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Tokyo fish market's contamination woes

Julian Ryall Tokyo
May 24, 2017

Dangerous levels of chemicals in the soil and ground water mean that the market cannot open, leaving traders out of pocket and Tokyo's governor with an intractable problem. Julian Ryall reports from the Japanese capital.

Tsukiji Fischmarkt Japan Tokio
Image: picture alliance / dpa

A new report into soil contamination at a state-of-the-art facility that was designed to replace Tokyo's crumbling Tsukiji fish market has determined that toxic benzene is at levels 100 times above government-set safety limits while ground water also contains arsenic and cyanide. 

The new market is on a 40-hectare man-made island in Tokyo Bay that was previously occupied by a plant operated by Tokyo Gas and was scheduled to be operational in November last year, but the ongoing problem of contamination of the site has forced Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike to postpone the move from Tsukiji indefinitely.

Adding to the scale of the problem, a panel set up to find a solution has estimated that it will cost an additional 12 billion yen (96 million euros, $107 million) to carry out remediation work at the site - but that even if the work does go ahead there are no guarantees that benzene levels will quickly fall to acceptable levels.

Traders in limbo

Meanwhile, market traders are in limbo while others have lost money on equipment they already installed at the Toyosu site. The furor over the contamination also means that the public may never believe reports that foodstuffs that transit the market are safe for human consumption.

Fischmarkt Tokio
The existing 57-acre Tsukiji site is now a prime location for redevelopers looking to build valuable waterfront apartmentsImage: Getty Images

Market traders - and the restaurant operators who purchase fresh fish that are presently landed at Tsukiji - "are at an utter loss over the whole situation," Andy Lunt, owner of the Shin-Hinomoto restaurant in the Yurakucho district of Tokyo, told DW.

"I have been going to Tsukiji for years for my fresh fish, and all the people that I have worked with over that time are really quite depressed about the whole thing," he said.

"Nobody knows what is going on. No decisions seem to be taken and it is worst for the companies that have spent a lot of money on refrigeration units and other equipment for the places they were allocated in the new site.

"That was all done at their expense and now they can't use any of it," Lunt said. The losses could be sufficient to bankrupt some smaller operators.

The move to the Toyosu site was a pet project of former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and dates back to 2008. The stated reason was that the city needed an advanced new market to handle the growing amount of fish and fresh produce being consumed in and around Tokyo on a daily basis.

Construction of the new site also generated jobs, while the existing 57-acre Tsukiji site turned into a prime location for redevelopers looking to build valuable waterfront apartments.

Hazardous chemicals

Even in the earliest stages of the work at the Toyosu site, however, problems were apparent - including the presence of dangerous chemicals.

Given the scale of the contamination, experts called for all soil up to a depth of 2 meters to be removed and for 4.5 meters of clean soil to be laid as a layer across the entire site.

A total of 85 billion yen was earmarked for this part of the project alone.

But a subsequent investigation confirmed that the work was not carried out beneath a number of the structures that were later built on the site, including one building that was due to store wholesalers' supplies. The two other buildings affected are where the auctions for fish and seafood will be held and the area for the sale of vegetables and fruit.

In November, 18 senior officials of the Tokyo administration were punished by having their pay cut for their roles in the botched decontamination work at the site. 

Political damage

Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, says that even though Governor Koike cannot be blamed for the debacle, the opposition Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in the Tokyo assembly is looking to make the market a political issue ahead of the July 2 Tokyo metropolitan elections.

"The issue has now turned into how much political damage the LDP can inflict on the governor - even though she had nothing to do with the original plan for the new market," he said.

"She now needs to find the optimum solution, from both a political and an economic perspective, to the problem and carry it through," he added. "But I do not see how she is going to do that.

"The cloud of fear that has been generated around the site makes it difficult for Governor Koike to settle for some intermediate measure that promises safety, because the public will not believe her," he stressed.

Andy Lunt agrees. "There are just too many problems with the new site for anyone to trust any promises that are ever made about it," he said. "It cost an absolute fortune to build and now it's just a white elephant that cannot even be turned into anything else.

"You can't build houses there or turn it into a park because if you can't sell fish there, then you can't have people living there or children playing in parks on the site," he said.

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