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Tsukiji wholesalers under the knife

TOKYO (TR) – Katsumi Seiki of seafood company Okuno Suisan takes two massive Ise Ebi, the famous spiny lobsters of the town of Hamajima in Mie Prefecture, from a box of wood chips. “Many Japanese people prefer ones with long antennas,” explains the 10-year veteran wholesaler of the market, noting that the one with the longer set will fetch 2,300 yen while the other will get 300 yen less.

His stall at the Tsukiji Fish Market on the banks of the Sumida River is surrounded with steel trays swimming with small shrimp of a half-dozen varieties. Crustaceans are his business, Seiki says, and it’s been going rather well; his customers are primarily posh restaurants in the capital. But Seiki and his crustaceans are becoming a rarity in Tsukiji.

A preference for long antennas is fine for the well-heeled, but the average person — especially in these tough economic times — is more concerned with price. As a result, recent trends have seen producers bypassing traditional sales routes through the market, a path that is slowly leading to distress for many wholesalers.

Maple Foods president Tetsuji Totsune, whose company has its main office a few blocks from the market, says that the wholesalers only have themselves to blame for their plight.

“About 15 years ago, the wholesalers at Tsukiji went to sleep,” says Totsune, who founded his company in 1989.

The complex relationship among wholesalers and intermediate wholesalers within Tsukiji has historically been tight-knit. So tight, in fact, that it became customary for them to not sell to customers from outside the market directly — instead opting to sell to professional buyers with whom strong business ties have been formed over the years at Tsukiji. This closed system has forced seafood companies to develop new methods of doing business.

Tuna auction at Tsukiji
A tuna on auction at Tsukiji (The Tokyo Reporter)

Maple Foods is one of those companies. It imports the majority of its oysters and crabs from North America and Vietnam and then sells 80 percent of them directly to competitive brokers who will then provide distribution to grocery stores and restaurants from Okinawa to Hokkaido. Tsukiji will get only the remaining 20 percent of their business.

“Now they [the wholesalers] are slowly waking to see that their business has vanished — and they cannot change their ways. But if they don’t change, there is no future,” Totsune says.

As a result, it is probably no coincidence that while the value of seafood handled at Tsukiji, as reported by the Tokyo Municipal Government, the market’s operator, has fallen by 6 percent between 2000 and 2002, the overall sales of Maple Foods has increased over that same period. Profits for the company have steadily risen as well.

Hisanori Makishima, president of seafood distributor Makishima Suisan’s president, has occupied a corner stall in Tsukiji for 32 years. He is one of those Rip Van Winkles, but he is well aware of the problem.

“Tsukiji is slowly becoming obsolete,” the president laments, as a Styrofoam box of two red snapper sits in front of him.

Makishima knows all too well that producers are skipping the market in favor of direct routes to customers. (The tonnage of seafood passing through Tsukiji has fallen over 20 percent in the last 15 years.)

But even the business people still coming through Tsukiji, Makishima says, are getting increasingly selective. His seafood primarily sells to restaurants and small fish shops around the city. These days, the lousy economic situation is causing more and more to stay home for meals. Combine this trend with the fact that large supermarkets have the leverage to buy in big volumes and offer other shopping incentives, and tough times are not in short supply for small mom-and-pop restaurants and fish shops that simply can’t compete.

“They are getting hit hard these days,” Makishima explains. And when they get hit hard, his company takes its lumps as well.

Even though Maple Foods is struggling a bit this year due to general weakness in the global economy, Totsune is moving his company forward in other ways. He has developed a number of “value-added” products, like a patented form of netted rice paper for spring rolls, dozens of varieties of processed crab, and skinless catfish fillets from the U.S.

He’s also turning his back on Japan as a supplier. With labor costs outside Japan so much cheaper, he uses a partnership in a crab farm in Vietnam as his main crab source, rendering his interest in using the famous crabs from Hokkaido to be nil. “My basic business policy is to do business with reliable people,” he says, referring to the well-known issues of over-catching and the smuggling involving yakuza groups and Russian gangs that lead to complications for any buyer.

Even given its troubles, Tsukiji has a large role to play. After all, Japan consumes one-third of the world’s fish catch, and Tsukiji is the main mouth leading to all those stomachs.

Realizing this, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had decided to upgrade Tsukiji’s digs by moving it around Tokyo Bay to the Toyosu Wharf in Koto Ward by 2015. The reason is the fact that the 68-year old market has seen better days — it is getting old.

While the leaking roofs, uneven asphalt floors, and narrow passages might bring forth a sense of old-style charm for many of its denizens, a lack of modern conveniences in moving goods through the market is making it increasingly inefficient. The new confines will be outfitted with modern equipment and larger accommodations.

Having grown accustomed to the dodgy environs of the current location, most workers seem to be indifferent to the move. Rather, the near-term future of their businesses are of more pressing concerns.

“A friend of mine who was a wholesaler at a stall close to mine just recently went bust,” Makishima says. “Now everyone is wondering, ‘How much longer before we are next?'”

Note: This article originally appeared on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page in May, 2003.