slicing up magaro
Tsukiji Fish Market (10 minutes walk from Tsukiji-Shijo station on the Oedo line) isn't just a market it is a three ring aquatic circus. Situated on a piece of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay and officially known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market (Tokyo Chuo Oroshiuri Ichiba), it is far and away of the largest fish markets in the world, accounting for 90 percent if the seafood that passes through Tokyo and a third of the seafood that passes through Japan.

Opened in 1935 and named after the neighborhood where it is found, Tsukiji (pronounced skee-jee) covers 56 acres and contains 1,200 fish merchant stalls that sell more than 480 kinds of seafood---including eels, octopus, barracuda, puffer fish, surf clam, conger eel, lobster, squid, shrimp, sea bream, salmon, mackerel and of course bluefin tuna---laid out if rows, swimming around in tubs, and stored in crates. If you look carefully you can find bright red chunks whale meat for sale.

The seafood arrives daily from 60 different countries: crab from Alaska and Russia, frozen torpedo-like tuna from Spain and Croatia, seas urchin from Oregon and Australia and anchovies from Peru. Most of the sea creatures are still alive and it is not unusual to see octopus slide out of buckets and crawl across the floor. The seafood is moved through the market in handcarts and motorized carts that buzz around in all directions and get snarled in traffic jams. Because the seafood passes through the market so fast there isn’t much of a fishy smell.

Five million pounds of seafood, worth $28 million, is sold in the market every day, 11 times more than the Fulton Fish Market in New York City and seven times more than the Paris' Rungis Market (the world's second largest wholesale market). Moving the fish in, selling it, auctioned it off, prepareing for delivery to fish wholesalers and restaurants, and moving it out is work force of 60,000 people aided by 32,000 vehicles---trucks, vans, hand carts, bicycles, and tree-wheeled wagons and turret trucks that are narrow enough to maneuver down the narrow aisles. Over 1,000 tons of fruits and vegetables also pass through the market.

In January 2011, a 342-kilogram bluefin tuna was sold at Tsukiji for a record price of ¥32.49 million ($360,000). The was caught off Toi, Hokkaido and fetched such a high rice because of its quality and freshness and the fact that bad weather reduced the New Year catch (538 bluefin were auctioned off, 33 fewer than the year before). The record-breaking fish was purchased jointly by Kyubei, a famous sushi restaurant in Ginza, and Itamae Sushi, a chain of restaurants in Japan and Hong Kong.

In July 2010, the largest bluefin tuna caught since 1986 was sold at Tsukiji. The 445-kilogram fish, which was weighed after it had been gutted and cleaned, was caught off Nagasaki Prefecture in Japan. It was auctioned off for ¥3.2 million ( ¥7,200 per kilogram). The largest bluefin tuna every sold at Tsukiji was a 496-kilogram fish caught in April 1986. The biggest bluefin ever caught was a 497-kilogram Canadian fish caught in 1995.

Harvard University anthropologist Theodore Bestor conducted extensive field work at Tsukiji. He has called the market “a genuine attraction that does nothing to promote itself.” In his book Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World he wrote, “Tsukiji is closely attuned to the subtleties of Japanese food and to the representations of national cultural identity that cloak cuisine, but this is also the market that drives the global fishing industry, from sea urchin divers in Maine, to shrimp farmers in Thailand, from Japanese long-liners in the Indian Ocean to Croatian tuna ranchers in the Adriatic.”

Websites and Resources

Links in this Website: FISHING IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; BLUEFIN TUNA FISHING AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TSUKIJI FISH MARKET IN TOKYO Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; TRADITIONAL FISHING IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; PEARLS AND JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SEAFOOD IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; SUSHI Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; FUGU (BLOWFISH) IN JAPAN Factsanddetails.com/Japan ;

Good Websites and Sources on Fishing: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries maff.go.jp/e ; Statistical Handbook of Japan Fisheries Section stat.go.jp/english/data/handbook ; 2010 Edition stat.go.jp/english/data/nenkan ; News stat.go.jp

Good Websites and Sources on Blue Fin Tuna Fishing : Northern Blue Fin Tuna fishbase.org ; Southern Blue Fin Tuna fishbase.org ; Wikipedia article on Blue Fin Tuna Wikipedia ; Blue fin Tuna Fishing Methods content.cdlib.org ; Mediterranean Blue Fin Tuna Aquaculture eeuropeanrussianaffairs.suite101.com ; Southern Bluefin Tuna Aquaculture sardi.sa.gov.au/aquaculture ; Blue Fin Tuna Farming Off Spain uni-duesseldorf.de

Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo : Tsukiji Market site tsukiji-market.or.jp ; Essay on Tsukiji aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Tsukiji Research people.fas.harvard.edu ; Japan Guide japan-guide.com Getting There: Best Japanese Sushi google.com/site/bestjapanesesushi ; Photos: Tsukiji Tour http://homepage3.nifty.com/tokyoworks/TsukijiTour/TsukijiTourEng.htm

Traditional Fishing in Japan: Ama Divers thingsasian.com ; Ama Physiology archive.rubicon-foundation.org ; Amasan hanamiweb.com ; Squid Fishing jtackle.info/squid ; Cormorant fishing Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cormorant fishing in Yangshuo yangshuo-travel-guide ; Photos of Cormorant fishing molon.de ; Articles on Cormorant Fishing highbeam.com

Ban on Tourists at Tsukiji Fish Market

For a while tourists were barred from entering certain parts of the market, namely the area where the popular tuna auctions take place. Before the ban tourists were criticized for touching the tuna, poking them with sticks and even letting cigarette ashes fall on them. On some days 90 percent of the people at the 5:30am tuna auction were foreign tourists. In January 2009, tourists were let back in the auction but were required to stand behind a designated area and watched over by guards.

Authorities reportedly had enough when a tourist licked the head of a tuna. For some weeks afterwards the auction was closed to visitors. When it reopened visitors were required to stand behind a cordoned off area. The are is still closed to tourists the busy New Year period from late December to early January. But even then you can still see plenty of action from standing outside the open doors of the warehouses where the auctions takes place. There are smaller auction for sea urchins, shrimp and dried fish.

Rules for observers of the tuna auction include: 1) watch for trucks and trolleys; 2) don’t go in groups larger than five; 3) don’t carry large bags that will get in the way of others; 4) refrain from touching the fish; and 5) don’t wear high heel or open-toed shoes.

When tourist first began arriving, people at the Tsukiji just thought they were there because they had jet lag. In early 2010 Tsukiji set up a viewer area at the auction that held 70 people. That idea was shelved when as many as 500 people showed up. In May 2010 Tsukiji tuna auction reopened to tourists with only 140 tourists allowed in the auction a day on a first come, first serve basis. Still many at the auction don’t like the visitors there and worry about temperature control and sanitation problems they present. There are also concerns that someone might get run over by the motorized carts that cruise around. Flash photography is definitely not allowed. Some worry it could affect the vision of people involved in multi-million yen auction deals. For More Info See Below

Orientation of Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji site
Tsukiji has two parts: the 230,000-square-meter inner market (Jonai Ichiba) and the outer market (Jogai Ichiba). The larger inner market is located next to the water. It is a large area enclosed under a single roof, with different businesses running their own large stalls. The outer market embraces wholesale and retail shops that sell restaurant supplies, kitchen tool and seafood. There are also many sushi restaurants here.

The inner market is where most of the activity is. You are welcome to stroll around but if you are there in early morning when it is most active the place is very busy, wet and space is tight. Don't wear your nicest clothes and watch out for the motorized carts that move the goods in and out.

The outer market is a maze of small streets and alleys bounded by main streets of Harumi Dori to the northeast and Shin Ohashi to the northwest. The 400 shops here are geared mainly for the seafood and restaurant trade, selling large knives, tableware, kitchen gadgets and seafood items like fish sausages, seaweed, and fish flakes. There are small shops that sell fruits, vegetables, meat, mushroom, and seafood.

History of Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji means “built land,” a reference to the fact it was placed in a district built on reclaimed land. The first market was situated near Nihonbashi Bridge, two kilometers north of the present site, in the 17th century. Tsukiji opened in the early Edo Period (1603-1867) when Tokugawa Ieyasu invited fishermen from Osaka to Edo (Tokyo) to set up shop in the area to make sure his cattle had sufficient supplies of fish. The catch that remained after the shogun’s needs were met were sold near Nihonbashi bridge. In the early 20th century there were plans to move the market to a new location but those plans were scraped after the Tokyo earthquake in 1923. The current facility was built in 1935 and is now old and crowded.

Because the market is too big for the buildings that house it, Tsukiji will be moved to a new 374,000-square-meter site in Toyosu Koto Ward, two kilometers to the south, in 2014. The new facility will have more space in and around it. Toxic chemicals have been found at the new site and $50 million will be spent to replace the two meters of top soil, purify the water and remove toxic materials. Many people at Tsukiji don’t want to move.

Business at Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji is a community in which everyone knows everybody else. Even though many people are in competition against one another the atmosphere is very cordial, and there is lots of bowing and smiles. Buyers and sellers have known each other for years if not decades. They bargain hard but also help each other out. Buyers sometimes buy fish they can not sell to help sellers on a slow day. Sellers in turn sometimes give away good fish for free or sell it below cost to reciprocate.

Commerce is dominated by seven major first-tier wholesalers, who bring in the catch from around the world and sell it to thousands of middle-level wholesalers, who in turn sell it to distributors who deliver it to stores and restaurants.

The fish industry includes fishermen, traders show purchase the fish, air shipping companies, trucking companies, butchers, packagers, delivery people. On its journey from the sea to customers plate, a single fish can change a dozen times, with each business taking a profit and adding an expense.

Offering support are small business such as knife sharpeners, box makers and restaurants. Within the complex that is 350-year-old wooden Shinto shrine with a 12-foot torii gate and plaque that reads, "We are pleased many humans enjoy fine sushi but we must also console the souls of the fish."

There is currently a debate on what to with tourists that visit Tsukiji. Traditionally they have just wandered around, gawking at all the fish and activity, and not bought anything. Many workers and wholesalers have resented their presence because they get in the way and disrupt their daily routine. Some seafood sellers want to sell fish directly to visitors. [Source: T.R. Reid, National Geographic. November 1995]

Tsukiji Fish Market Auctions

The main inner market tuna auction begins at 5:30am every day (except Sunday, holidays and two Wednesdays a month) and is usually over within 30 minutes. There are restriction on how close visitors can get to the action.

About 3,000 frozen blue fin tuna are sold every day, with some fetching prices of $10,000 or more. The fish are numbered and displayed on the floor of a vast tuna shed. Before the auction the bidders cut off small pieces of dark red meat from the fish and examine it for color, texture and fat and oil content and make notes on scraps of paper. Oily fish are worth more than dry ones. Cuts from the stomach are examined for marbling and fat. The more marbling and more the fat the more valuable the fish is.

The fish are numbered and the bidders use hand gestures to make their bids which the auctioneers recognize with sounds that resemble barks. Masami Eguchi, a tuna auctioneer sells around 200 fish in a half an hour (one every nine seconds). "I have to recognize the highest bidder instantly," he told National Geographic. "No delays are allowed. There are dozens of auctioneers. Each one has his own chant, his own rhythm. You have to pick a style that works for you and your buyers. And you have to work fast." Other fish are sold in auctions with many of the bids taking place with hand gestures concealed under towels. It is important that the fish stay fresh so everything is done at a rapid pace while most people are asleep.

The tuna auction begins around 5:00am. Describing it, Kathyrn Tolbert wrote in the Washington Post, “the fish were laid out in neat rows on the floor of the chilly warehouse, giving off a faint frozen mist under the fluorescent lighting...Men in work shirts and rubber boots bent over the solid carcasses, inspecting them by lifting a three-inch flap of skin that had been neatly cut open on each one, peering at the cut-off tail end with flashlights. The weight of each tuna was written in kilograms.”

“A cowbell rang, and the auctioneer launched into the rhythmic chanting that marks this ritual, moving slowly through the rooms flanked by several men with notepads as they buyers hovered near their choices and made finger signals...the tuna were being sold in groups of six or seven at a time.”

After tuna is purchased it is sliced in half with a maguro-bocho, a five-foot tuna knife that resembles a samurai sword and cut into smaller pieces are sold to other buyers, restaurants, supermarkets and retailers. The knives are made by fusing iron and steel bars together at 900̊F under a power hammer and a then ground in flurry of sparks. Professional knifemakers say they one in three are rejects.

Around 3:00am vehicles begin bringing in fresh and frozen fish, much of which is already sold by 4:30am. Workers take a lunch break around sunrise and unwind with a dinner and beer around 8:30 in the morning. Intermediate wholesalers are very busy between 6:00am and 9:00. Larch hunks of frozen tuna are cut into pieces with saws and adzes and fish and seafood of all kinds is boxed and prepared for deliveries. By 10:30am the activity has subsided, stalls are empty and the floors are being hosed down. The market closes around noon.

When Tsukiji moves to its new location the chaotic live auctions will replaced by computerized ones that no doubt will not be as fun to watch as the current auctions. In 2009, ¥6 million worth of seafood was stolen from Tsukiji. The thieves targeted the most value items: tuna, salmon roe, sea urchin and blowfish.

Trash at Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji produces 90 tons of waste a day, the equivalent of the trash generated by a city with 90,000 people. About 50 percent of the waste is in the form of paper, Styrofoam and cardboard boxes. These are placed in five-meter-high piles that are taken away to recycling centers in China who produce 50 millimeter granules that are sold to manufacturers of video tape, clothes hangers, combs, buckets and other objects. About 30 tons of tuna waste is created every day. Most of it is collected by a livestock feed maker who boils the waste, presses it into solid and liquid materials and separates oil from the liquid with a centrifuge. The oil is used in margarine, soap and cosmetics. The solid waste is made into feed for chickens and farmed fish such as yellowtail.

Image Sources: JNTO

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2011

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