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Tsukiji Fish Market, the iconic Bauhaus-inspired building that sells more seafood every day than any other place in the world, is likely to undergo a makeover. On November 7, the inner market is scheduled to move south to the Toyosu area. The venerable facility will then be demolished. Unless plans change, that is. New Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has suggested she might delay or call off the move, citing protests from wholesalers over safety and traffic concerns. But as things stand, the situation is depressing for fans of the old market.

Tokyo’s constant state of demolition and redevelopment has for years fascinated and disturbed Japan-watchers. Many have wondered why a city that was once marked by awe-inspiring design and deep tradition insists on knocking down and redeveloping its historic buildings and areas. The results often turn out to be drably utilitarian structures that would not look too out of place in the Soviet Union circa 1965.

There are, of course, plenty of reasons for Tokyo’s constant state of flux. Redevelopment can raise land values; older buildings do not meet modern safety regulations; society is becoming grayer; the modern economy has created different corporate needs that old buildings cannot meet. So it goes.

Still, for many, heritage is more important. “That is the stuff people want to come to Tokyo to see,” explained Alastair Townsend of Bakoko Architects, speaking of older buildings such as Tsukiji’s market. “Development comes at a cost of the character of the city and what gives it value,” he added.

The outer market will remain in Tsukiji.

The outer market will remain in Tsukiji.

HOPE
There is, however, plenty of reason to be hopeful that Tsukiji will remain attractive to tourists and locals if the inner market goes. Over the generations, the town has nurtured a strong community. Workers from the market often live in the area, and a network of stores that sell goods from above sea level to visitors, chefs, and workers has grown. These people, with businesses beyond seafood, are not willing to simply let their town fade into the background.

They have allies. A new building—Tsukiji Uogashi—will open later this year in the area of the outer market and will include about 60 restaurants, many of which currently operate in the inner market. The idea is to keep the tourists coming to Tsukiji, regardless of any inner market relocation. “We are all working hard together to make sure the closure of the inner market doesn’t mean the end of Tsukiji,” said Hiroshi Miyanohara, manager of the outer-market knife store Aritsugu. “For Toyosu, public transport networks are not too strong; so I feel people will still come here.”

Miyanohara said that his store predates the inner market, which opened in 1935, and that there was little concern about business after the facility moves. “We have a store in the inner market, as well as this one,” he explained. “The one in the inner market [is a] fish specialist. Our customers are tourists and people with a general interest in cooking.” His only conundrum: Should opening hours remain from 5:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.?

Others in Tsukiji also have hopes for its future. Yoshihito Suzuki, a representative of Namiyoke Inari Shrine, said that with Uogashi opening and the outer market staying intact, most would not notice the difference. “Things won’t really change for visitors. The only thing gone will be the morning tuna auction,” he said. “And many areas of the inner market were inaccessible to the public anyway.”

The shrine, which has protected Tsukiji since before the market opened in 1935, is confident that the loss of the inner market will not affect its business. “There will still be plenty of people coming here from [Uogashi] and the outer market,” Suzuki said. “Many of the workers at the outer market live in this area, too.” Namiyoke will also remain an attraction in itself. Since the founding of the shrine in 1659, shishigashira (lion heads) have protected the area from waves, which were a much bigger problem before modern technology tamed Tokyo Bay. The shrine’s festival, at which locals, workers, and merchants parade the shishigashira and other deities around the town, is likely to remain a draw.

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COMMUNITY
Long before the market was envisaged, Namiyoke Inari Shrine, whose name roughly translates as “religious site for protection from the waves,” watched over the Tsukiji community. “In the Edo Period (1603–1868), the waves were very strong, but we had the shishigashira to protect us against the force of the sea,” Suzuki said. “The deities were supposed to keep the wind and the clouds at bay.” Some locals believe they do so even now.

Suzuki says that the shrine serves those locals, and the locals serve the shrine. While the inner market is going, he points out that it is 5-chome, using the Japanese system for dividing up districts. “One to four, six and seven, they remain. They are not the market.”

Back before World War II, in the third year of the Showa Period (1926–1989), Susumu Rokkaku moved into his current home. He remembers the early days. “As a kid, I used to swim in the Sumida River over there, but that was a long time ago,” he said. “Things are obviously different now, and my kids have moved out,” he added. Still, he does not well up at the prospect of the inner market moving, or the area undergoing a makeover. “The new market will only be down the road, so I don’t worry about the change.”

Many in Tsukiji echo Rokkaku’s sentiments. For Miyanohara, there is a certain divide: The workers are one family and the local residents another. Both co-exist happily, but they have different shared stories and shared memories. Suzuki is aware of this. “Tsukiji has a strong community, which is rare for Tokyo,” he pointed out. “And around here, the town is the town and the market is the market.”

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LESSONS FROM CHIBA
What would replace the inner market has yet to be decided. There will likely be a road, easing congestion from the south of the city, and there are rumors of apartments and retail—though nothing is confirmed.

Down in Toyosu, all looks set, though protesters continue to raise food contamination fears. Work is almost complete on the new facility that will replace the inner market. As a modern building, it will be easier to keep clean and cool. State-of-the-art facilities will also make the new market more convenient for workers. And in a bid to end the ongoing tension between visitors and those there to do business, it also features areas designed specifically for tourists. Plus, at 510,000 m2, it is about 1.7 times larger than the current venue.

Back at the knife store, Miyanohara said he will miss his old “family” at the inner market. “Obviously I would be happiest if it stayed in Tsukiji.” Fans of architecture are also likely to be disappointed that the new facility has more in common with a food factory than the workspace as art.

But Bakoko’s Townsend views redevelopment as inevitable, and often necessary. Living in Chiba Prefecture, he witnessed firsthand the effects of the choice not to allow the developers to do their thing. “Matsudo is an interesting case study because it’s a bit of [an uncomfortable place to live by modern standards],” he said. “It has lots of buildings that are about seven stories high with a different snack bar sort of thing going on in them. The next major station is Kashiwa, which is similar in scale but it’s further from Tokyo. But it has a Gucci store and a Chanel store near the station. It’s like Beverly Hills in comparison.”

Koji Naito, research director for Japan markets at real estate developer JLL, knows Kashiwa well, and sees the area as a possible model for sustainable development. “In the center, there is a large shopping complex, and there were a lot of vacancies around,” he said. “They wondered what to do with the area and decided to create a shared office building. It was quite a good idea because right next door is a University of Tokyo building, and you can also find Chiba University and a lot of incubators gathering in Kashiwa. And rent is getting really expensive, maybe ¥30,000 per tsubo [3.3 m2].”

The reason for the rising rent, Naito said, is that Kashiwa has become a nice place to live. “It’s quite comfortable. There are kids around, and a lot of people in different age brackets. It’s got quite a good atmosphere,” he explained. “Kashiwa is also definitely better for a night out, too. Matsudo just has a handful of restaurants and bars by the station. There is a much wider range of choices by Kashiwa.”

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Why are the two areas in such contrast? “The only reason the areas are different is that Matsudo declined the opportunity to let the rail operator and whatever consortium come and develop there,” Townsend said. “They wanted to retain all the small businesses around the station. The local business organizations banded together to block them. What’s happened is that property in Matsudo is worth a lot less, and there’s a lot less revenue coming into the city because there was never any development. So it’s a shame to lose the street culture and the mix of businesses you find throughout Japanese cities, but it’s understandable from a developer’s perspective.”

For Tsukiji—as it prepares to undergo development—the lessons of Matsudo and Kashiwa should be taken to heart. In the greater Tokyo tradition, it can try hanging on to heritage without allowing new development to take place at the risk of losing out to other, more innovative areas. Those in the outer market and those preparing to move into the new Uogashi complex are giving it their best shot.

Rokkaku is confident the redevelopment will work out, but he is not going anywhere. “The place is going to get more upmarket, and rents are likely to rise. I’ll not sell my places though … they are going to my children.”

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1868 Meiji Restoration sees Japan’s capital move to Tokyo
as nation embarks on modernization.

1923 Nihombashi fish market destroyed
in Great Kanto Earthquake

1935 Tsukiji fish market begins operations

1990 Modernization of market area begins; Japan bubble bursts

1995 Tokyo scraps plans to modernize market in bid
to rein in spending

1998 Relocation of market proposed

2003 Plans to move market to Toyosu presented

2011 Plans to move market to Toyosu finalized

2016 OCT. 15
Uogashi opens in outer market area

2016 NOV. 7
Inner market moves to new premises in Toyosu

Richard Smart has been living and writing in Japan since 2002.
The idea is to keep tourists coming to Tsukiji, regardless of any inner market relocation.