Operators of the world’s biggest fish market, which is also arguably Japan’s most popular tourist attraction, have declared that sightseers are no longer welcome to attend the multimillion-dollar morning sales because of the sanitation problems and disruptions they cause.
From April 1 the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which operates the enormous Tsukiji market in the city, will tell the hordes of mostly foreign visitors to stay away, an official said.
But Hideji Otsuki, head of the wholesale market, conceded the Government did not have the security staff to restrain uninvited guests from entering the premises, where 2000 tonnes of seafood are traded for 1.79 billion yen ($18 million) each day. Instead they would be made to sign an application form that stipulates how to behave, and bans them from using flash photography, smoking except in restricted areas, and bringing babies, baby strollers, baggage and other items.
They must also agree to accept liability for any accidents they cause or injuries they receive.
“They need to know that this is a wholesale market, and is not for sightseeing,” Mr Otsuki said. “If they arrive for sightseeing, we’ll ask them not to come in.”
The market became popular with foreigners in the early 1990s. Now visitors start arriving at 4.30am to take pictures as retailers bid on bluefin tuna weighing up to 300 kilograms. By mid-morning several hundred are wandering through. Many stay to enjoy fresh sushi and sashimi for breakfast at tiny restaurants built for the 60,000-odd workers.
Wholesalers complain that some visitors pick up and play with sea creatures or interfere in auctions, and that others cause accidents with the tarettos (motorised carts) that hurtle along narrow laneways. A small few who come after all-night drinking sessions behave worse still.
At least one Tsukiji restaurant has been known to erect a “Japanese only” sign in its window, prompting accusations that a racist undercurrent exists in some quarters of the district.
But Mr Otsuki said the reasons for the policy were more straightforward: “The wholesalers are dealing with perishable food, so they’re concerned about hygiene.”
The constant flashes from cameras also interfere with the frenetic auctions, where rapid-fire hand signals are crucial to determining the outcome.
The policy has caused disquiet among some stallholders, such as 73-year-old Yoshihara Kikuraku, who maintained that “foreigners will always be welcome”.
“They’re such a huge part of the business here that it would hurt us if many of them stopped coming,” said Mr Kikuraku, referring to the extra income the tourists bring by eating at restaurants and buying souvenirs.
Two Tokyo tour operators contacted by the Herald this week were unaware of the impending changes. Kunihiko Ushiyama, who owns Tokyo City Tour, was sceptical about the ability of the Government to keep tourists out.
“Foreigners pour a lot of money into that place – it’s in guidebooks, after all. Sure, some people cause problems, and there needs to be regulation. But I doubt this will have a big impact on the numbers,” he said.
Raymond Fang and Tasnima Islam, 23-year-old law students from Sydney, said it was worth waking at 4.30am to visit the markets on Thursday.
“One of the sellers got angry at us when we picked up the fish – it’s like they’re worried about sanitation, but then another was encouraging us to pose for a picture with the seafood,” said Ms Islam.