Tokyo fish market holds final New Year ritual

Elaine Kurtenbach
Associated Press

Tokyo – — It’s among the biggest of Japan’s many New Year holiday rituals: Early on Tuesday, a huge, glistening tuna was auctioned for about $118,000 at Tokyo’s 80-year-old Tsukiji market. Next year, if all goes as planned, the tradition won’t be quite the same.

The world’s biggest and most famous fish and seafood market is due to move in November to a massive complex further south in Tokyo Bay, making way for redevelopment of the prime slice of downtown real estate.

The closure of the Tsukiji market will punctuate the end of the post-war era for many of the mom-and-pop shops just outside the main market that peddle a cornucopia of sea-related products, from dried squid and seaweed to whale bacon and caviar.

The auction is typical of Japan’s penchant for fresh starts at the beginning of the year — the first visit of the year to a shrine and the first dream of the year are other important firsts — and it’s meant to set an auspicious precedent for the 12 months to come.

Sushi restaurateur Kiyoshi Kimura has prevailed in most of the recent new year auctions, and he did so again this year in the bidding for a 440-pound tuna.

In 2013, a bidding war drove his record winning bid to about $1.3 million at today’s exhange rates for a 490-pound fish.

That drew complaints that prices had soared way out of line, and the winning price in 2014 was dramatically lower. Last year, a 380-pound tuna caught off Japan’s northern region of Aomori fetched a winning bid of $37,480.

Japanese eat about 80 percent of all bluefin tuna caught worldwide, and stocks of all three bluefin species — the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic — have fallen over the past 15 years amid overfishing.

But while the new year and daily tuna auctions are Tsukiji’s best-known events, the market is about much more than just tuna.

On a recent year-end day, shop owners in rubber boots and aprons were rushing to clean up and sell off the last of their inventory, as the last few hundred shoppers milled around hunting for bargains.

Already, some shops outside the market have been razed and a new building that will house a smaller “outer market” is under construction. Conceptual drawings from the Tokyo city government show the nearly 57-acre market site that fronts the Sumida River’s outlet into Tokyo Bay being transformed into an open waterfront parksurrounded by greenery, with a wide shopping plaza and a passenger terminal for tourist ferries.

Planning for the move began nearly 20 years ago. But the shift was delayed for years due to toxins found in the soil at the new location, the former site of a coal gasification plant run by Tokyo Gas.

Critics of the move said city authorities were swapping worries over cramped and some say unhygienic conditions in Tsukiji for a new set of health problems: unsafe levels of lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium and other toxins.