Inside Tsukiji: A Very Real Wonderland

Jonathan LeRoy Biderman

Tsukiji Market is the ultimate pilgrimage destination for all cooks—so says Chef René Redzepi (of NOMA, Copenhagen) when interviewed in Tsukiji Wonderland, a recent documentary film released in October 2016. Fitting, perhaps, that my own experience of the market was motivated by just such a sentiment—to see, hear, smell, feel, and taste the market before it was scheduled to move to a new, more modern and industrial, less centrally-located facility. I wanted to immerse myself in this place that plays such an outsized role in the food culture and food system of the neighborhood, the city, the country, the region, and the world. That I was able to do so was serendipitous: a chance meeting, an invitation, a soon-to-expire air travel voucher. And so I found myself in Japan on relatively short notice, awake at two o’clock in the morning, going to market.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-1
Empty street

2:01 AM | The street is empty. Later, it will be thronged with shoppers, tourists, documentary film crews, and a few hungry employees from among the tens of thousands who, at this moment, are already hard at work within Tsukiji Market. But as I walk to the entry gate where I hope to be among the 120 people allowed a brief glimpse of the daily ritual of the tuna auction, I see few people or vehicles. What sparse traffic there is gravitates towards the market.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-2
Walking to auction

5:18 AM | After a long wait, and along with 119 other bleary-eyed visitors, I am escorted and directed through a maelstrom of trucks, workers, and whizzing electric carts toward the tuna auction room.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-3
Cart and truck

Tsukiji Market is hard to encapsulate in a description because it is so many things on so many scales. Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World by Theodore C. Bestor, Professor of Social Anthropology at Harvard University, provides an invaluable introduction and ethnographic dive into its complexity. Tsukiji is, simultaneously, a place where people in central Tokyo buy their fish for dinner and a clearinghouse for around 1,800 tons of seafood every day, where auction prices serve as an informal or formal basis for seafood prices worldwide.[1] It is a “fish market” that sells around 400 types of seafood in addition to produce, dry goods, processed foods, and equipment. It is the repository of 85 years of information, experience, expertise, tradition, adaptation, and innovation flowing through the relationships among its roughly 42,000 daily participants.

That Tsukiji Wonderland tries to capture and communicate a brief snapshot of the market in all of its dimensions is no small task. Before being allowed to film a single frame, the producers spent a full year building the trust that eventually granted them permission to bring a camera into the market. In part because of that lengthy, human process, Tsukiji Wonderland focuses on the market as a community—a network of relationships—rather than as a physical or economic entity.[2] These latter characteristics frame, contextualize, and, in some ways, constrict market activity, but they do not define the spirit or ethos of Tsukiji.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-4
Auction room

5:24 AM | I am standing in a bright, frigid room containing approximately a hundred frozen whole tuna, each of which weighs several hundred pounds. Men in rubber boots, each carrying a flashlight and a wooden rod with a sharp hook on the end, work their way slowly up and down the rows of fish, inspecting each and every one.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-5
Inspection

The tuna auction tour is surprisingly quick and unvarnished. Perhaps the assumption is that anyone willing to get up before 2 AM to sit on a hard floor for three hours and then stand in a freezing room to observe an auction of fish really wants to be there and already knows what’s happening. On my tour, it seemed many visitors were just trying to see one of the “do not miss” highlights of Tokyo. During our initial wait, a tuna nakaoroshi (intermediate wholesaler) came to give a brief, jocular description of what we would see and how the tuna auction process works. But while tuna may be the “King of Tsukiji,” Tsukiji Wonderland shows the viewer that there is much more to the market than this one famous fish and much more to market activity than the auction.

As rich and overwhelming as a visit to Tsukiji can be, the regular tourist—such as I was on this trip—experiences only a fraction of what makes the market so extraordinary.[3] The Outer Market—the neighborhood immediately outside the walls of the wholesale market—is so full of activity and market produce that the casual observer might think it is the whole market. In contrast, the Inner Market—the wholesale market compound—is industrial, unassuming, and even slightly ramshackle in appearance; like many long-lived, working markets built for large-scale functionality, much of the energy, activity, and life of the market is hidden from public view. Even if visitors tour the tuna auction, where they encounter a hint of the scale, complexity, and functional chaos of wholesale Tsukiji, their experience is that of outsiders.

5:44 AM | The tour group is ushered quickly toward the main gate of the market. We dodge electric carts and hand trucks while passing through aisles of nakaoroshi stalls and then skirt mountains of discarded Styrofoam boxes that will be reused or recycled.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-8
Styrofoam mountain

Most of the process by which seafood makes its way from auction to fishmonger or sushi restaurant is quite inaccessible to regular visitors, not just because much of the market is off-limits during the busiest part of the morning but also because no matter where one goes or stands, one is always in the way. (This sentiment was echoed by Naotaro Endo, Tsukiji Wonderland’s director, regarding the physical challenge of filming in the market, even after a year of experience navigating the frenzy of activity.) One of the most beautiful aspects of the film then, is that it allows a view inside the market—not just the physical space, but the culture, community, philosophy, and relationships. These rhythms and systems make Tsukiji more than just an overlarge shed through which a colossal amount of fish passes every day.

In the film, many workers and chefs talk about chains of human relationships that involve fish, yes, but also information, expertise, craftsmanship, and duty. These sentiments acknowledge the many hands that touch a fish during the lengthy journey from ocean to plate. Business is conducted through relationships, almost more than by economics. One nakaoroshi even goes so far as to declare with a smile, “I love prawns, so I only want to sell them to people I like. To hell with profit! Maybe I’m a fool.”

Chefs—some of the best sushi chefs in Tokyo, if not the world—openly state that they would be nothing without the expertise of the nakaoroshi. And the nakaoroshi talk of being nothing without their clients. Each group implicitly trusts the other to live up to a commitment to service and craftsmanship that does justice to the fish and to each other. And this is just one of several types of relationships that the film enables the viewer to glimpse, something that would be impossible to see otherwise. The viewer cannot become an insider, but by highlighting these relationships and values built around food, Tsukiji Wonderland encourages the viewer to take that food and those relationships more seriously.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-9
Tuna stall

7:10 AM | I am back in the Outer Market, which is now fully open and engaged in the day’s business. Stalls seem to specialize: some sell only tuna (or even just one kind of tuna); some sell only mushrooms, pickles, dry goods, seaweed, knives, tea, katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito), or tamago (sweet egg omelette), among many other things.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-10
Mushroom stall

The difference in rhythm between the Inner and Outer Markets is pronounced. When the tour group was being ushered out after the auction, the parking lot in front of the market was full of whizzing carts, motorcycles, bicycles, and trucks that ranged in size from miniscule Kei car delivery vans to massive long-distance trailers. Outside the gates, the narrow neighborhood streets of the Outer Market were starting to receive the earliest customers, a combination of professional clients and visitors who have read enough about Tsukiji to know that morning is the best time to visit.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-11
Packed street

10:24 AM | The same street that was completely deserted eight hours ago is now packed with shoppers and tourists. I overhear conversations in at least a dozen languages, see two separate film crews, and try to decide what to eat.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-12
Parked hand cart

Only after ten o’clock is the general public allowed into the wholesale area of the Inner Market, against the tide of trucks full of seafood now outbound to destinations around the globe. Most wholesale activity is winding down or even completely finished by this time, and the parking area that had been life-endangering to cross two hours earlier is now mostly empty. Having watched the film and seen the market during active business, it now feels like much of what defines Tsukiji has evaporated, only to return late in the evening when the next day’s business begins. Tsukiji Wonderland features a scene in which Professor Bestor walks through the deserted market in the afternoon, commenting on the architecture and the resident cats that must think they’re living in heaven. The atmosphere is something between sleepy and memorial. Such a feeling lends additional conviction to the assertion that Tsukiji really is the people, the relationships, and the human exchange of information.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-13
Empty market

11:55 AM | It’s relatively quiet. Remaining workers are loading their last orders and cleaning up. Most stalls in the market are closed, but not quite all of them. Yamayuki, one of the largest tuna nakaoroshi firms, is still busy preparing orders. Firm president Yukitaka Yamaguchi wields the maguro bōchō tuna knife as he determines by look and feel which cuts are best for which customers.

For every fish that passes through the caring, expert hands of the nakaoroshi, the ultimate destination is the plate, the palate, the stomach. Fish at Tsukiji come from as far away as the Atlantic, and some are sent just as far for delivery. But much has changed since Tsukiji began operation in 1935; any attempt at summary here would be woefully inadequate. At present, however, the market finds itself at multiple crossroads.

Global patterns of consumption and distribution are changing. Japan is eating less fish, although Tsukiji Wonderland covers a school program intended to reacquaint children with eating fish and with cooking in general. More fish trade now goes directly between fishing companies and large international conglomerates, cutting out the middlemen—the nakaoroshi. Fish stocks and fishing regulations are in flux, with climate change and pollution as ever-growing concerns. Politics, too, is unavoidable. After 81 years of wear, market operations controversially were scheduled to move to a new facility in Toyosu, a more industrial area on an artificial island across the mouth of the Sumida River. But elections in Tokyo and a subsequent massive audit of the new market project have postponed that move indefinitely, so the future is all the more uncertain.[4]

Conceived before the postponement of the move, Tsukiji Wonderland was intended partly as a documentarian effort to preserve information about the current incarnation of the market and the voices, thoughts, and feelings of some of its employees and customers. At times, the project feels imbued with a profound sense of melancholy about the twilight of Tsukiji, and many aerial landscape shots in the film are set either at sunset or sunrise. Perhaps this device is intended to reinforce the message that Tsukiji is more than a place, even if that place exerts extraordinary defining forces on its identity.[5] Director Endo described the move to Toyosu as akin to a change in hardware for which the software remained largely the same: the experience would be different yet still quite familiar.

Tsukiji Wonderland is ethnographic, documentarian, and cinematic all at once, attempting to record and communicate a lot of information about the market and also to instill a sense of the experience of being in it. Using a combination of very wide and very close-in cinematography, both slow-motion and time-lapse footage, the film shows what spending time in the market would feel like, if a visitor had the time and access to do so comprehensively. The closest that most visitors can get to a first-hand experience of Tsukiji is the brief tuna auction tour. Showing the film during the tour’s initial waiting period would be an excellent way to stretch that limited experience beyond tuna and to enable visitors to have a much richer engagement with the whole market.

Overall, the film is an engrossing, compelling, and visually engaging project that, if anything, whets my appetite for even more stories of the nakaoroshi firms, the fish’s journey from sea to stomach, and the place of Tsukiji in Kanto food culture. After all, the filmmakers have over 600 hours of footage and interviews that did not make the cut for this release. But whether or not one has the chance to visit Tsukiji, this film gets the viewer thinking about food—not just as physical medium or cultural expression—but as something profoundly human, whose quality and value depend a great deal on the relationships along its route to your plate.

jbiderman-gjfs-tsukiji-photo-17
Sushi

Tsukiji Wonderland is directed by Naotaro Endo and produced by Maiko Teshima and Kazuha Okuda for Shochiku Co., Ltd. Currently, the film is in distribution in parts of Asia and is seeking distribution in Europe and North America. Additional information, as well as photographs and guest blog posts (in Japanese) by some of the nakaoroshi, can be found here.

Notes

[1] Mitsuko Nagasawa, et al., “Tsukiji: Kitchen of the Times,” The Asahi Shimbun Company, 2015, http://www.asahi.com/special/tsukiji/en/profile/.

[2] Naotaro Endo, Kazahu Okuda, and Maiko Teshima, “Production Note,” Tsukiji Wonderland, 2016, http://tsukiji-wonderland.jp/en/.

[3] Theodore C. Bestor, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 21.

[4] Magdalena Osumi, “Smelling Something Fishy, Koike puts Tsukiji Move on Ice,” The Japan Times, August 31, 2016, http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/08/31/national/smelling-something-fishy-koike-puts-tsukiji-move-ice#.WDP3X6IrLdQ.

[5] Bestor, Tsukiji, 18.

Biography

Jonathan LeRoy Biderman is a food anthropologist, chef, designer, and engineer. An alumnus of Modernist Cuisine and Microsoft, he works on the relationships among tradition, innovation, technology, and craftsmanship as they affect human experience. He holds degrees from Brown University and SOAS–University of London.