Trading plaices: Tokyo's Tsukiji

Plans to relocate Japan's giant fish market to a potentially toxic site has provoked wails of outrage. By David McNeill
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For a nation that consumes one-third of the world's fish, few areas of Japan are as symbolic as Tsukiji. The fish market in the heart of Tokyo is the most important 230,000 square metres in Japan's culinary map, handling roughly 20 times more fish a year than New York's Fulton fish market and London's Billingsgate combined. Everything from minke whale to sea urchins passes across its slippery floors.

But if the government has its way, toxic chemicals could soon be seeping into all that glistening meat. That, at least, is what critics say will happen if they don't block a plan to relocate the 72-year-old market to a site built on reclaimed land a couple of miles away. Once owned by Tokyo Gas, the new site on a wharf in Toyosu, near Tokyo Bay, squats on soil contaminated by a cocktail of toxic effluent from the company's plants. Tsukiji's wholesalers and traders are up in arms.

"This is an outrage that gives no consideration to food safety" said a wholesaler, Takashi Saito, at a press conference hosted by opponents of the plan this week. The opponents say they will fight until the city government, which operates the market, backs down.

It is not difficult to understand their concern. Few places in the world handle as much raw meat, a good deal of which stays raw as sushi and sashimi, all the way on to millions of plates. The thought of arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium and benzene, all of which have been detected at dangerous levels on the Tokyo Bay site, anywhere near the food isupsetting for many Japanese.

Plans to add metres of fresh topsoil, to pave the site with asphalt and to put the fish on an elevated floor before the move in 2012 fail to convince vendors. Some warn that an earthquake could shift the ground under the site. "If the Big One hits Tokyo and the reclaimed land under Toyosu liquefies, toxic substances could surface", said a tuna wholesaler, Makoto Nozue.

Tokyo's right-wing governor, Shintaro Ishihara, ignored a majority vote against the relocation by the trading organisation, the Wholesales Co-operatives of Tokyo Fish Market, and a 120,000-strong petition collected by opponents. If he has his way, and he usually does, Tsukiji will be turned into a media centre for the proposed 2016 Olympics.

Most people accept that the crumbling market has to be rebuilt. About 60,000 people work under its leaky roof and hundreds of forklifts and trucks careen across slippery floors. Men still lick pencils before putting them to scraps of paper and a new computer would probably die of under-use. Tourists gawk in awe at the controlled bedlam that manages to feed the nation.

Small businesses fear they won't survive a move. Many are run by second and third-generation owners hit hard by supermarket chains and wholesalers, which have eaten into their businesses by dealing directly with the ports and fish farms that supply Tsukiji's product. "They're fighting a losing war," the owner of a frozen seafood firm told the Asahi newspaper. "Tsukiji is getting old and the Tokyo government will not reverse itself."