The great Tokyo fish market – Tsukiji

This article, transcribed here in its entirety, was published in the National Geographic Magazine on November 1995.

Enjoy.

Then book a flight to Tokyo.

The importance of fish to the Japanese diet and the country’s economy is well illustrated by Tokyo’s huge fish market. This article from National Geographic explores the Tsukiji, the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, which is one of the largest wholesale fish outlets in the world.

THE GREAT TOKYO FISH MARKET – TSUKIJI

Frozen assets, bluefin tuna worth top yen are readied for Tsukiji’s morning auction. The market’s clamourous labyrinth of stalls showcases all manner of seafood – from live sea eel to pickled octopus – and reflects well-ordered confusion of Japanese society. Says Tsukiji scholar Ted Bestor, “Tsukiji revels as much about Japanese culture as it does about Japanese cuisine.”

By T.R. Reid

Hawking the World’s Costliest Fish

A torrent of transactions wrings sweat from auctioneer Masami Eguchi, who sells 200 tuna in half an hour, or about one every nine seconds. “I have to recognize the highest bidder instantly, ” Eguchi says. “No delays are allowed.” Casting sidelong glances like high-stakes poker players, silent buyers signal bids for numbered tuna with hand gestures. By fingering slivers of flesh beneath a flashlight, bidders discern subtle distinctions in fat content and colour, key selling points that sway the price of a premium tuna from $6,500-$11,000 – and up.

The long, cold trip to Tokyo came to an end for tuna number 197 with a thud, a bonk, and one last cavernous clunk as the huge fish toppled off the truck and skittered across the slippery concrete floor. Two, maybe three days earlier, this torpedo-shaped bluefin had been searching for its supper in the chilly waters off Boston. Now—netted, gutted, flash-frozen to 76 degrees below zero, and transported via cargo jet halfway around the world—197 was itself on the verge of becoming somebody’s supper, served up on the polished wooden counter of a sushi bar where diners would pay $11 an ounce for this succulent delicacy.

The place that transformed 197 from just another fish in the sea to one of the world’s most expensive foodstuffs is a sprawling, teeming, cacophonous corner of reclaimed land on the edge of Tokyo Bay. Its formal name is the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, but in Tokyo everybody calls the place Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee), for the neighborhood where the market stands. Fairly substantial quantities of meat, mushrooms, maple syrup, pickles, potatoes, peaches, and other foods move through this market every day. But the heart and soul of Tsukiji is fish.

Tsukiji is a fish market in the sense that the Grand Canyon is a ditch or Caruso was a crooner. Among the wholesale fish markets of the world, Tsukiji ranks at the top in every measurable category. It handles more than 400 different types of seafood, from penny-per-piece sardines to golden brown dried sea slug caviar, a bargain at $473 a pound. It imports from 60 countries on six continents—indeed, the list of shipments reaching Tsukiji on any given morning reads like a verse from John Masefield’s poem “Cargoes”: eel from Taiwan, sea urchin from Oregon, octopus from Athens, crab from Cartagena, salmon from Santiago, tuna from Tasmania, and on and on for hundreds of entries. Tsukiji moves about five million pounds of seafood every day—seven times as much as Paris’s Rungis, the world’s second largest wholesale market, and 11 times the volume of New York City’s Fulton Fish Market, the largest fish market in North America. In dollar terms, that comes to 28 million dollars’ worth of fish. Per day.

Handling that incoming ocean of seafood is the work of some 60,000 people and a fleet of 32,000 vehicles that seem to operate in a near-constant state of gridlock. At the midpoint of Tsukiji’s workday (6 a.m. or so) the crowded sheds and narrow passageways are so clogged with trucks, vans, motorcycles, forklifts, handcarts, and bicycles (with the rider balancing, say, four cases of live shrimp on a shoulder) that you literally can’t find walking space.

Not that it’s safe just to stand still—if you do, there’s always the risk of being mowed down by a ta-ray, a three-wheel, gas-powered wagon that zips through the market carrying stacked cases of fish.

The first couple of times I went to Tsukiji, I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the place, the frenzied activity, the constant roar of voices and vehicles. I was struck both by the presence of so many fish and by the mysterious absence of any fishy aroma (it’s actually no mystery at all, I learned later; the produce sold at Tsukiji moves through the market so fast that it’s long gone before it starts to smell). I remember wondering—as I stepped over long rows of tuna, walked past blue plastic trash cans filled with squirming eels, slipped between stacked wooden cases of flounder flapping their tails—how any city could eat this much fish in a month, much less one day.

But going back more often, I gradually realized that to focus on the bigness was to miss a key point. The real secret here, the reason the place does its job so well, is that Tsukiji is a small town. It’s a community where everybody knows everybody else, and everybody works together toward the common goal of moving fish as fast as possible from the sea to the sushi bar or the supermarket.

“Of course, we know that time is money,” says white-haired Kikuo Takayanagi, president of the wholesale firm Daitoyo and a respected elder statesman of the marketplace. “Even so, you always take the 30 seconds to bow, to say hello. We are all neighbors here.”

“To understand how Tsukiji works, just remember that Tsukiji is a mura,” smiles Makoto Nozue, director of the Tsukiji Tuna Association, using the Japanese word for a traditional village. “We feel we work in a community called Tsukiji-mura. Yes, we are all competitors. But we spend a lot of our lives in this crowded village, and we need to get along.”

Like every Japanese mura, the small town called Tsukiji has a clear hierarchy. At the top of the pecking order are the employees of the seven major first-tier wholesalers, who buy up fish around the world and get them to Tokyo. The big seven, in turn, auction off the daily catch to more than a thousand middle wholesalers, who cut, package, and deliver the goods, sometimes to yet another tier of distributors, sometimes directly to stores or sushi bars. There is a separate world of small businesses—knife sharpeners, boxmakers, bootsellers, and three dozen restaurants—on the site to serve the fishmongers.

And yet the privileges of status at Tsukiji tend to yield to the fundamental Japanese social principles of harmony, community, and the avoidance of confrontation. I saw that one morning when I witnessed a traffic accident in the market. A rampaging ta-ray cart slammed into a bicycle. The biker was wearing the uniform of one of the seven top-tier firms; the ta-ray driver, who worked for a small wholesale outfit, seemed to be in the wrong. But it quickly became clear that this incident would be resolved by the Japanese version of a no-fault settlement: Both drivers got off their vehicles, took off their caps, bowed deeply to each other, apologized, and then worked together to straighten the bicycle’s bent fender and to gather up the cases of fish sent flying in the crash.

Like every Japanese mura, Tsukiji has its own Shinto shrine, a handsome dark-wood structure with a black fluted roof and an imposing 12-foot-tall torii, or gate, out front. It was built here 350 years ago, when the ruling shogun first reclaimed the land, to appease the gods; that explains its name, Namiyoke Inari Jinja, or “hold-back-the-waves shrine.”

“People in the fish market come to pray more often than the average salaryman,” the amiable chief priest, Hidemaro Suzuki, told me one day as he sat cross-legged on the tatami floor of his shrine. “They are buying and selling every day in auctions, and auctions are a function of fate. So people working here need more contact with the gods.”

Sometimes the shrine is a place for carefree escape, such as the festival each June when hundreds of fish-market people pull on bright orange happi coats for a grand procession through the neighborhood. Sometimes the shrine is for contemplation; several times a year Suzuki-san leads prayers for the fish that die here. Gathering up his long black kimono, the priest led me over to a large rock in the temple garden, placed by the Association of Sushi Suppliers. “We have pleased many humans with fine sushi,” the inscription reads, “but we must also stop to console the souls of the fish.”

Forging a Fishmonger’s Knife

In a cuisine that emphasizes raw ingredients artfully presented, knives hold special value. (The Japanese word for chef, itamae, literally means “in front of the cutting board”) At this forge in the city of Fukui, bladesmith Masaji Shimizu produces the five-foot-long maguro-bocho, or tuna knife, prizedby Tsukij’s tuna dealers. The painstaking process entails heating iron and steel bars to a malleable 900F, then fusing the two metals under a power hammer. The blade is honed on a grinding wheel amid a shower of sparks, then scrutinized for flaws. About one in three are rejects, says the second-generation knife-maker. “But I am getting better.”

Tsukiji puts heavy emphasis on education to pass along essential skills to the next generation—yet another resemblance between this place and Japan’s small towns. On any given day there will be classes at the market on topics like auction protocol, knife handling, or time-tested techniques for making a spicy kamaboko, or fish sausage.

One day I happened upon a course that had literally life-or-death implications. Officials from Tsukiji’s Fugu Harmonious Association were teaching the proper way to carve a fillet of fugu, the bulbous fish usually known in English as blowfish or puffer. For reasons I’ve never understood—the stuff always tastes like cardboard to me—fugu is an expensive and cherished delicacy in Japan. Unfortunately, it can also be lethal. Enzymes in organs of the fish are fatal to humans; almost every year some unfortunate diner expires in Japan after feasting on fugu that was not properly prepared.

Accordingly, a national license is required for every fugu chef. The class I saw was preparing candidates for the rigid licensing exam. “I’ve only got a month to go before the test,” 26-year-old Kazuya Yawatagaki told me nervously, hefting an 18-inch knife as he practiced cutting slivers of fugu so thin they were translucent. “There’s a written exam that lasts two hours. The next day they hand you a fugu, a knife, and two pans. In 20 minutes you have to put every poisonous part of the fish in one pan and all the edible parts in the other.”

Another reason the people of this teeming place see themselves as neighbors in a village is that everyone in the market is bound to an upside-down daily schedule known as Tsukiji time. The market’s workday begins just before 3 a.m., when the truck convoys begin to arrive, hauling fresh and frozen fish from around Japan and around the world. By sunrise it is time for the lunch break. When the day’s work is essentially done, the people of Tsukiji sit down for dinner and a cold beer—at around 8:30 in the morning.

“Someone working here might live in a nice neighborhood like Shibuya or Funabashi, but how can you have any friends there?” says Masami Eguchi, a round-cheeked, crew-cut 41-year-old who has worked at Tsukiji for 20 years. “You get up at, what, 2:30 a.m. to go to work, and when you get home, you’re already thinking about going to bed. So for us, our ‘neighborhood’ is really Tsukiji.”

As a rising star in the ranks of Chuo Gyorui, the largest of the seven first-tier wholesale firms, Eguchi-san says he has no complaints about his inverted workday. “But my daughter is four now, and she’s starting to complain,” he adds with a half smile. “She says, ‘Papa, you’re a grown-up! Why do you go to bed before I do?’”

Eguchi-san needs his sleep, because around five every morning he plays a leading role in Tsukiji’s most lucrative daily drama: the tuna auction.

The rush hour hits at dawn inside Tsukiji’s three dozen eateries, where workers relish such fresh-caught fare as horse mackerel grilled over charcoal. Fish has long been the protein staple of seagrit Japan, which consumer more than a tenth of the world catch.

Longer than a man and weighing from 200 to 1,000 pounds each, hundreds of tuna arrive in Japan by cargo jet every day. So voracious is the Japanese appetite for fish that even the swordfish caught by a tourist off the coast of Florida is more likely these days to end up frozen in Tsukiji than stuffed on the fisherman’s wall; Chuo Gyorui and other first-tier wholesalers contract with agents on the charter docks in Miami to buy those big prizes as soon as they reach shore.

From the airport, the tuna are trucked to Tsukiji and bounced out onto the floor of the big tuna shed. They are lined up in long rows, like so many toppled bowling pins, while workers weigh them and label them with bright red characters. Number 197—a monster of a fish at 622 pounds—happened to be the 197th tuna delivered to the Chuo Gyorui auction area the day it arrived; the man with the writing brush quickly stroked the essential information on the tuna’s belly: #197, Boston, 282 kg.

In the crowded market the frozen fish quickly begin defrosting, and a cold, eerie mist rises from the long lines of tuna. Around 4 a.m. an army of phantom figures starts moving through the mist. These are the buyers from several hundred second-level tuna wholesalers, who cut a morsel of dark red meat from each tuna; they feel it, smell it, check its color and oil content, constantly making notes on their hands or scraps of paper.

Eventually, the auctioneers join the throng. Proudly putting on his brown-and-white Chuo Gyorui cap, Eguchi-san sets up shop on a small wooden pedestal, ringing his handbell to announce the start of the sale.

“There are dozens of auctioneers working for the big seven wholesalers,” Eguchi-san explained to me one day. “And each one has his own chant, his own rhythm. You have to pick a style that works for you and for the buyers. And you have to work fast. You know, the tuna I sell go for 600,000 yen [$6,800 U.S.], even one million yen apiece, and I have to sell 200 of them in about half an hour each morning.”

Eguchi-san’s style of selling might be described as “total involvement.” With his right arm high in the air and his chubby belly bouncing rhythmically along, he roars out his sing-song call. He constantly scans the arcane hand signals of the buyers circled around him, stepping up the pace, and his own rate of bounce, as the bidding goes higher. When one fish is sold, he swipes quickly at his sweat-soaked face with a sleeve or handkerchief and moves on to the next without missing a beat.

Implicit in this complex ritual of inspection and auction is a concept that might not be immediately obvious to Americans—one that I was educated about over an exquisite dinner of tuna sashimi when I asked Eguchi-san’s boss, Hiroyasu Itoh, senior managing director of the Tuna Department of Chuo Gyorui, if all tuna taste alike.

Itoh-san, who has put in some 40 years with his firm, bore my ignorant query with a gentle smile, and replied with a question of his own.

“Reido-san,” he said, “why is it that Americans think any fish is just like every other fish? They’re not made in a factory, you know. It seems perfectly obvious to us that a bluefin from the cold, rough seas around Tasmania will have different meat than a bluefin from tropical waters. I guess if you cook your tuna with lemon and seasonings, then it all starts to taste the same. But that’s another thing I can’t understand.”

Itoh-san deftly scooped up a slim rectangle of deep red tuna meat with his chopsticks and held it out to me. “Why would you take fish this good, fish that cost 7,000 yen a kilo [about $36 a pound], and cook it? I mean, you kill the flavor! It seems so wasteful.”

In fact, virtually all the tuna and more than half of all the seafood Tsukiji sells each day will be eaten raw—either sliced into small rectangles as sashimi or placed as the topping on a cube of sushi rice. And it will all be expensive.

Japan is famous for outrageous prices, of course, and the country’s famously inefficient distribution system is a key reason. This is all part of Japan’s basic social contract: To make sure that almost everybody has a job, extra layers of labor are added to virtually every economic activity. This is costly in terms of prices, but it also saves a good deal of money, pain, and disruption by ensuring a secure and peaceful population. As the central seafood distribution hub for a nation of fish lovers, Tsukiji vividly illustrates how this works.

Consider, for instance, tuna 197. It was caught by an American fishing boat. Sold to a Japanese trading company. Shipped via air and truck to a first-tier wholesaler at Tsukiji. Sold at auction there to a smaller Tsukiji wholesaler. Cut, packaged, and transferred to various distributors. Delivered to restaurants throughout central Japan. By the time the fish finally got to the end consumer, tuna 197 had passed through at least seven intermediary companies, each one taking a profit along the way. No wonder some salaryman in a sushi bar ended up paying five dollars or so for each half-ounce bite.

Smell is the surest test of freshness, says buyer Yoichi Kitahara, sizing up a handful of shires, or dried young sardines. On the accepted, though naive, notion that women’s hands are warmer than men’s and thus more apt to lessen peak freshness, few women sell fish at Tsukiji. Handling money and lagers instead of fish, Yoko Fukaizawa begins her workday with prayer.

But if Tsukiji serves to prove the common Western view that Japan is expensive and inefficient, it tends to undermine another piece of conventional wisdom about Japan—that its markets are closed.

Almost every developed nation is running a trade deficit with Japan, and companies around the world still face problems getting many goods and services into this rich country. But when it comes to food, either from land or sea, Japan is the biggest net importer on earth. Tsukiji, of course, is the biggest importer of seafood, and people working in the market seem proud that their daily labor helps offset Japan’s big trade surplus.

“You know, Bill Clinton ought to give me a medal,” laughs Tetsuya Ishizaki of Chuo Gyorui, a man who greeted me wearing an orange plastic squid in place of a necktie. “I mean, President Clinton says he wants Japan to import more American products. Well, I get up at three every morning to buy American imports.”

The import that Ishizaki-san brings in from California, Oregon, and Maine is uni, or sea urchin, a fist-size shellfish with a buttery soft meat of yellow, red, or bright orange. Many Americans probably wouldn’t know a uni from a unicorn, yet the U.S. has become the biggest exporter of uni on earth. And every last exported uni goes straight to Japan.

“I went to Portland, Oregon, to teach them how to get the uni out of the shell and into the wooden shipping box,” Ishizaki-san says. “The California red sea urchin is one of the largest uni in the world, and it is delicious. But we had to explain to the Americans that if you handle the meat too much, it will go bad.”

The reason that Tsukiji buyers had to develop a U. S. uni industry involves a familiar problem in the fishing business these days. The uni-picking grounds in Japan and Korea have been overfished, and it is necessary to give them time to replenish. Japan has sharply limited uni picking in its waters—they can be fished no more than two hours a day—and other countries (as well as California and Maine) are moving in the same direction.

The sea urchin is hardly the only marine species facing depletion, and many people at Tsukiji are coming to sense a tension between the desire to sell as much fish as possible today and the need to have more fish available to sell tomorrow. “We all think about this,” says Itoh-san, the 40-year veteran of Chuo Gyorui. “My father was in this company, and I would like for my children and grandchildren to have a future in it. And that means we must have healthy fish stocks.”

The need for healthy stocks around the world will continue, because the world’s biggest fish market must continue to sell fish. Its appetite is huge, and its reach is broad. In almost any corner of the seven seas, buyers from Tsukiji are at work right now, on the lookout for tomorrow’s number 197.

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6 thoughts on “The great Tokyo fish market – Tsukiji

  1. So cool! I dont suppose Ive read something like this before. So nice to find someone with some original ideas on this subject. Thanks for bringing this up.
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  2. whatever feels good to you, my man. still,i want nothing to do with this. too bad. Anyway, i subscribed to your rss feed

  3. Can I just say what a relief to find someone who knows what they’re talking about. You truly know how to bring an issue to light.
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