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What Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market Teaches Us About Urban Planning

Cities need to be open social spaces, more ecosystems than cold machines.
Tokyo fish market

Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market was once the largest fish market on Earth. It was a bustling distribution center that supplied Tokyo with most of its seafood. Established in 1935 after the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Tsukiji fish market grew into more than just an extra-large wholesale market. It also grew into one of Tokyo’s cultural landmarks, with a distinctive working-class civil society that attracts visitors from the world over. Much like Mt. Fuji on the horizon, the Tsukiji fish market came to define urban life in Tokyo. 

Unlike Mount Fuji, the Tsukiji fish market has proven to be a transient aspect of that urban life. Last October, the market was moved from Tsukiji to a glitzy new facility in Toyosu. Part of the market will be paved over to construct a transportation hub and a multi-lane thoroughfare for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Where there was once a vibrant social space, there will now largely be barren concrete. However, there is more reason to regret the decision than mere nostalgia. The destruction of the Tsukiji fish market exhibits how the perverse politics surrounding the Olympics can enable modern city planners to pursue their notion of urban efficiency at great costs to their urban ecosystem.

The Tsukiji fish market was an urban ecosystem that teemed with life. Curiously enough for a district in the middle of the world’s largest metropolis, it simultaneously functioned as both a wholesale market and a farmers’ market. People were connected to commerce at almost all levels of exchange, from the auctioning of whole tuna to the sale of ramen ready for consumption. As such, the Tsukiji fish market was a manifestation of an ancient form of urban life that emphasized commercial exchange in a shared social space as essential to the idea of a city.

Within a metropolis that is all too populated by anonymous salarymen, the Tsukiji fish market stood out as an urban spectacle. Rather than being secluded behind walls, the gritty reality of how food is produced was open for everybody to see. Tsukiji was a unique social space in which the otherwise mundane task of butchering a tuna could become a spectator sport. Tourists and locals alike admired the deft blade work of Tsukiji’s fishmongers as they transformed whole tuna into steaks ready for sale. In a capitalist economy where most consumers first come into contact with their meat once it has been wrapped in sanitary plastic, there was something undeniably romantic about the blood and grime of the market. It is a cruel twist of fate that, in an era where people are seeking more of a real connection with how their food is produced, the Tsukiji fish market, which provided an idea for how to establish that connection, has been closed.

The Tokyo metropolitan government’s decision to move it to Toyosu has already proven both costly and controversial. The new Toyosu complex, which comes across as yet another uninspiring piece of modern architecture, was constructed at the cost of some $5.4 billion. Chemical contamination discovered in the soil further complicated the move. Despite an expert panel’s verdict that Toyosu is safe, many fishmongers are still anxious about the move. Tensions between experts and local decision makers were heightened by the fact that the move was unpopular, with some 80 percent of fishmongers at Tsukiji opposing the move to the Toyosu complex.

Accessibility is another problem that casts the move in a bad light. Whereas visitors could access the Tsukiji fish market via both rail and metro lines, they can only access the Toyosu fish market via a special monorail. While this problem will probably not affect the fish market’s status as the premier seafood wholesale market in the world, it makes the fish market a less public social space, and diminishes its status as a cultural landmark.

Even worse, visitors are now entirely secluded from the marketplace itself. Whereas they were allowed to roam the Tsukiji marketplace after 11am, visitors are now only allowed on a viewing platform a floor above the market. From there, they can observe activity on the market from a hygienic distance, safely removed from anything gross—or for that matter alive.

Compared to Tsukiji, the Toyosu fish market is therefore more zoo than ecosystem. As a building that might impress professional architects, the Toyosu fish market appeals to what an urban planner thinks should be a wholesale seafood market. But it is a lifeless facility that lacks Tsukiji’s vitality and its embodiment of the idea of public exchange as an essential part of urban life.

This points to a principal problem in modern urban planning: that it treats a city as a machine to be improved upon, rather than a garden to be cultivated. By doing so, it frames urban life as being summarized by the buildings and infrastructure over which urban planners have top-down control. There is little space within that framing for the spontaneous orders that have emerged from the bottom up. Among those spontaneous orders are the social spaces, including the Tsukiji fish market, in which most people discover human flourishing.

Planners should solve complex problems, like governing a city, by cultivating those bottom-up orders that emerge as people spontaneously cooperate to solve them. There is an important symmetry here: although top-down planning cannot solve those complex problems, it can wreak havoc on the bottom-up orders that have emerged to solve them. Modern urban planning’s negligence of bottom-up social spaces therefore becomes a danger to cities when their planners are willing to destroy those orders in the name of urban efficiency.

Here, past is prologue. The 1971 demolition of Paris’s Les Halles market is an unfortunate reminder of how the unintended consequences of top-down urban planning can lead to cultural vandalism. Much like Tsukiji, Les Halles was a wholesale food market that defined urban life in its era. Also like Tsukiji, Les Halles was demolished to make way for a transportation hub—Châtelet-Les Halles station.

Since then, there has been enough regret that Paris has invested around €1 billion into revitalizing the district with a monumental pavilion. However, it was not Les Halles’s architecture that made it into a Parisian landmark, but the public act of exchange in a social space. No amount of money can regrow that social space; once killed, some gardens shall never grow back.

The Olympics are one of the great scams of our modern era. Despite their breathtaking promises, they tend to leave behind a legacy of debt and disappointment for those cities unfortunate enough to have hosted them. The fundamental problem with the Olympics is that hosting them is a different kind of problem than that of managing of a city.

However massive they are, the problems of hosting them are characterized by simplicity, not complexity. Whether they involve the construction of stadiums or ferrying tourists to them, urban planners can foresee the consequences of their actions and can therefore solve those problems from the top down.

Because the Olympics are a machine to be improved upon, Olympic politics encourage urban planners to frame their entire cities as similar machines. Rather than moderate modern urban planning, those politics therefore unleash its megalomania. The 2008 Beijing Olympics gave impetus to the destruction of the irreplaceable hutong alleyways. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics lead to Tokyo paving over many of its canals and estuaries. That history of cultural vandalism continues with 2020 Tokyo Olympics’s destruction of the Tsukiji fish market.

The death of a social space as vital as the Tsukiji fish market is a veritable tragedy for Tokyo and for the wider world. For Tokyo, Tsukiji’s death denies the city a vibrant cultural landmark that has helped characterize its urban life for generations. For the wider world, it denies interested onlookers with an experiment in organizing urban life in an era of rapid urbanization and when people would like to learn the lessons of various ideas of how to organize urban life.

Harrison Searles is a writer from Northern Virginia. He can be reached at harrisonlsearles@gmail.com.



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