Photo/IllutrationWorkers and turrets do their thing at the Toyosu wholesale market, which marked its half-year anniversary on April 11 in Tokyo’s Koto Ward. (Naomi Nishimura)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Grievances over parking. Complaints about declining business. Anxieties over the prospect of losing clients.

These were not the words Tokyo metropolitan government officials expected to hear on April 11, the half-year anniversary of the Toyosu wholesale market.

Few were hoisting glasses in celebration at the 570-billion-yen ($5.1 billion) market in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, which replaced the aging but tourist-popular Tsukiji wholesale market in Chuo Ward.

The modern Toyosu market, located on a 40.7-hectare plot, was designed to be a new “kitchen of Japan.” But in its six months of operation, there have been too few cooks in the kitchen.

“We have lost about 20 percent of sales since we moved from Tsukiji to Toyosu,” Takehisa Inoue, 81, chairman of intermediate wholesaler Teryou, lamented.

Various reasons for the downturn have been floated, ranging from changing diets in Japan to a lack of affordable parking spots.

Some wholesalers in the market have already shifted away from domestic sales and are now focused on exporting marine products.

When asked for the reason behind Toyosu’s struggles, a Tokyo metropolitan government official said, “It is difficult to identify at this moment.”

Teryou, which delivers dozens of kilograms of popular fish, such as mackerel and squid, to supermarkets and chain stores every day, pointed out one of the symptoms.

Inoue said the company has not lost these large-volume customers, but “trade with smaller-scale customers who pay in cash, like ‘koryoriya’ (folksy Japanese restaurants), has plummeted.”

Other sellers at the market have also reported a sharp decrease in cash transactions with staff, chefs and other employees of smaller businesses.

Such customers used to flock to the Tsukiji market, which was within walking distance of Ginza, a high-end district with many small restaurants.

In August 2018, the Tokyo metropolitan government mapped out a plan to increase trade volume of marine products at the Toyosu market to 620,000 tons a year, 1.6 times the current figure, over the first five years of its opening.

Unlike Tsukiji, the Toyosu market is equipped with enclosed facilities where low temperatures can be maintained to improve hygiene and preserve the quality of fresh seafood. The new market also has processing facilities.

The metropolitan government expected the modern features would satisfy the demands of supermarkets and other buyers.

In October, the first month of operations, the trade volume at the Toyosu market was the largest among all markets in the nation, but it was down 2.4 percent from the same month the previous year.

Even in December, the busiest month for seafood purchases, trade volume at the market plummeted by 10.1 percent from the same month in 2017.

The year-on-year slide in trade volume has continued, falling 4.4 percent in January and 7.2 percent in February.

According to the Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market’s data, the decline in trade volume of marine products started decades ago, long before the Toyosu market opened.

Fish consumption among Japanese has dropped in recent years, while imports have increased and direct “farm fresh” sales from producers have grown popular.

Other markets, such as the ones in Tokyo’s Ota Ward and Yokohama, have also reported year-on-year losses in trade. The markets in the capital’s Adachi Ward and Kawasaki in Kanagawa Prefecture have maintained roughly the same trade volume.

A 59-year-old owner of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo explained one issue that has really annoyed merchants and customers at the Toyosu market: parking.

He said he looked for a fixed-rate contract for a parking space inside the Toyosu market, but he gave up after being told the fee would be at least four times the price he paid at the Tsukiji market.

“Even a supermarket offers free parking for customers,” he grumbled.

Hourly-rate parking is also available in a five-story building where intermediate marine product wholesalers are located. But only about 50 spaces are offered, and they each cost 300 yen for 30 minutes.

The metropolitan government came up with a temporary solution. It opened up parking space for about 250 vehicles at the proposed site of the Senkyaku Banrai shopping and entertainment complex, which is expected to be built adjacent to the market.

But the relief effort had ended by April because the space is now being used for events to pull in more customers.

“Our clients may decide to go to other markets if parking is expensive and inconvenient,” an intermediate wholesaler at the Toyosu market said.

Under these circumstances, the metropolitan government and the industry are shifting their energy toward exports to other Asian countries and the United States.

The improved hygiene at the Toyosu market makes it easier to meet overseas health standards.

Kamewa Shoten, an intermediate wholesaler, invested about 80 million yen to build a processing plant inside the Toyosu market.

Workers at the plant fillet just-purchased Japanese flounder and great amberjack, and the flesh is quickly vacuum-packed for air transport to Hong Kong and Singapore.

“We can complete the entire process, from purchasing to processing to shipping, inside the market,” said Kazuhiko Wada, the 56-year-old president of Kamewa Shoten.

The number of export-oriented intermediate wholesalers at the Toyosu market has grown by 10 percent to 20 percent to more than 100 since the market opened, thanks largely to the increase in Japanese restaurants abroad, according to Nippon Express and the Wholesales Co-operative of Tokyo Fish Market.

Hiroji Fujishima, a visiting professor at Tokyo Seiei College and an expert on food product distribution, said about the Toyosu market, “I think there are more things that they can do, not only processing and exporting, but also coordinating with other markets and Internet retailing.”

(This article was written by Naomi Nishimura and Noriyasu Nukui.)