- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

TOKYO The sky is slate gray at 4:30 a.m., and most of this city of 27 million is asleep. But along the banks of the Sumida River on Tokyo's eastern edge, the Tsukiji fish market operates like an aquatic Grand Central Station.
The Japanese love fresh fish and high-quality seafood, thus the world's largest wholesale fish market lies only a short taxi ride away from Tokyo's central banking district. Although the large, open-air dock area where the buying and selling of vast amounts of seafood occurs is not set up for the casual visitor, the site, nevertheless, has become a tourist attraction.
The Tsukiji fish market, also known as the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, presents a side of Japan not seen in travel brochures. Here legions of laborers with flashlights clad in overalls, rubber boots and aprons scoot about on motorized carts loaded with fish.
The first task of the day is to unload the tuna, Tsukiji's best-known item. As refrigerated trucks pull up, workers toss frozen tuna carcasses onto the pavement. Men with hooks drag the four-foot-long fish to be weighed on scales, then to a display floor.
Buyers cast a practiced eye over the tuna, which are arranged in neat rows in a giant open-air hall. Some slice hunks off the fish to test for freshness. Since the fish arrive from Taiwan, Korea, the Marshall Islands, Vietnam, Okinawa and other points of the eastern Pacific, some have been frozen for up to three weeks.
Besides tuna, squid, eel, octopus, swordfish, clams, scallops, turban, abalone, snail, flounder, blue marlin, sea anemone, shrimp, sea bream, mackerel, trout and crab are some of the 450 types of seafood on sale.
Some have been carved into large slabs of raw meat for the city's sushi counters. Some, such as the crabs, emit desperate little bubbles as they thrash about in tanks. Others, such as the conger eels, are sliced in the neck to make them slowly bleed to death. If killed instantly, they harden and become unsellable, a shopkeeper explains.
The small army of wholesalers, buyers, fish handlers and auctioneers fitfully smoke, chat on cell phones and hose down the tuna (to speed the thawing) until bells clang at 5:30 a.m. Jumping onto wooden stools, auctioneers chant for bids on one tuna after another. Gesticulating wildly, they alternately shout, scream, sing and all but dance.
A skilled auctioneer can sell 200 fish in 30 minutes. About 2,800 tons of fish pass through the market on average every day 780,000 tons per year.
Each sold fish is marked with a large number in red paint signifying the wholesaler. The best ones go for 5,000 yen per kilo $18 per pound. A large tuna can weigh more than 380 pounds, and it takes four men to load a 6-foot one into a box.
The bidding slows on some tuna because, as one dealer explained, the color is bad and no one wants them. Those will be sold at a discount and may end up as pet food in U.S. markets.
The only place women are seen here are in booths near the large wooden tables where the tuna are cut up with huge knives. These are the accountants for the wholesalers. Their stalls are often decorated with colorful Japanese kanji characters.
Each wholesaler carefully cultivates relationships with the shopkeepers and restaurateurs from supermarkets and sushi shops. Such relationships endure for decades. One dealer said his business was inherited from his grandfather, who began it about the time the market opened in 1935.
Closed on Sundays, most holidays and on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, the market can put off the casual fish eater.
"Although I love sushi," one observer wrote on one of several Web sites devoted to the market, "looking at the size of the tuna and realizing how we are likely overfishing the ocean, I was ready to become a vegetarian by 6 a.m."


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