Japan’s Toyosu fish market still battles tide of change

|      Tatsuya Nozaki      |

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) – Six months have passed since the new Toyosu fish market opened in Koto Ward, Tokyo. While it is gaining a certain degree of popularity among tourists, the market’s seafood sales are lower than before its relocation from the famed Tsukiji market.

Six months have passed since the new Toyosu fish market opened in Koto Ward, Tokyo. While it is gaining a certain degree of popularity among tourists, the market’s seafood sales are lower than before its relocation from the famed Tsukiji market. Toyosu is still only halfway to its intended destination as the new “kitchen of Japan”.

Before the break of dawn on April 11, which marked half a year since the market’s opening, a spirited voice heralded the start of the seafood auction at Toyosu’s fisheries wholesale market building. Bids were placed for massive tuna one after another. “Amazing!” foreign tourists were heard exclaiming from the observation gallery.

One of the appeals of Toyosu is being able to see the market in action. During the school vacation in spring, children line up along the visitors’ route to take in the experience.

But the opening of a separate tourist facility, which was initially planned to coincide with the launch of the new market, has been delayed until the spring of 2023. Some have expressed anxiety about the market’s ability to attract large crowds of visitors.

 Meanwhile, a Saturday event designed to attract visitors with dishes created from fresh ingredients, has been running once a week since January. It has pulled in about 90,000 people to the site over a three-month period, pleasing the people involved with the unexpectedly high turnout, having anticipated 60,000 visitors at the most.

Visitors watch an early-morning tuna auction from the observation deck at Toyosu fish market earlier this month. – THE JAPAN NEWS/ANN

However, transaction volumes, which are important in terms of the market’s function, have levelled off. Last December, which is high season, the volume of marine product sales was 34,827 tonnes, 89.9 per cent that of the previous year. Furthermore, Toyosu’s January sales volume this year was 95.6 per cent of January last year, and in February, it was 92.8 per cent of the same month a year earlier.

The background to the falling sales figures includes changes in the environment surrounding the wholesale market. Since Japan’s fishery production volume peaked in 1984, it had dropped to a third of that high by 2017. Direct shipments from production areas have increased, and the proportion of seafood transactions through wholesale markets has dropped from 74.6 per cent of total fishery production in 1989 to 52.1 per cent in 2015.

As a strategy to invigorate the market, officials are considering opening up the fisheries wholesale market building once a month for sales to the general public. However, the public had caused problems with hygiene, such as by touching products at Tsukiji market, where visitors were allowed into the sales area. There is a view that “sales to individual customers are expected to be insignificant when compared to sales to traders, so it would not represent a fundamental solution to the problem,” according to a source related to Toyosu market.

Japan’s revised Wholesale Market Law will come into force in June 2020. Currently, products are distributed from production areas to wholesalers, then to intermediate wholesalers, and finally to traders operating outside the market. Under the revised law, wholesalers will be able to sell to traders outside the market without going through intermediate wholesalers, and intermediate wholesalers will be able to buy directly from production areas at the discretion of the organisation that set up the market. The revision of law has raised fears that this will expose traders to even more severe competition.

Given the situation, some traders have also launched new businesses that make use of the facilities in the market.

 At Tsukiji, fish used to be processed and packaged in shops run by intermediary wholesalers. In Toyosu, this is now being done in a separate processing and packaging building. The facility also has temperature control and hygiene management systems to meet international standards, allowing products to be vacuum packed or rapidly frozen.

Intermediary wholesaler Kurata Shoten has increased its number of business partners by about 10, including hotels and hospitals, over the past six months due to improvements in areas such as hygiene management. It has also started trialing selling fish and vegetable sets online.

 Company President Toshiyuki Kurata, 56, talked about the positive responses. “We can respond to the detailed requirements of customers. They praise our ability as intermediary wholesalers to make discerning selections of produce,” he said.

Hokuei Shokuhin, a specialist tuna wholesaler, obtained the ISO 22000 certification, an international standard for food safety in February. The certification is required for transactions with major companies and exporting. The person in charge is eager about working toward overseas exports.

Masashi Hosokawa, a representative of wholesale market policy research group Oroshiuri Ichiba Seisaku Kenkyu- jo, said, “It is natural that every supplier goes through trial and error and attempts new things. We must also consider the increasing public trend away from fish, trend away from markets and trend that markets themselves are changing due to revision of the law. There is a need for the entire industry — both wholesalers and intermediary wholesalers — to join forces and work on reform.”

Tsukiji market in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, closed in October last year with the relocation to Toyosu market. The outer retail market that adjoined the inner market has some 400 stores still doing business. Many international tourists visit the market, which remains as busy as in the past, but the composition of visitors is changing.

On a weekend in early April, the narrow alleyways of the outer market jostled with tourists from early morning, snapping away with their smartphone cameras. However, on weekdays, it is mainly foreigners who visit the market.

 A man running a pickles shop expressed his concern that “the number of Japanese tourists has declined due to the relocation of the market. While there are a lot of international tourists right now, I cannot help wondering if this sightseeing boom will continue after the Tokyo Olympics”.

The Tokyo metropolitan government announced in March it is to develop facilities for culture and sports, as well as others for international conferences and other events to be held in an area right beside the outer market.

The Tokyo government’s policy ties in with the redevelopment of the market site. However, these plans are still a long way from coming to fruition, as preparations are expected to be made bit by bit until the 2040s.

 “We first want the Tokyo government to work on things like increasing the number of shuttle bus services so that Tsukiji and Toyosu can work together as one market,” said Suzuki.