Exploring the Fish Market Through Three Stages of History

Take a walk through the history of the fish market: from Nhonbashi to Tsukiji to Toyosu

Tsukiji Market (Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market) (1961)Original Source: 中央区立京橋図書館

The familiar Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, known by the name “Tsukiji Market”, can proudly claim to have the world’s largest volume of business. Many probably have observed its spectacular reopening, after it moved to Toyosu on October 2018, when it was broadcasted on the news. Looking back at the market’s 400+ years of history, stretching back to its time in Nihonbashi, uncovers what has been a quite tumultuous history.

From its origins in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), where ingredients were sold on the streets, to its eventual status as one of Japan’s most famous locations visited even by overseas tourists, what has changed in the market? And what has been preserved? Let’s take a step back and look more deeply at this market, one which feels familiar but we actually know quite little of.

Busting with people ar Nihonbashi Uogashi (1923)Original Source: 中央区立京橋図書館

Evolving from an outside market to a modern market

Business situations during the Edo Period were completely different than that of today. Ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate, the period officially began in 1603. During this time, the Nihonbashi Fish Market spontaneously emerged at a location near Edo Castle. This movement was lead by Mori Magoemon and his family, summoned from Osaka to manage the supply of fish to the shogunate. After making the necessary shipments to the shogunate, the family took what remained and began selling it in the city, and this is said to be how Nihonbashi Uogashi started.

Arrival Tuna fish at Tsukiji Market (Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market) (1957)Original Source: 中央区立京橋図書館

“Edo was quite rural at the time. The Kansai area was rather the commercial and cultural center of Japan, so individuals with vocational or technical knowledge would be called in from Osaka”, explains Kyoto Fukuchi, of “Tsukiji Fish Market Ginrin Kai”, an organization that manages publications and materials related to the market and its marine products. Ms. Fukuchi is a unique and highly reliable individual when it comes to the market. A person of wide-ranging knowledge, she was captivated by Tsukiji Market and partook in an apprenticeship at a marine products wholesaler, from her previous position in a fashion magazine publisher, a totally unrelated field.

“Receiving backing from the shogunate as well, Uogashi grew into an enormous market. As Japan entered its Meiji Period (1868 – 1912), however, the market began experiencing some hardships. Located in Nihonbashi, which was a top-class district at the time, leaders of the country’s modernization couldn’t allow the market which maintained the same as back in the Edo Period to remain in the district, despite is successful business. And so, Uogashi was ordered to move away to a new location and start again.”

Shibusawa Eiichi, the industrialist who will be printed on the new ¥10,000 bill, was at the forefront of this move, propelling it forward. Placed next to banks and post offices, symbols of modernization, the Nihonbashi Uogashi market was seen as a thing of the past, and a thorn in the side. “But the country then entered its Taisho Period (1912 – 1926) without a resolution, with the issue of the market’s relocation still remaining.

There was a conflict of interests in new and old wholesalers, but more than anything, it wasn’t easy to break down business related to food as they all are deeply related to the daily lives of citizens.” The area soon faced an event that instantly shifted its trajectory: The 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

Burnt trace of Nihonbashi Fish Coast after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923. (1923)Original Source: 中央区立郷土天文館「タイムドーム明石」

A city’s landscape crumbling into ruin, along with its old order

In September 1923, Tokyo was jolted by a massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake, known now as the Great Kanto Earthquake. The city’s functionality was almost entirely destroyed.

“Uogashi as well was almost entirely destroyed. But on the flip side, this was a opportunity to shed its skin into a modern public market. ‘Market Rules and Regulations’ for management were established, and modern facilities for conducting transactions were established, with particular consideration towards hygiene and sanitation.

This concept first entered Japan during the Meiji Period, coming from the West. Up until that point, there wasn’t even the notion of setting up a marketplace with specific facilities for transactions. Even amongst celebrated cultural figures at the time, they had no real mental grasp of this image, and just endlessly debated the matter.”

Tsukiji Market (Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market)Original Source: 中央区立京橋図書館

The capital’s recovery plan to rebuild from the earthquake, included the construction of the Tsukiji Market, as its biggest project. Those who were sent overseas for observational purposes included not only architects and engineers, but a variety of others, even including Uogashi wholesalers. These individuals were sent out to cast an incredibly careful and observant eye, in order to grasp and take back the best aspects of other countries, including the United States, Germany, Italy, and more. The market cleared the earthquake-resistance requirements that are unique to Japan, and thus came to a completion, a structure made from the ideals, knowledge, and research of cultured persons and technical experts and engineers.

Tsukiji Market during constructionMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

“The platforms were incredibly good looking. It even made me wish I could invite Lauren Bacall, a legendary American actress, to have a walk”, continues Ms. Fukuchi.

“The plan utilized Italy’s Milan, New York City’s The Bronx, Germany’s Leipzig, and other locations as references for the new market. This planning was handled by engineers who had graduated from Tokyo University. Their youthful skills and abilities made possible to build an entirely new fan-shaped market. Functionality was prioritized, but significant attention was also paid to design. The place gave off a Bauhaus-ish feel, a style of design that was popular in the West at that time."

Main buidling hallwayMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

"In 2018, the dismantling in preparation of the move to Toyosu began, and this characteristic fan-shaped building disappeared. Development is scheduled to begin after the Olympics and Paralympics, but wouldn’t it be great if they could recreate even just a part of the original building?” Details concerning architecture meetings, etc., have yet to be decided.

Tsukiji Market: Tokyo's Kitchen (1962)Original Source: 中央区立京橋図書館

Influencing business: the boom that came after the war

The opening of Tsukiji Market as a central wholesale market was announced in 1935. It made a start, as an integrated market that would include a fruit and vegetable market known as Daikon-kawagishi. However, this change was met with a whirlwind of speculation and opinions, and the new facility was subjected to boycotts from some period. Meanwhile, the dark footsteps of war snuck up.

“Just as the doors finally opened. It can be said as a tragedy”, says Ms. Fukuchi. “The initial objective of creating a central wholesale market was to create food stability for the entire citizens. At some point, though, the gaze of war arrived, and the market was transformed into a food provision base. And when the full-on war actually begun, many people from the market were conscripted and sent out to the battlefield as well.

Even once we finally welcomed the end of the war, Japan was left experiencing chronic starvation and suffering, with the market placed under the control of the GHQ (general headquarters) of the United States. But the people of the market were tough. The special procurement demand stemming from the Korean War revived businesses, and the country entered an extended period of strong growth. The economy instantly began growing. At that time, tuna was the pride of the market. Wholesale companies possessed and maintained their own tuna ships and operations, and it is said that the piers were practically buried in fresh-caught tuna.”

First cargo of the New Year at Tsukiji Market (Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market) (1963)Original Source: 中央区立京橋図書館

On the other hand, the market structure was originally based on the surrounding railways, and it arrived at a state of over-capacity due to the increase in volume resulting from the high-level growth. This led to whispers and rumors of a potential move. The issue of moving the Tsukiji Market, already existed as early as the 1960s.

“Additionally, the overall ambiance and feel of Tsujiki at that time was quite rough, the kind of place meant for professionals only. This, combined with the many quality fish markets accessible in the city, resulted a situation where hardly any regular customers visiting the market. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that general shoppers and foreign tourists began arriving in large numbers, after official restrictions were eased and the Tsukijishijo subway station was opened. The shops and stalls that the people of Uogashi had used gradually disappeared, with the number of sushi shops growing instantly.”

Nihonbashi Tenno-sai Festival (1889)Original Source: 中央区立郷土天文館「タイムドーム明石」

The seasonal turning point: ritual celebrations with good friends

During the Showa Period, which also faced some drastic ups and downs, Tsukiji Market went through a great deal of change. But what has remained the same throughout its long history?

“The Japanese term “’Nakama’ (which can mean friend, colleague, associate, mate, etc.) would be a bit embarrassing to use now, but we would use it often in this market. The market’s shops and stalls all consider themselves as Nakama, as they are mostly small family businesses."

"One example is ‘Nakama Purchases’, inherited from the days of Nihonbashi Uogashi. When a customer wants to purchase an item that the shop cannot provide due to having sold out of it, the shop in question will share it with another, ‘Nakama’ shop, thus completing the sale. I myself was quite surprised when I first heard of this custom. Usually, the different parties in this situation would be thought of as rivals. But in this market, it is considered natural and obvious that the shops would establish a give-and-take relationship, and help each other out when necessary."

"I believe that the people of the market have chosen an approach to prosper together as a group, rather than getting in the way of each other. Another aspect that is distinct and characteristic to Tsukiji is having a ‘judging eye.’ The ability to tell the degree of freshness of a fish is something that anyone can develop with decades of experience and effort. The true ‘judging eye’ is one that assesses the overall market situation at hand, and probes to determine what can be sold, and how. People with this ability will rise to the top ranks of the market.”

Main festival of Namiyoke ShrineMinistry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

Another famous sight at the market is these Nakama gathering together, in seasonal and ritual celebrations were they express their mutual appreciation and gratitude. The first person to hold such celebrations, events at Uogashisui Shrine to which the Uogashi merchants looked forward to with significant excitement and anticipation, was none other than Mori Magoemon. From the time of Nihonbashi Uogashi to the present, this custom is one that continues.

“Even if the market facilities or location changes, I believe that the spirit of the people there will not. From the festival for Suijin, the Shinto god of water, to a memorial for pufferfish, the people revere what allows them to take part in their occupations. I think that they treat this sentiment quite importantly. I also think that this serves as a social event with ‘Nakama’ and as a refresher from daily life. Things may seem lively at the market, but once you’ve settled, you’ll find that peoples routines are quite set, to a certain degree."

"There is also a celebratory rhythmic clap at the end of the year, to commemorate the year gone by, and that everyone has given their best effort to succeed in their business. The arrival of the first cargo shipment of the new year is also celebrated. I think of these as ‘seasonal turning points’, in a way. The market is also a place of solidarity and unity for the people there. It is a place where you know you can find everyone. Even if the physical location has moved from Nihonbashi to Tsukiji, and then in turn from Tsukiji to Toyosu, I think that these aspects will remain as long as the Japanese spirit and mindset remains unchanged.”

Credits: Story

Cooperation with:
Tsukiji Fish Market Ginrinkai

"Tsukiji Market Chronicle Complete Edition 1603-2018" (Kyoko Fukuchi Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc. 2018)

Text: Makiko Oji
Edit: Saori Hayashida
Production: Skyrocket Corporation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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