Tsukiji Fish Market

You can find a lot of dead sea creatures at Tsukiji Fish Market but you wont find much whale meat.
Customers browsing the stalls for fresh seafood at the Tsukiji fish market.

That’s not for lack of stock – instead it’s because nobody really wants to eat it. Turns out most people prefer fish. It sounds like a pretty dubious statistic but, according to some estimates, one out of every five fish caught on planet earth is sold at Tsukiji fish market. Every day more than 2000 tons of fish pass through the market in Tokyo’s Chūō district. I arrived too late for the pre-dawn tuna bidding and decided to wander through the outer markets where the smaller fish and crustaceans are sold- both live and dead.  Between the inner and outer markets a constant stream of ‘turret trucks’ ferry crates of fish and ice back and forth from the docks and the warehouses.  These fisherman handle the little vehicles with a sort of casual urgency- weaving between shoppers and tourists with barely a centimetre to spare.  Given the sheer volume of goods it’s surprising to see how anarchic whole enterprise appears up close.  Stalls overlap one another and crates spill out into the lanes, loading bays are piled with polystyrene boxes and walled in by piping for individual refrigeration units. People are haggling, inspecting, loading and unloading amidst crowds of early morning buyers and the occasional foreign spectator.

Unlike markets in warmer latitudes Tsukiji doesn’t reek of rotting fish. But the main difference between this complex and others like it is the sheer scale.  The market covers fifty seven acres and it’s the size of the place that drives home how much pressure can be placed on marine life by small changes in dietary habits.  The popularity of sushi has surged in Europe, the US and Australia over the last few decades and the attendant strain on the marine ecosystem is enormous. The most acute impact is on the stock of pacific bluefin tuna.  From an article on First Post about the impending collapse of the Tuna population;

A scientific assessment released in January found that Pacific bluefin spawning stocks — a key measure of adults that can reproduce — have plummeted by about three-quarters over the past 15 years to match historic lows last seen in the early 1980s. It estimated that the species has dwindled to just 3.6 percent of its original population, and that more than 90 percent of fish caught were juveniles between the ages of 0 and 3, before they reach reproductive maturity.

It took a concerted international effort to reverse trends like these in whale populations during the 1960s.  Even then the treaties  and moratoriums were not entirely successful. Since 1986 Japan has taken advantage of a legal loophole requiring members of the International Whaling Comission to sell all ‘by products’ from catches conducted for research purposes. Every year since, Japan’s fisheries agency has pushed to expand its ‘research’ quotas.  In 2013 it issued a quota for the killing of 935 minke, 50 fin, and 50 humpback whales in the Antarctic.

And yet the Japanese whaling industry remains only marginally profitable- even when tens of millions of dollars of government subsidies are taken into account.  Surveys by environmental groups have shown that the domestic market for whale meat is thin with roughly 80% of those polled either never having eaten whale meat or only encountering it at school.  In the 80s and 90s Japanese schools were sold heavily discounted whale meat for student lunches in order to build up demand.  The program was not successful.  Nowadays few restaurants serve it and fewer citizens buy it.  This lack of demand has led to the accruing of an immense stockpile.  More than of six thousand tons of whale meat sits in cold storage in government warehouses. To add insult to injury the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries withdrew $23 million from an earthquake and tsunami disaster reconstruction fund in 2011 to help cover whaling debts.  So clearly Japan’s pro-whaling sentiments are not driven by economic considerations.

Rather they should be seen in the light of Japanese nationalism.  A paper by Keiko Hirata enitled ‘Why Japan Supports Whaling‘ sums it up thusly;

Japanese attitudes toward whales and whaling are based on three underlying perspectives. The first is the belief that the Japanese as a whole have been eating whale for thousands of years. Many Japanese believe that they have a distinct and unique whale-eating culture (gyoshoku bunka). The fact that the eating of whale only became commonplace in Japan after World War II (due to the necessity to feed the impoverished population) is largely ignored. So is the fact that the Japanese are not alone in eating whale meat. (For example, the Inuit and people in the Farole Islands, Iceland, Norway, and Indonesia also eat whale meat.) In general, Japanese consider whale preparation and eating a national cuisine and an expression of cultural identity.

Anti-whaling groups have focused their rhetoric on the ethical and environmental considerations without addressing the more complex issue of cultural identity and national pride.  Unlike other nations, Japan’s post-war constitution limits its ability to build up or deploy its military forces but it has developed its own civilian space program. It has a well financed and internationally renowned soccer league and, in the last two decades, the government has ramped up its credentials as a tourist destination for foreigners.  Japan has also consistently ranked in the top three or four nations in terms of foreign aid contributions and yet the perception remains that it is a largely insular nation.  But fishing rights seem to be the policy area where Japan feels the need to assert itself. Despite considerable international pressure over many years the Japanese government has barely budged on the issue. Again Keiko Hirata offers evidence of a sort of persecution complex;

At the 1989 IWC meeting, for example, Komatsu argued that the whaling controversy was a struggle between ‘meat eaters’ (especially the Anglo-Saxons) and ‘fish eaters’ (the Japanese) and that the meat-eating culture was using the ICW to destroy the fish-eating culture.

Japanese journalists have joined the chorus with their own books on the issue. Yoshito Umezaki, a freelance journalist formerly with the prestigious Jiji Press, published a book attacking ‘environmental imperialists’ for victimizing the Japanese people. Similarly, Zenjiro Tsuchii of Asahi Newspaper (a large and well-respected left-of-center newspaper) wrote a book defending Japan from being “unreasonably opposed upon” by Western anti-whaling values.

As hard is it is to stomach for the environmental and anti-whaling groups the answer to this deadlock might just be stepping back from the conflict altogether.  If support for the whaling industry in Japan is mainly due to cultural resentment then perhaps the best thing to do would be to quietly negotiate the enforcement of smaller quotas while, at the same time, allowing conservative Japanese politicians to save face.

One commentor on a Guardian article about Japanese whaling quotas offered a counter-argument to those shouting for boycotts, sanctions and more militant activism.

As odd as it sounds if you want to see an end to commercial/research hunts in Japan the best thing you can do is ignore it. If the Sea Shepherd hadn’t stopped the hunting ships last year the industry would have had to spend huge amounts of money storing the extra meat which would have increased their costs and compounded their financial problems.

Next year the market is being relocated to a state-of-the-art facility on reclaimed land in a suburb called Toyosu.  The move will allow the gigantic Tsukiji site to be re-developed in the lead up to Tokyo’s 2020 summer Olympics.  Perhaps the renewed scrutiny and the promise of Olympic glory will offer an alternative channel for those nationalistic sentiments and allow Japan to loosen its grip on whaling.














Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.


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