Tsukiji in Transition, Part 1: The Outer Market

On November 7, the world famous Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, commonly known as the Tsukiji Inner Market, will end the chapter of its 80-year history in Tokyo’s Tsukiji district. The market will move to a brand new site in the Toyosu district, about two kilometers away. While first and foremost a food market, Tsukiji is also a revered institution with a complex social framework defined by networks of families, friendships, politics, and trade. How will the move affect individual merchants and the community at large?

Over the next months, we will cover aspects of the move in our ongoing series called “Tsukiji – A Neighborhood in Transition.”

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Exploring Tsukiji in Transition

I make my way through the narrow streets of Tsukiji Market’s outer market, simply known as Jogai by locals. My watch reads 11:00 am, late by morning market standards. While the nearby inner market is just winding down for the day, things here in the jogai are in full swing. A group of wide-eyed tourists clusters around a freshly cut cross-section of tuna while another smartphone-snapping group nibble on warm tamagoyaki omelet. I push the temptation of the fluffy eggs out of mind and turn onto an even narrower street, this time, cheek by jowl with my fellow pedestrians.

The 80-year old Tsukiji Market is Located along Tokyo's Sumida River – Photo by Chris Mollison

Everyday Business at Tsukiji Market – Photo by Chris Mollison
In just a few months, these lively crowds may dramatically thin out, imagining Tsukiji without them is hard. On November 7, Tsukiji’s inner market vendors (wholesalers of fresh seafood) and fresh produce vendors will move to a modern, climate-controlled facility in Toyosu. The outer market vendors will not be moving, but their sales may take a turn. With the departure of the inner market (and the 2,000 tons of fresh seafood that moves through its corridors daily), shoppers and tourists may be less inclined to visit Tsukiji.
The severing of the two deeply connected markets – of a synergy that’s lasted 80 years – raises a sea of questions. What will business, and life look like for merchants after the move?

Tsukiji in Transition, A View from The Outer Market

I strain to see over the crowds. My destination is Hatoya, a nori (dried seaweed) shop. Unlike the inner market which sells primarily raw seafood, the outer market offers a dizzying variety of goods, from dried foods and seasonings to fresh produce and all manner of kitchen tools. Even before I reach the shop, I spot Ugai-san’s head above the crowd. Standing at over 170 centimeters tall, Tomoyoshi Ugai, owner of Hatoya, has all the attributes of a natural salesperson: A charismatic smile, wildly animated hand gestures, a booming voice, and as I would soon discover – a winsome personality.
I also spot my friend and translator for the morning, Arimi-san, who together with her husband runs a private guided tour and sushi-making class called Fish & Dish. Over the next few hours, we slinked through secret back alleys of the market, admired crisp glossy sheets of nori (those from Kyushu are best according to Ugai-san), and chatted about the challenges facing the community.

Owner Tomoyoshi Ugai of the Hatoya shop in Tsukiji's Outer Market – Photo by Chris Mollison

High-quality Nori Seaweed has "Iso no Kaori," or an Aroma of the Ocean – Photo by Chris Mollison
Ugai-san’s grandfather opened the shop in 1938, just three years after Tsukiji opened. Now, Ugai-san is the third generation in the family business. His story began as one that’s becoming more common nowadays amongst multi-generational family owned businesses in Japan. In his youth, he wasn’t interested in taking over the shop. Instead, he worked in corporate sales for over 20 years. But what happened later, in a turn of events, resulted in an unexpected next chapter to his story.
Several years ago, when his father became sick, Ugai-san returned to help out at the shop, almost in the red at the time. Drawing from his sales experience, he successfully drove sales back up over the years. At his core, Ugai-san believes in being nimble in business. As much as he is personable, he's quick to pick up on what customers want, and in turn, continuously calibrates the business to changing times and needs.
“Early on, I noticed that many of my customers were women,” said Ugai-san. “So, in addition to nori, I began to sell other foods to attract female shoppers like dried fruits and nuts.” Ugai-san's gamble was a hit. Every day at Hatoya, he entices passersby with generous samples of nori, nuts, and dried fruit. While we chatted, he and his staff generously plied me with warm roasted almonds, nori soup, salty roasted nori sheets, and dried mango and orange slices.

Dried Fruits to Sample at Hatoya – Photo by Chris Mollison
Ugai-san has also done well to market Hatoya in ways that are current and relatable. For one, the store has a Facebook page with a massive following. He also appears on a local radio show once a month to promote the shop as well as the outer market.
“The outer market has given so much to my family, our business,” Ugai-san says. “This is why I want to do my best to promote the whole outer market.” Shunning the conventional straight-laced businessman image in favor of a quirky and fun-loving persona, he has equally won over customers as well as fellow vendors.

Ugai-san Showing How to Store Nori – Photo by Chris Mollison
Tsukiji is not just a supplier of food. The market is a repository of traditional knowledge and skills. And especially so in the outer market, where the types of businesses are so richly varied. Since the market opened 80 years ago, this body of know-how and expertise has been fine-tuned and passed down from generation to generation.

The Skill of Tsukiji: Tsukiwaza

“This [expertise] is the real value of the market, not just the things that are sold,” says Ugai-san. This fact has not gone overlooked by the local authorities either. To prepare for the decline of tourists after the move, the Tsukiji Town Planning Council launched a campaign in May 2016 called “Tsukiwaza” (築技), meaning the "Skill of Tsukiji". The program is rolling out a series of merchant-led seminars and workshops to teach the public about products sold at Tsukiji. A tea purveyor and dried anchovy shop owner conducted the most recent events. So far, posters have been posted throughout the market, featuring photos of vendors bearing tools of their trade.
If anything, the upcoming move has forced the outer market to promote itself more assertively. "It used to be that the market would take a 'waiting approach.' Just sit and wait for customers, without self-promoting. But now we have to change this way of thinking. Those vendors who can't and won't, they'll eventually go out of business," says Ugai-san.

Tsukiwaza Posters, Appearing Around the Outer Market This Year – Photo by Simone Chen
The campaign is a clever vehicle for the market to connect with outsiders on a personal level, offering a glimpse of the centuries-old skills still in practice. The initiative may well redefine the market’s image as a source of craftsmanship rather than just a retail space.
If the posters are the first seedlings of change, then the newly erected Tsukiji Uogashi (築地魚河) building is definitely more conspicuous. Located in a former parking lot between the outer and inner markets, the complex spans two facing monolithic buildings, connected by a sky bridge. In contrast to artist renderings of the new buildout released earlier this year showing a high-tech development, the actual building facade appears dated. Painted an unfortunate shade of salmon-pink, the building is surely eye-catching. But questionable design choice aside, the new market will play a decisive role in the outer market's future prosperity.

The New Tsukiji Uogashi Building will Open on October 15, 2016 – Photo by Chris Mollison

The Second Building of the New Tsukiji Uogashi Market in the Outer Market – Photo by Chris Mollison
Slated to open October 15, the market will be the new home to 60 seafood wholesalers from the inner market, as well as an event space, food court, and kitchen classroom to hold workshops. Open for business at 5:00 in the morning to trade buyers (restaurants and sushi chefs), and then at 9:00 am to the public, these 60 vendors will help to bridge the transition before, during, and after the Toyosu move.
Since inner market vendors will cease operations for five days between November 2-7 for the move, the new market will ensure a continuous supply of fish to buyers and restaurants throughout the city. Even after the move, small business owners and chefs who have depended on the inner market for fish will have a continuous and proximate supply of fish without commuting to Toyosu. Prices will also be cheaper than at Toyosu, where rent is estimated to climb by up to 40 percent.
While the future of the outer market is unknown, its fate is by no means sealed. The close-knit community is working hard to stay ahead of the move, fueled by a strong sense of kinship, tradition, and pride.
“I can’t even imagine how many customers we will lose after the move,” says Ugai-san with a touch of melancholy, “but I’m hopeful that people will see the value of the outer market, our heritage of skill and knowledge.”

Ugai-san Surrounded by Shipments of Nori from all Across Japan – Photo by Chris Mollison

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Simone Chen