Monday, July 31, 2017

The Toxic Saga of the World’s Greatest Fish Market

Tsukiji is the most exalted fish market on earth, the sort of humbling place that causes the likes of globally worshipped god-chef René Redzepi to deem it one of the “seven culinary wonders of the world.” With nearly 671 licensed wholesale dealers selling more than 500 different kinds of seafood — $17 million worth a day, and more than 700,000 tons a year — the 23-hectare market is so vital to the global commercial flow of fish that it’s almost impossible to imagine how the international sea critter industry would fare without it.

But the occupants of this oceanic oasis have been dancing to a slow swan song. Last November, after more than 80 years in its current location, Tsukiji’s inner market, the fish-slinging heart of the operation, was supposed to move to Toyosu, a man-made island about 1.5 miles south, where a freshly constructed, state-of-the-art space had been built. Tuna wholesalers scheduled the shutdown of their refrigerators; new contracts were arranged with outside shippers; shrimp mongers tied up loose ends for delivery routes. A stunning film about the market, Tsukiji Wonderland, was released to commemorate the historical moment. Nostalgia was in the air.

The move never happened. Today, Toyosu sits empty, and Tsukiji teems with life, its fate still hanging in the air. This is the, er, fishy story of what happened.

With a layout that’s akin to a tipped-over Greek amphitheater, Tsukiji is a menagerie of things both living and recently alive. The outer market spills into the taxi-jammed streets with its offerings — oversized vegetables, patterned dishware, mom-and-pop noodle shops — and crawls with tourists in their sandals and DSLR cameras, ogling bowls of slurp-worthy udon, boxes of chestnuts, and shiitake mushrooms, phallic and forearm-thick.

The inner market, where tourists are banned but for a limited window each day, possesses a decidedly factory-like quality: At every turn, piles of discarded Styrofoam loom, while hoses spray away fish guts, blood, and sweat in equal measure. Stapled advertisements for concerts and now-defunct fish companies have yellowed almost beyond recognition. Everything looks like a fire hazard, though nothing feels out of place. Birds peck around the periphery, and on one morning, I watched an emboldened hawk swoop in and pick up a rogue piece of fish from the concrete.

Built in 1923 on the site of a former imperial naval base, Tsukiji is a testament to an older way of doing business — that just happens to sit in the middle of a grid of impeccable city planning. Take a comfortable stroll a few blocks northeast, and you’ll find the fancifully hooved streets of the Ginza district, where you can literally eat breakfast at the Gucci store, just like in the Kanye song. Meander down another path, and you’ll run smack into the drab concrete towers of salarymen, who scuttle in and out like worker bees serving the inscrutable whims of company queens.

Real estate developers have argued for decades that the land underneath Tsukiji is too centrally located to remain a fish market. In the 1970s, city planners considered moving the market because they believed that “the land in the major business and entertainment districts could be put to much better use,” Harvard professor and Tsukiji expert Theodore Bestor wrote in his 2004 book, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World.

The main reason for the most recent push to relocate Tsukiji’s inner market, though, is the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. A new multi-lane highway critical to the city’s Olympics infrastructure is slated to run through the center of the market, connecting the Olympic Village directly to the National Stadium. Today, that thoroughfare sits half-built, with construction arching directly into the lip of Tsukiji like a post-apocalyptic rainbow into a pot of fish guts. Without it, many are concerned that traffic will be a nightmare as athletes attempt to trek between their temporary homes and the primary stadium, making Tsukiji a literal roadblock of the highest order.

There’s also the rumbling, but never directly stated, sense that Tsukiji just doesn’t quite project the image Japan wants to show the world. As with its aggressive modernization campaign going into the 1964 Olympic Games — to spotlight just how far the country had come in the aftermath of World War II — Japan seems intent on showcasing a country that is modern, orderly, and forward-thinking. Tsukiji, on the other hand, is structurally outmoded in every possible way. On the morning I visited in mid-October, skidding across the water-slicked floors of the inner market, it quickly became clear that Tsukiji is a living, breathing organism unto itself, luminous in its gore. (...)

After an extended period of construction bidding, work began on the new space in 2012. Located in the ward of Koto, about a 20-minute train ride from Tsukiji, the initial renderings of the Toyosu site reflected an Epcot-like, futuristic vibe. It was to be a surgically sterile place for handling precious edible cargo, coupled with a distinctly separate area for tourists where the hungry and shutter-happy could enjoy snacks in a contained environment and soak in hot mineral baths. On a chilly autumn afternoon when I toured the site, the overcast sky and sprawling, boxy complex seemed to fuse together into one indistinguishable landscape that was 180 degrees of difference from Tsukiji. Grey and lifeless, the Toyosu market has an exterior — huge, polished and shiny — that could just as easily be found in Austin, Texas, as in Tokyo. Scraggly trees had been planted to give it some semblance of vibrancy, but the impact was minimal.

It’s also fairly obvious that the fishmongers weren’t widely consulted during the construction process. The shiny new stalls for vendors are closed off in an attempt to be more sanitary, but the design deeply limits the mobility of the fishmongers, especially when cutting large hunks of fish. (In one television program about the new space, a wholesaler showed just how difficult it is to go about his business of slicing tuna as his elbows repeatedly bumped up against the cubicle-tight walls.) The Toyosu space has multiple levels, which means that fish will have to be carried up and down stairs, sloshing liquid all the way. Dangerous slip-and-falls seem guaranteed. There’s also only one access point for trucks to unload and pick up wares, which many wholesalers worry will create traffic and workflow problems. (...)

Plans to relocate Tsukiji to Toyosu were put into motion under former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a novelist-turned-politician who was regarded during his tenure, from 1999 to 2012, as a hawkish, corrupt leader. In 2001, the Ishihara administration finalized the decision to build the new market on land that had been occupied by the Tokyo Gas Company from 1966 until 1988, an area known to be heavily polluted with industrial chemicals. Testing in January of that year had revealed that benzene levels (among other things) were 1,500 times higher than the allowed maximum, but Ishihara’s administration pushed forward. To sanitize the site, the ex-governor approved a plan to replace the defiled dirt with a 4.5-meter-thick layer of clean topsoil as one of a series of “chemical countermeasures” that would, in theory, neutralize and seal off the hazardous materials, preventing them from oxidizing or affecting the market’s products or workers in any way.

This, however, never came to pass. Last September, Yuriko Koike, the newly elected governor of Tokyo, held a press conference to announce that the necessary improvements never actually happened. Koike, the former environmental minister, revealed that not only was the soil still loaded with arsenic, cyanide, hexavalent chromium, cyanogen, lead, and benzene from the gas company’s tenure, but the protective layer of topsoil was never added beneath the Toyosu site in the first place. Instead, contractors created hollow concrete chambers in place to separate the dirty soil from the ground floor of the market. The public and vendors alike had been duped, and now a very real danger was present in the new space.

by Sarah Baird, Eater | Read more:
Image:Wesley Verhoeve