Fresh take on tuna auctions as legendary Tokyo market closes

TOKYO (The Japan News/ANN) - Tokyo’s renowned Tsukiji market in Chuo Ward that has served the country as its “kitchen” for 83 years will close today, while the new Toyosu market in Koto Ward, Tokyo, is set to open Thursday. This is the first installment of a series reporting on those working at the market who are facing the drastic change from old to new. 

“Sansan, sanyon,” bellowed the auctioneer, referring to ¥3,300 per kilogram for the former and ¥3,400 per kilogram for the latter. His voice echoed in the auction site of Tsukiji market at 6 a.m. It was a mid-September day, with over 200 frozen tuna from around the world laid out.

Intermediate wholesalers indicated their purchase price with their hands and the auctioneer instantly read them. Such hand signals are called “teyari.” It only takes five to six seconds to complete one deal.

The auction site at Tsukiji was easily affected by weather, especially this year.

“We really had a hard time,” said Hirotaka Terada, 48, an auctioneer from Chuo Gyorui Co., a fisheries wholesale company. “The frozen tuna would thaw very quickly.”

Terada, who has been an auctioneer for 20 years, said it was not an easy task to keep the fish fresh. During the record-breaking summer this year, they took emergency measures such as placing dry ice on the tuna. But of course, it became a great opportunity for the auctioneers to show off their skills when speed is most required.

The wholesalers procure fish from local fishermen and auction them. The intermediate wholesalers purchase them at the auction and then offer them to buyers for restaurants, supermarkets and the like — together with some advice. 

While such processes will be left unaffected, the functionality of the market is expected to dramatically improve. 

Since the new facility will be that of a closed environment, the entire market’s temperature will be kept at 10.5 C. The greatest appeal for the market is the cold chain supply system where the products will be controlled under a certain low temperature.

Taking advantage of the move to Toyosu, seven fisheries wholesalers established a joint company. While they have worked separately in Tsukiji, they will carry their fish collectively to the new market. The intermediate wholesalers will be able to transport products from the auction site to stores without exposing them to outside air. Processing and packaging of products will be completed at a designated space where it is hygienically controlled.

With the installation of the latest equipment, some firms are seeking to obtain the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) international certificate required by the European Union and others; something that was difficult to accomplish in Tsukiji.

Shigeo Yokota, 51, president of Daimoto Shoten, an intermediate wholesale company, said he looks forward to showcasing the Japanese appraisal techniques for fish.

“We nurtured such talent in Tsukiji,” said Yokota, who also served as the head of an organization for intermediate wholesalers that handles tuna. “The Toyosu market creates an environment where we can show the techniques to the rest of the world.”

The tuna auction tours that had attracted foreign visitors as the main feature of Tsukiji market, will change significantly in Toyosu, too.

While the tour participants were able to enter the actual auction site and closely watch auctions in Tsukiji, it caused concerns about hygiene issues.

In the Toyosu market, tour participants will not be allowed to enter the site. An observation deck with a glass wall was built instead. Assuming that the entire fish market will become a sightseeing course, the market building and the nearest station are directly connected via a concourse, making it possible to ensure hygiene management and make the market serve as a sightseeing spot at the same time.

“I cannot read the teyari hand signs shown by intermediate wholesalers quickly enough,” said Takahiro Yoshida, a 27-year-old rookie auctioneer. After serving his apprenticeship for three years, he passed an exam held by the Tokyo metropolitan government. He just began participating in tuna auctions this April.

“I finally got accustomed to the Tsukiji market. Different from that market, the tuna auction site at the Toyosu market has a high ceiling so the way a voice resonates will be different. To speed up auction operations, I again have to find ways through trial and error,” he said smiling bitterly.

Encouraging him, veteran auctioneer Terada said: “The new market offers a good environment for fish and operators. Even after the fish market is relocated to Toyosu, tuna auctions are the main feature of the fish market. You only become better by overcoming mistakes and failures.”