Tsukiji: at the beating heart of the Japanese obsession with seafood

Tsukiji is the largest wholesale fish and seafood market on the planet. In Japan, seafood is a matter of national identity. Sprawling across an immense site in central Tokyo, the market feels, then, as much sacred as it does a hotbed of consumption and commerce.

Arriving at Tsukiji at an austere hour in the morning, the sky above is overcast and the air was filled with fine spray. It is our penultimate day in the country - where we had spent the previous month shooting from city-to-city like the bullet trains that carried us.

I had noted with trepidation that it featured on many must-see attraction lists. Other high ranking sights had proven the most grim, inauthentic and claustrophobic we would see for the duration of our time in Japan. 

After an initial and familiar period of confusion wondering around what we thought could be our destination, but did not seem particularly extraordinary, we gleaned directions to the market proper. A latent hum of fish hung in the air.

Approaching Tsukiji you realise its true scale. That is, really very big. Construction began shortly after the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923. This destroyed much of central Tokyo including Nihonbashi fish market, with the site as it stands now being finally completed 12 years later. Laid out in a quarter circular structure, the design allows for easy access and unloading of the countless freight trains that service it.

As we make our path towards the outer building, small forklift vehicles manned by an upright driver zip between destinations carrying stock. Polystyrene boxes pile up at every juncture and the sky is thick with gulls. 

Tsukiji deals in every conceivable species of marine life consumed: from seaweed to mantis shrimp to blob fish, I saw it all. Controversially, whale meat is also available to purchase, fished under quasi-scientific pretences - although I did not see this to my knowledge. Overall, the market collectively processes around 700,000 metric tonnes annually. 

The sheer volume of marine life that passes through Tsukiji on any given day is both staggering and tragic. Global trends for marine life populations are dire. The World Wildlife Fund estimate that marine vertebrate populations have halved since the 1970's. The statistics for some commercial fishery species - including mackerel and bonito - are worse, with an estimated decline of 75%. Tuna, whose daily arrival and unloading by the tonne is touted as 'particularly impressive', is reported to have declined by 90%. Overall, scientists estimate 25% of the world's major fish stocks are overexploited and an added 17% are being fished at unsustainable levels. 

On the other hand, seafood is an integral part of Japanese culture. Whilst the some sixty thousand people who work under the market's roof depend on its activity for their livelihood. Nationally, fisheries represent a large chunk of Japan's gross domestic product. This is not to say that seafood could not be consumed sustainably - if the industry had properly enforced and appropriate regulations. Ultimately, this also requires that market demand lessen too, but whether policy, such as increased taxation, or public sentiment would cause this reduction remains unclear. Both seem unlikely. 

On a positive note, I chanced upon the market's polystyrene recycling plant on the roof of the premises, where all of the packaging is broken down, reconstituted and repurposed. 

I spent several hours meandering the corridors between stalls and I left feeling a combination of sadness and awe. Tsukiji fish market is a temple of culture and consumption. I hope the images I shot that day do justice to its tragedy and tradition, in equal parts.

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