Tsukiji, Tokyo's Pantry

Tsukiji, Tokyo's Pantry

Editor's Note: This article was originally written for Japan Society's previous site for educators, "Journey through Japan," in 2003.

Long before the sun rises across the Sumida River, traffic clogs the streets in Tokyo’s Tsukiji district. The early hours are the critical ones at the Tsukiji wholesale market — Tokyo’s massive market for fresh, processed and frozen seafood — where the dawn’s trade sets the tables for millions of residents throughout the Tokyo metropolitan region. Six days a week between 4 and 10 A.M., the rambling sheds of Tsukiji are a swirling maelstrom of manual labor and high-tech electronics. Boosters encourage the homey view that Tsukiji is Tokyo no daidokoro —Tokyo’s pantry or kitchen. This is a pantry, however, where about ¥2.2 billion worth of seafood changes hands each day. Every trading day, more than 2,300 tons of fresh fish, frozen fish, live fish, processed fish, salted fish, fish paté, fish cakes, pickled fish, smoked fish, shellfish, dried fish and fish eggs change hands, often several times within a very few minutes, before chefs and fishmongers cart them out the market’s gates.

Tsukiji Fish Market.  Credit: Robert Fish.

Tsukiji stands at the center of a technologically sophisticated international fishing industry, and each day the marketplace matches global supply with the traditional demands of Japanese cuisine made more elaborate by Japan’s prosperity. Despite its global reach and sophistication, however, the marketplace itself is rundown, overcrowded and technologically outdated. The present market complex officially opened in 1935, and some buildings have been in constant use ever since. Over the years, fires have burned out some sections of the market, which have been rebuilt piecemeal: New buildings have been added and extra floors and wings have been tacked on to older buildings. Tsukiji today is a confusing maze.

The facilities themselves are stretched to the limits. When the market opened, fish arrived by boat and train; today they come by refrigerated truck. Telegrams to and from distant suppliers have been supplanted by faxes, cell phones and laptops. As freezing technology, jet cargo shipments, telecommunications and the growth of supermarkets have all transformed the business of the market, the infrastructure of the marketplace falls further behind. Now, plans are being drawn up for a new marketplace, possibly in Toyosu — beyond the Sumida River — where a spacious new complex would incorporate all the latest technology and allow easy access for delivery and pick-up.

During most of Tokyo’s ordinary working hours, the Tsukiji marketplace is quiet.  As the shutters roll down on Ginza’s after-hours clubs, the market comes to life, and the first of roughly 60,000 people start to arrive at Tsukiji to sort, sell and buy. When the market’s day is done and Tsukiji traders drain cold beers to wash down their sushi, it is barely noon. Of course, the business of the Tsukiji marketplace is a 24-hour-a-day operation, and when the day begins or ends depends on your point of view. Outsiders are perpetually fascinated by the topsy-turvy time clock of Tsukiji, where restaurants open at midnight and close by 2 P.M. and where heavy traffic flows at 3 A.M. But Tsukiji regulars, of course, know that the rhythms of the marketplace are delicately governed by the logic of the human stomach, interpreted through the daily shopping behavior of millions of cooks. Many Japanese homemakers shop every day for fresh food—deciding on the spot what they will serve for dinner that night — and their peak shopping hours are between 3 and 6 P.M. Those in the restaurant trade make their decisions earlier, in time for the lunchtime rush. So the business of the marketplace is simple: Get fresh food into stores and restaurants before noon. To meet this timetable, trucks from provincial harbors arrive between 10 P.M. and midnight; auctioneers and their assistants begin to arrange seafood around 2 A.M.; buyers start to inspect merchandise from 3 or 4 A.M.; the opening bells for the morning auctions ring shortly before 6; wholesale stalls begin to sell to their trade customers around 7; and by 10 or 11 at the latest, stall keepers start to wind up their day’s business.

Seafood of every description cascades from sparkling white Styrofoam boxes and across well-worn cutting boards in the 1,677 stalls that line the market’s aisles where retail fishmongers and supermarket buyers, sushi chefs and bentō (box lunch) makers, hotel caterers and even a few ordinary consumers pick out their day’s fare from the enormous selection on display. Lobsters squirm and eels writhe in plastic buckets; flotilla of sea bass stare blankly from their tanks; live shrimp and crabs kick tiny showers of sawdust into the crowded aisles; smooth cross-sections of dark red tuna and creamy swordfish glisten in illuminated refrigerator cases. The selection is global: slabs of Canadian and Chilean salmon; trays of Thai shrimp; Okhotsk crab; chilled bluefin tuna air-freighted from New York or Istanbul; fresh abalone from the Ise-Shima region; boiled West African octopus; farm-raised eels from Hamamatsu and Guangzhou; live Shikoku sea bream; and sea urchin roe from Maine repackaged in Hokkaido.

Tsukiji’s global bounty is the output of vast networks of fishing, aquaculture and trade, all of which also connect the market with a wide array of international political, diplomatic and environmental issues. Seen from Tsukiji, international agreements about tuna quotas in the Atlantic, disputes over driftnet fishing in the North Pacific, problems with pollution caused by runoff from shrimp aquaculture in Thailand, allegations of seafood smuggling around the Sea of Okhotsk, or the impact of 200-mile limits on distant-water fishing fleets everywhere may not affect the day-to-day ebb and flow of trade. But these global issues, and many others, create a complex, constantly shifting backdrop — sometimes hazy and distant, other times close-up and in sharp focus — against which the market’s activities are projected. The potential for controversies that might engulf the market is never far away.

Auctions and Stalls

Every night tens of thousands of shipments arrive at Tsukiji, ranging from entire truckloads of frozen tuna to shipments of only three or four small crates of fish eggs. Most of the seafood will be sold within hours at the market’s famous auctions, held six days a week between roughly 5:30 and 7 A.M. These sales are the engines of the marketplace that reverberate throughout the entire Japanese fishing industry and echo around docks and fishing ports across the globe. The auctions are highly fragmented, operationally diverse and institutionally distinctive. Roughly 20 major categories of seafood are sold at auction locations scattered across the marketplace. Within each broad seafood category — tuna, shrimp or live fish, for example — there may be several separate auctions for different grades or sub-categories. And for each of these, auctioneers from two or more of the seven major wholesale brokers that supply Tsukiji will conduct auctions — simultaneous or back-to-back — for the same categories of products.

Each of the dozens of separate auctions is in the hands of a serinin, a professional auctioneer employed by one of Tsukiji’s seven oroshi gyōsha (wholesale brokerages) — who pitches a carefully defined segment of the seafood spectrum to a highly specialized audience of nakaoroshi gyōsha (intermediate wholesalers) who constitute a tightly organized trading community centered around a particular type of seafood. The circularity of market organization reinforces itself through cycles of trade: Categories of seafood define the auctions; participation in the auctions defines the trading communities; and trading communities define the seafood, its quality and its price.

To an auctioneer, the sales are a matter of timing and pacing. “Start with a good fish to get things moving,” one young tuna auctioneer explained to me, “but you want to keep buyers’ interest so you have to arrange the good fish carefully.” Buyers, on the other hand, pride themselves on their personal judgment. “Each fish is different. You have to look at each one as an individual,” a veteran told me. “I judge tuna by their curves,” he added with a broad smile and a pair of wavy vertical hand gestures. But once the bidding starts, everyone is deadpan. No buyer wants to tip his hand by showing enthusiasm for a particular fish, either to his competitors or to the auctioneer.

To participate in Tsukiji’s auctions a buyer needs a license from the Tokyo metropolitan government. The license is displayed as a small plastic plate attached to a baseball cap; without the cap, one cannot bid at auction. Each license for an intermediate wholesaler is connected to a stall in the marketplace: 1,677 licenses and 1,677 stalls in which these licensed buyers can resell seafood bought at auction to a wholesale clientele. One stall, one license is the principle, but these days, many intermediate wholesalers operate several stalls (often combined into a single larger shop). These firms can send several buyers to participate simultaneously in several different auctions. The 1,677 auction licenses now are owned and exercised by about 950 separate firms. In addition, other traders who cannot operate stalls within the marketplace hold about 400 licenses to buy at auction, so the auctions have a combined audience of about 2,000 buyers.

The intermediate wholesalers who operate the stalls are mostly small, family-owned companies. Individual stalls, many not much larger than a parking space, employ the labor of husbands and wives, fathers and sons, aunts and nephews, adopted children and married-in apprentices. Their customers include similarly small-scale retail fishmongers, restaurateurs and sushi chefs, as well as department store food sections, supermarket chains and hotel dining rooms. These family-run stalls are at the heart of Tsukiji’s trade. They link the world of general trading companies, multinational fishing corporations and global food processors to Tokyo’s mom-and-pop retailers and the traditions of shitamachi, the old-fashioned mercantile neighborhoods of Tokyo’s “low city.”

Many of Tsukiji’s family businesses go back several generations, if not centuries, and the proprietors derive both professional pride and a certain social standing from their claims to be direct heirs of the ancient marketplace. Some establishments can point to four, seven, even 15 generations in the fish business. As purveyors of fine seafood, Tsukiji’s traders regard themselves as stewards of Japan’s culinary heritage.

Chiyomaru is a mid-sized and highly regarded wholesaler of fresh and frozen tuna. The firm is operated by two brothers, the Andōs, who inherited it from their father about 20 years ago. Including the two of them, the firm employs about a dozen and a half people, working on the trading floor or in the office in the outer market. The older brother also owns a small sushi bar — so elegantly discreet that one can barely find it — on a side street of the Ginza. The older brother talks passionately about the artisanal spirit of the trade: the long, repetitive hard work that goes into learning the business and the proud self-assurance of mastery that it produces in the end, when one becomes a journeyman artisan, a full-fledged shokunin.

Andō’s apprentices spend two hours each afternoon sharpening the shop’s knives, including tuna blades longer than a man’s arm. Andō’s apprentices have it easy: A sushi chef may spend 10 years as an apprentice, the first couple just learning how to cook rice, before even touching a knife. Andō’s assistants must learn what he calls maguro no kaiwa — “the conversation of the tuna” — that is, to listen to the fish as they are cutting it; to learn to gauge the pressure of forearm and wrist on the hilt of the knife and the back of the blade from the smooth sound of a blade sliding through a block of red meat; to sense when the blade reaches the bottom, outer layer of skin and apply a short concentrated push to put the blade cleanly through to the cutting board. Andō talks an assistant through the cutting like a batting coach helping an athlete visualize the perfect swing.

The Andō brothers are at least the fourth generation in their family to operate Chiyomaru, and an old plaque — a copy of one from the 1890s — testifies to Chiyomaru’s participation in a donation, along with 107 other shops, to the shrine at Narita, near the present-day New Tokyo International Airport. Andō is proud to point out that fewer than 10 of the shops listed on the plaque are still in business. But on the deeper history of his own firm, he’s unsure: “Granddad always claimed to be the 14th generation in the fish business. But, who knows? He claimed lots of things.”

Traders’ pride of place is partly a reflection of the market’s long history. The marketplace traces its origins to the late 16th century, when Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, took possession of the remote castle town of Edo (as Tokyo was known until 1868). Among his followers were a small band of fishermen from a village near Osaka, led by Mori Magoemon, who had served in Ieyasu’s campaigns. These fishermen were given the tiny island of Tsukuda in the mouth of the Sumida River and in return for their loyalty — and their reputed services as waterborne spies for the shogun — they were granted a fishing monopoly in nearby waters, Edo-mae (“in front of Edo”), from whence comes the term Edomae no sushi, for the delicacy made with fish caught there. In the 1620s, Mori and several other fishermen from Tsukuda received permission to establish a regular market at Nihonbashi, not far from the castle gates, where they could sell fish in the rapidly growing city. (Tsukuda is memorialized in Japanese cuisine by its namesake dish, tsukudani, seafood preserves boiled Tsukuda style, in a soy-based broth.)

The Nihonbashi uogashi (fish quay or fish market) stood for three centuries until 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake laid waste to much of the city. By then, the existence of the fish market in the commercial heart of the city (near the site of the main Mitsukoshi department store in Nihonbashi) had come to be regarded as an eyesore and a health hazard. All that remains of the old fish market is a small monument in the pedestrian plaza at the northeastern corner of the contemporary Nihonbashi. The earthquake’s destruction made relocation inevitable, and the market was moved to the Tsukiji district, about 2.5 kilometers south.

Tsukiji (literally “built land”) was the product of 18th-century landfill. Seventy-five years ago, the Nihonbashi market had outgrown its central location; today, the Tsukiji market has long since outgrown its current facilities. So, another move is likely, this time beyond the Sumida-to Toyosu, one of the delta’s landfill islands, about 3 kilometers away. The prospect of a move is not uncontroversial. Traditionalists worry that a new market will squeeze the last drops of romance out of the venerable trade along the uogashi. Small-scale wholesalers fear they will lose customers and worry about the costs of investing in new equipment and facilities. Businesses in the outer marketplace wonder what will happen to them when the inner market’s customers depart. The Chūō Ward office worries about local jobs and the substantial tax revenues it derives from the marketplace. Still, everyone recognizes that the existing Tsukiji marketplace cannot continue without a move or a massive reconstruction.

The Year-end Rush

Late December is the busiest time of the year at Tsukiji, as the market girds for toshi no kure, literally twilight, the closing, or the end of the year. In the weeks preceding the New Year’s holidays, sales at Tsukiji soar as retailers and restaurateurs lay in stock for the year-end spike in consumption. December is the month for bōnenkai (forget-the-year parties), as well as the national holiday on the emperor’s birthday (December 23), followed immediately by the enthusiastic celebration of Christmas, all taking place while the major gift-giving season of o-seibo is in full swing. The merriment climaxes with o-shōgatsu, the New Year’s holiday, which begins with ōmisoka (December 31) and generally lasts until January 5. For many people, this is a week or so of quiet but often elaborate meals at home with family and friends. On the second Monday of January, 20-year-olds toast their legal majority on Seijin no Hi (Coming-of-Age Day), and the month is dotted with shinnenkai, the welcome-the-year parties that are the counterpoint to the bōnenkai the same groups held only a few weeks earlier.

Amid all this seasonal gaiety, the people of the Tsukiji market work until they drop. The multiple demands of the overlapping holidays pile up just before the market closes for five days — the year’s longest single vacation for Tsukiji — and the weeks beforehand are flat-out work. December leads the year in overall sales and the market’s performance is in the public spotlight. Television news programs regularly report when shipments of kazunoko (herring roe) for the holidays arrive in the market; newspaper articles give the market prices for holiday specialties; forecasters treat Tsukiji as an informal barometer for economic trends and consumer confidence (rather like Wall Street’s hemline indices). And Tsukiji traders themselves regard the year-end season as a benchmark for their individual and collective well-being.

In the outer market, homemakers and restaurateurs push through thickening crowds in the last days of December. The merchants’ association posts signs everywhere: Beware of pickpockets. At the Namiyoke Shrine, just outside the market’s northern gate at Kaikōbashi, the cycle of old year and new is marked by a gigantic straw hoop — a circular gate — through which visitors pass to offer prayers at the foot of the shrine’s stairs.

During the toshi no kure season, the market is jammed. From the point of view of a harried wholesaler, in the last days of the year, as prices for holiday specialties soar into risky multiples, his daily business is complicated by the influx of trade customers — both regular and occasional — looking to fill their own inventories. Regular customers have to stock up, or risk doing without once the market closes for the holidays. But the wannabes are also out in force. Earnest bargain-hunting amateurs try to shop for family banquets on the cheap; showy parvenus hope to impress their friends — definitely impressing themselves — by their familiarity with gourmet seafood and its purveyors, seeking connoisseurship by association with wholesalers whose culinary expertise is beyond question. The inner market aisles are clogged with middle-aged housewives in expensive fur jackets and gold jewelry, well-dressed elderly men trailing a couple of grandchildren, and small clusters of women in their early 20s in fashionable ski parkas. Children — almost never seen in the inner market at other times in the year — are everywhere. Stall keepers watch with restrained displeasure as small children occasionally poke fingers into the strange fish, but they tend to hold their tongues; the culprits might turn out to be the beloved grandchildren of a prized customer.

Many of the market’s merchants pass out token gifts to customers, usually tenugui (cotton hand towels) printed with their shop’s name and perhaps a decorative motif of New Year’s regalia or the animal of the coming year, the year of the snake, or horse, sheep, monkey and so on.

Wholesalers find the whole season trying. Their workload is huge; the spotlight of holiday publicity is on the market, which is flooded with strangers. It is also a traditional time to take stock of one’s business, to settle up financial and personal obligations, and to chart a course for the future. It is a time of exhausted reflection.

The resumption of business after the New Year is the most celebrated beginning for the market. The New Year holiday — the longest vacation Tsukiji’s traders get — ends by January 5. The arrival of the New Year’s first shipments is a festive occasion. Banners and New Year’s decorations festoon the auction blocks. The first trading sessions open with formal greetings from representatives of the marketplace administration, the auction houses and the traders’ guilds.

The greetings are punctuated with a round of ippon-jime (single closure), a rhythmic chorus of clapping that Tsukiji traders regard as a distinctive legacy of the Nihonbashi Uogashi. The leader of the tuna wholesalers sets the cadence and, in unison, all the participants clap in three clusters of three evenly spaced sharp claps, followed by a single, much louder, final clap:

Clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap-clap, CLAP.

As the cold dawn air cracks with the sound, television cameras record the ritual and the following first auction of the year; the ippon-jime of the tuna traders and similar rituals held on the floor of the Tokyo Stock Exchange are staples of holiday coverage by Tokyo’s television stations, marking the New Year for professionals and the general public alike.

Tsukiji’s ippon-jime concludes the holiday season; toshi no kure gives way to the beginning of the New Year. Transactions have been completed; a circle is closed, another cycle commences. Tsukiji’s traders get back to work: the mundane work of making a market, of feeding the city.

* This article appeared originally in Japan Quarterly 48:1 (January–March 2001): 31-41. It is republished here with permission.

Theodore C. Bestor is Professor of Anthropology and Japanese Studies at Harvard University. His publications include Neighborhood Tokyo (1989) and Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (2004).


Type,Article; Theme,Culture; Topic,History-Modern;
Tsukiji, fish, sushi, commerce, Bestor, Ted Bestor, sushi, auction, tuna, Tokyo, sakana, CITES, bluefin tuna, fatty tuna, toro,food