Tokyo sets stiff new rules for tuna auction

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Tokyo authorities are imposing tough new rules on visitors to the hugely popular tuna auction at Tsukiji fish market.

The city government has decided to limit the number of tourists visiting the early-morning market to 140 people per day, on a first-come, first-served basis, because of the problems that they are causing.

A warren of narrow alleyways that are choked with handcarts and electric trolleys transporting crates and carcasses of fish, the aging market is not designed to cater to visitors. On top of that, the market has increasingly become a tourist attraction, appealing to visitors from Japan's Asian neighbors like China, South Korea and Taiwan who are visiting the country in greater numbers as well as to early-rising Westerners from Europe and North America. As a result, the quantity of tourists is overwhelming the facilities.

But arguably the biggest factor behind the authorities' decision is the misbehavior of some of the visitors.

A one-month ban on all tourists was imposed on April 8 after traders complained about the disruption that was being caused to their businesses. Similar blanket bans were introduced over the busy New Year periods in 2009 and 2010.

Traders complained that tourists had been "hugging" huge tuna in poses for photos, while others had licked fish. Video clips on the internet have also shown tourists riding around on the back of wholesalers' delivery trucks.

The market initially reacted by banning flash photography and limiting visitors' access to a cordoned off area close to where the dealers bid for the latest arrivals, but the sheer number of visitors is proving too much for the market's facilities.

On April 5 alone, more than 500 sightseers attempted to crowd into the designated section to watch the tuna auction - an area that is only meant to hold a maximum of 80 people, market officials said. Others "disrupted" the transfer of fish within the market, they added.

Officials added that they have seen an increase in the number of visitors that they link to the ongoing international debate over banning trade in endangered bluefin tuna.

From May 10, the government will issue numbered tickets to visitors on a first come-first-served basis from when the market opens. Visitors will be divided into two daily groups, with 70 people permitted to attend the tuna auctions at one time.