World’s biggest fish market in Tokyo hit hard by COVID-19

The relocation of Tokyo’s renowned Tsukiji fish market to Toyosu, costing a staggering $5 billion, took place two years ago. The new market, almost twice the size of its predecessor, has encountered significant difficulties, with around 600 merchants struggling to generate sufficient sales. The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt another blow to these businesses, compounding the uphill battle they already faced.

Operational obstacles in Toyosu

Toshiyuki Kawame, owner of a tuna wholesale shop in Toyosu, explains the challenges: “In terms of operation, there are more cons than pros. Access is really bad. By public transport, it takes twice as much time to get here than it would to get to our old location in Tsukiji.”

Pandemic impact and declining seafood consumption

The pandemic has further exacerbated the troubles faced by these businesses, resulting in a 50% decrease in sales. Japan has been experiencing a steady decline in seafood consumption, and fishermen have also encountered unexpectedly poor catches in recent years. Furthermore, the move to the new site presented complications. Prior to its launch, Toyosu was found to have toxic substances in the soil and groundwater due to its previous use as a gas plant. This necessitated additional cleanup measures, leading to increased costs and a longer delay in the relocation.

Necessity of the move

Despite the challenges, experts assert that the move to Toyosu was necessary. As a closed and self-contained facility, Toyosu offers improved hygiene and temperature management controls compared to Tsukiji. Masahiko Ariji, a professor at Kindai University, explains, “The buildings and the facilities in Tsukiji were simply getting too old. Little fixes were made to maintain the market, but a significant overhaul wasn’t possible because it was such a crucial market that needed to be working every day. Toyosu fulfills the global standards of hygiene and supply, so I think it was right to move the market there.”

The fate of Tsukiji’s outer market

While the wholesale market shifted to Toyosu, an outer market remains in Tsukiji, adjacent to the former wholesale market site. However, restaurants and retail shops that were left behind are still grappling with the aftermath. Ariji predicts, “Tsukiji’s market still has the traditional small shops there, but honestly, I suspect that someday that market will become a part of history, and that whole area will be absorbed into the business district.”

Impacted foot traffic and hopes for revival

With the relocation of the wholesale market, foot traffic in the Tsukiji area has significantly diminished. Kouji Sugawara, a worker at Maruta Foods, a food stall in Tsukiji, reveals, “After the market moved to Toyosu, we’ve been getting about one-third the usual amount of customers.” Merchants in Tsukiji believe that COVID-19 has dealt a severe blow, compounding the challenges caused by the market relocation. Sugawara expresses their only hope: “I can’t even put into words how defeated we feel by the coronavirus. If only this didn’t exist, we were still getting by despite the market moving.” They rely on Japan reopening its doors to international travelers and anticipate that tourists, including those visiting for the Olympics, can help revitalize the markets.

The future of Toyosu and Tsukiji

The Toyosu fish market continues to grapple with obstacles, yet there is optimism for its recovery. Improved access and targeted marketing efforts can potentially attract more customers. Meanwhile, Tsukiji’s fate remains uncertain, with its outer market striving to maintain its traditional charm amidst diminishing footfall. The revival of both markets hinges on a combination of domestic and international factors, including the containment of COVID-19 and the return of tourism, particularly during major events like the Olympics.

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