Relocation of the historic market to a Tokyo Bay site has been in the works since 2001, but cost and environmental concerns have stalled the project.

Share story

The doors of Tokyo’s iconic Tsukiji fish market — the world’s biggest — are set to close after more than 80 years. But maybe not for good.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said Tuesday that the world-famous site of early-morning tuna auctions will be relocated to an area that used to house a gasworks in the Toyosu district near Tokyo Bay. The metropolitan government plans to then give Tsukiji, near the upmarket shopping area of Ginza, a face-lift and reopen it to tap into its name recognition, Koike said.

Koike gave no time frame for the move, saying it would take place after discussions with those involved, but said the market would be redeveloped over the next five years.

The capital’s government will also explore whether the fish market can continue to operate in Toyosu, which is equipped with state-of-the-art refrigerating and freezing capabilities. The market’s future had been in murky waters since 2001, when the city decided to move it to the Tokyo Bay site. The relocation plan was delayed because contaminated soil had to be removed from the new site — a process that was completed in October 2014.

In August 2016, less than a month after Koike took office, she announced a further delay to look into the move, citing concerns over the safety of the new site and the cost of relocation. At the time, she said she was “astonished” at the $5.3 billion price tag, and has since kept citizens on tenterhooks as to her final decision.

The market is one of the top tourist destinations in Tokyo, attracting as many as 42,000 visitors a day. The move would greatly impact not only the market as a place to visit but also as a world-class hub for fish supply, according to Ted Bestor, professor of social anthropology at Harvard University and author of “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.”

Brand value

“You can’t duplicate something of that magnitude,” Bestor said in Tokyo. “The Tokyo government may have destroyed a brand name of enormous value.”

About 3.6 million pounds of seafood worth about $14.4 million pass through the market on a typical day, according to a government pamphlet. Tsukiji handles about 480 types of seafood and 270 types of produce. Yet the number of stalls has already been declining and Toyosu’s inconvenient location may prompt some wholesalers to close their doors rather than move there, according to Bestor.

In her news conference Tuesday, Koike branded the decision as “Protect Tsukiji, make use of Toyosu.”

The fish market has been one of several thorns in the side for the Tokyo government, which has been bogged down with planning and budgeting for the 2020 Olympics in the city. Koike has criticized the past administration led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party over a lack of transparency on these issues.

Tokyo election

Koike’s scrutiny of the Olympics and the fish market helped her become one of the country’s most popular politicians, and she’s also been touted as a future premier. Tsukiji and the Olympics will be a major focus of a Tokyo assembly election to be held early next month, Yu Uchiyama, professor of contemporary Japanese politics at the University of Tokyo, said before Tuesday’s announcement.

In a recent national poll conducted by the Yomiuri newspaper, 46 percent of respondents said the market should be moved, compared with 29 percent that opposed relocation.

Hakubun Shimomura, head of the LDP’s Tokyo chapter, questioned where the money will come from to redevelop the Tsukiji site, and complained that Koike’s decision would upset plans to develop infrastructure there in time for the Olympics.

“After moving Tsukiji, there was a plan to run the expressway underneath the site and make it into a large parking facility,” Shimomura said in Tokyo on Tuesday. “This might not be ready in time.”