, Tsukiji gradually became a commercial and cultural center.

After the Meiji Restoration, the doors of Japan were opened. In 1869, Tsukiji was designated by the government as a place for foreigners to stay. At that time, the largest fish market in Tokyo was still located in the present-day Nihonbashi area.

An important time point is 1923. The Great Kanto Earthquake in September of that year changed everything. After the earthquake, the fish market destroyed by Nihonbashi was relocated to Tsukiji in 1935 through the unified planning of the Tokyo City Government. After several years of development, Tsukiji had grown into a regional center market that was beginning to take shape before the outbreak of World War II. However, due to the wartime government’s devoting all its resources and energy to foreign aggression, and the depression of the Japanese economy in the short postwar period, the Tsukiji market was once again in trouble. It was not until Japan’s postwar democracy was established that the market was reborn. Taking advantage of Japan’s economic boom, Tsukiji has developed over the decades to become the world’s No. 1 fish market as we know it today.

Theodore C. Bestor, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University, published the ethnographic study Tsukiji: the fish market at the center of the world in 2004. In the book, Best mentions two interesting spatial practices.

First, merchants selling different products will form their own industry associations. For example, the Tuna Association, the Shellfish Association, etc. These associations represent the interests of the members’ booths in a unified manner, and conduct necessary consultations and games with market managers and auction houses. The second way to achieve differentiation relies on the “geography” determined by the birthplace of the wholesaler. For example, the basic monopoly on the sale of Tsukiji shellfish products is wholesalers from Urayasu City, Chiba Prefecture. They were originally just producers of shellfish and farmed in Urayasu. However, due to dwindling local shellfish production, they were forced to come to Tsukiji to become wholesalers. Outside of a unified trade association, they can use the factor of the same place of birth to quickly mobilize their own members and seek more and more specific rights for themselves in the details.

On the other hand, Best found that basically every four or five years, all the merchants in the market would re-allocate their stalls through a lottery. During the usual three-day redistribution period, the market as a whole suspends trading in order to demolish old stalls and build new ones. This unique practice was born because of the geographical location, and some stalls will have the advantage of space, such as being close to the customer’s entrance or shipping point. For Tsukiji merchants who sell freshness as their selling point, the difference in location can have a huge impact on their transactions. As a result, this tradition will be invented and preserved. On top of this, Tsukiji’s intermediate wholesalers also divided the geographical location of all stalls into three levels: upper, middle and lower. Vendors who draw high-end stalls have to add an additional “tax” to the booth fee every month as a favorable position. This money will be given back to the stalls that are pumped to lower positions.

Merchants in Tsukiji Market strive to maximize their interests while balancing formal and substantive justice through various spatial practices. As a result, Tsukiji has become a unique field with its own practical logic. At the same time, Tsukiji, which is part of Japan and even the global market system, is not destined to be a closed space. It needs to interact with the larger power structure at all times. Nowhere is this more evident than in the controversy surrounding market relocation.

Tsukiji as a stage of struggle

The Japanese media often use the word “theater” when describing the political whirlwind caused by political newcomers. It contains both the cynicism of ordinary people who “watch a play is not a big deal”, and the malice of “watching how long you run rampant”. Since 2016, the best “box office” in Japan has been “Koike Theater” starring the new Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike. The Tsukiji Market became one of the most important stages.

Discussions on the renovation and relocation of the Tsukiji Market began as early as 1972. On the one hand, outdated market facilities cannot keep up with the increasing volume of transactions. On the other hand, the location of the market is less than a kilometer from the bustling city of Ginza, and it seems that it is not a good choice in terms of transportation or land use. The Tokyo City government’s earliest plan was to split Tsukiji in situ. Upgrade through downsizing and refinement. But decades have passed, and the discussions have been fruitless. And as Japan’s economy slows, local governments will no longer have enough money to fund costly in-situ redevelopment projects. In 2001, the government finalized the relocation of the market to the Toyosu area, which was also reclaimed from the sea. As soon as this decision was issued, opposition followed. In addition to the nostalgia of citizens and merchants for the old market, the concern about the new market seems to be more important. According to an official survey conducted by the city government in 2007, the soil and groundwater of the site used by Tokyo Gas Company for the relocation site far exceeded the standard value of harmful substances such as benzene and lead. In 2010, then-governor Shintaro Ishihara said that he would reduce the number of hazardous substances to within the standard as a prerequisite for the opening of a new market. Finally, in 2014, it was officially announced that the new market would officially start operation two years later, on November 7, 2016.

Just when people thought that the issue of Tsukiji relocation was finally coming to an end, the situation turned around again. On June 21, 2016, after the media exposed suspicions of private use of public funds, former Tokyo Governor Mitsuichi announced his resignation. In the re-election held on July 31 of the same year, Yuriko Koike stood out as Tokyo’s first-ever female governor. During the election campaign, Koike did not make his attitude towards the relocation of Tsukiji Market very clear. However, from time to time, it hinted at the attitude that the relevant schedule may be temporarily postponed. This has won the support of many people who work in Tsukiji, but also among voters who are suspicious of the political “establishment.” Finally, on August 31, a month after her election, Koike officially announced that he would suspend the relocation of the Toyoshu market and also stop demolition of Tsukiji pending further discussions.

Koike said that while science and technology may make the new market “safe,” the hasty decision cannot give citizens “peace of mind.” Behind this high-sounding reason, there are larger political considerations. Koike was originally a member of the Liberal Democratic Party, the ruling party of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. For the 2016 gubernatorial election, the Tokyo Metropolitan Branch of the LDP actually had its own preferred candidate, Hiroya Masuda. However, Koike did not listen to the organization’s dissuasion, submitted an application to leave the party, and insisted on running for the election. After her election, Nobuaki Ishihara, the head of the Tokyo branch of the Liberal Democratic Party, resigned. And Shinko Ishihara’s father is the above-mentioned Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara.

Perhaps the most controversial of Japan’s living politicians today, Shintaro Ishihara served four terms as governor of Tokyo for a total of 13 years. The decision that Tsukiji would eventually be transferred, and the debate surrounding the new market environment, began during his tenure. Although populism based on charisma helped him win the post of governor, his unscrupulous and radical stance also prevented him from expanding his voter base and winning the prime ministership. Like many parents, Ishihara pinned his unfulfilled dreams on his descendants. The eldest son, Shinko Ishihara, was the prime ministerial candidate he had devoted himself to cultivating. But one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the path of the Ishihara family prime minister was Yuriko Koike.

In the 2016 governor election, Shintaro Ishihara stood unequivocally on his son’s side. He not only attacked Koike for his lack of decisiveness in dealing with Tsukiji’s policy confusion over Tsukiji’s transfer, but also criticized Koike for being “so old and wearing so much makeup.” While Koike may not be a feminist fighter who is angry with straight male cancer, she is by no means a soft persimmon that she pinches casually. After she won the gubernatorial election by a landslide, Koike immediately launched a counterattack. In March, she decided to summon Shintaro Ishihara as a witness at the Tsukiji Transfer Committee, hinting that if there was a fraud case, she would pursue the responsibility of those involved. Ishihara, who had to attend, not only accepted an hour-long onslaught from all sides, but also had to admit in front of everyone that because of his cerebral infarction two years ago, he could no longer recognize some words on the committee paperwork.

Objectively speaking, in this power struggle with Tsukiji as the stage, the Ishihara family is the losing side. Although the elder Ishihara was not held legally responsible in the end, he was quiet about the affairs of the Tokyo government for a while after being publicly summoned. And with Koike’s new party, the First Tokyo People’s Party, becoming the ruling party in the July election this year, she was more relieved to reveal her true voice. At an impromptu press conference held on June 20 this year, she announced a policy called “Protecting Tsukiji and Making Use of Toyosu.” Under this plan, Tsukiji will still be relocated to Toyosu, but the original site will not be sold to private companies, but will be used as a facility related to the Tokyo Olympics. Five years later, Tsukiji will return as a “food theme park.” After going around in circles, Tsukiji still can’t avoid the fate of saying goodbye to the current site.


In English, the words market and marketplace correspond to “market”. The former contains more abstract elements, it is the place of activity of rational people in economics, and it is the layout of the market on the design drawings. The latter is more likely to refer to the market that exists as a physical space and the merchants and consumers who operate in it.

In the discussion of Tsukiji relocation in the mass media, we can easily see the struggle of politicians and the fighting methods of capital, and the voices of market practitioners and ordinary consumers are undoubtedly more difficult to hear. But if you come to Tsukiji Market in person, you’ll find that both protest banners and occasional marches are still strong.

Koike’s policy is “建地は守る” in Japanese, while the slogan of the opponents is “建地を守る”. Although both sentences translate into Chinese can be “guarding Tsukiji”. But the slight differences in the particles they use suggest two very different logics. What the former wants to protect is “Tsukiji” as a brand and concept. No matter where the market goes, it seems to be there. The latter emphasizes the stumbling block based on the specific land of “Tsukiji”. If the old market no longer exists, it will inevitably be uprooted. How to truly balance the two seems to be a question that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government needs to think about further.


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