Tokyo's governor seeks politically viable compromise on Tsukiji, Tosoyu markets

Published on
June 30, 2017

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s decision on the relocation of the Tsukiji Wholesale Market to a reclaimed brownfield site at Toyosu is an odd compromise that seems to mainly address political concerns.

She announced on 20 June that the relocation will proceed with an emphasis on its IT, cold-chain and distribution functions, but that the existing Tsukiji site would be redeveloped and privatized with a focus on the tuna auction so popular with tourists and on small-scale distribution to the Outer Market, which features retail shops and restaurants for the public. Businesses would have to move to Toyosu for about five years during redevelopment, after which they could return.

Thus, Tokyo would end up with two auction sites—an arrangement her political opponents say is unfeasible and financially unworkable.

Koike, who was elected as a political independent, gained public support during her campaign and early in her administration by attacking the plans formed under Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Governor Shintaro Ishihara to move the market to a polluted former Tokyo Gas Co. plant site. She ordered new site inspections and tests that showed previously overlooked (or purposely hidden) problems, such as the development of basement areas instead of the complete covering of the site with a layer of new soil, and the discovery in late January of several pollutants in the ground water, including benzene, arsenic and cyanogen, at levels exceeding government safety limits.

However, pressure to decide the issue has grown, since her indecision on whether to finally move the market has caused losses for market operators. Hiroyasu Ito, chairman of the Tsukiji Market Association, had been asking Gov. Koike to decide on the move quickly because many of the vendors have invested in cold-storage facilities in the new market buildings and have hired additional staff. They are paying for rent on the space, equipment lease charges, and increased payroll, and are expecting the Tokyo government to compensate them for losses for the delays or in case of a cancelation.

Additionally, further delay would cause rerouting of a planned road intended to link the Olympic Village with a new national stadium for the 2020 Olympic Games.

On the other hand, vendors at Tsukiji’s Outer Market expected their business to drop dramatically without the tourist pull of the market, and the Consumers Union of Japan had opposed the move over chemical contamination fears.

The final impetus for a decision appears to have been the upcoming election for Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly. While the governor is not up for re-election, leaving the issue still unresolved could have made her appear indecisive and vacillating, as well as financially irresponsible, and left her supporters vulnerable.

Gov. Koike’s allies are the Tomin First no Kai (“Tokyoites First Group”) and Komeito, and they are struggling to gain a 64-seat majority in the assembly. Komeito was formerly allied with the LDP, but it has changed its alliances for this election. As Komeito has supported the move to the new Toyosu auction site, Koike’s announcement may be an effort to compromise with them on the issue, as well as to clear it as a point of criticism before the vote.

Their major rival is the LDP, of which current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a member. Koike has attacked the LDP for cronyism and the assembly for rubber-stamping the wishes of party bosses. The LDP is now criticizing her plan to re-develop Tsukiji as unfeasible, calling for details and realistic cost estimates.

Governor Koike’s decision, while trying to remove the market as a topic of campaign debates, appears as an attempt to straddle the fence in order to firm up her political alliances. There is doubt about whether the Tsukiji market would really be reopened once it “temporarily” closes, and whether many businesses, once settled at the new site, would really come back again.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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