In central Tokyo, the biggest fish market in the world attracts damn near as many people as the Grand Canyon every year. Its proper name is “The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market” -- but it is known all over as Tsukiji (pronounced Skee-Jee), and it is a mesmerizingly visual, aural and sonic assault on the senses. All manner of seafood and sea creatures are bought, butchered and sold here -- to restaurants, markets and trawlers for export -- on a daily basis, and what is hauled from the sea every day is staggering to see -- especially the tuna.
Every day, tons upon tons of Blue Tuna are pulled from the oceans and auctioned at Tsukiji. The auctions are, oddly enough, not unlike the trade in stocks and bonds in the financial markets, as there is no set price for sushi-grade tuna; it is all dependent on the day’s catch and fluctuates wildly as the species becomes more and more scarce. This fish has been teetering on edge of the endangered list for quite some time, and with the American appetite for sushi -- which has grown wide and deep since the mid-1980s -- the Blue Tuna is in very real danger of extinction.
The Japanese are ruthless fishermen, eradicating anything that gets between them and the tuna. For centuries, they have also imperiled shark populations with the wholesale slaughter of these fish in order to harvest their fins. The fishing culture is a very old and honored industry in Japan -- the Japanese are one of the last remaining populations who still actively hunt whales in modern times; there are legendary bloody battles between the Japanese whalers and organizations like Greenpeace.
The Japanese do not fuck around on the high seas, and they defend themselves with great alacrity. But every day, the haul of Blue Tuna gets smaller and smaller, and now, even the Japanese fishing industry -- long an opponent of regulation -- is beginning to implement quotas for the mighty beasts.
Watching the Japanese tuna auction is fascinating: a man stands on a wooden box with a hand-bell and opens bidding. The bidding is brisk, polite and quietly furious; then, another man walks the rows of giant tuna carcasses and paints figures on it with red dye which determines the final price for the fish. From there, the tuna are quickly hustled away, often to onsite butchers who have to cut the huge Bluefins with a band-saw. After this, the pieces are cut again -- filet syle, with a huge fucking knife called a maguro-bocho -- into sushi grade pieces. Oftentimes, the purveyor will taste the fish as each quartering cut is made.
Watching this from the perspective of an outsider is hypnotic -- as is the rest of Tsukiji. There are buckets of oddly beautiful eels wriggling and writhing, their saw-toothed mouths open as if to try to speak, and everywhere, electric carts laden with ice and the morning's catch zipping by -- and one must be careful not to get run over. Warnings are shouted out in Japanese and not knowing what is being shouted is more than a little disconcerting. There is a labyrinth of maze-like booths for slaughter, selling and weighing -- and all of it ripe with the scent of the sea. For as much fish as there is here, the smell is not fishy, but rather musky like the sea. I remember a whole table of Wolf-Fish -- so ugly that they are beautiful, prehistoric and vicious, with a face like Jabba the Hut.
The tuna themselves are vicious hunters -- like wolves of the sea -- and are able to swim up to 50 miles an hour in pursuit of prey. They are miracles of natural selection, the least likely to wind up endangered. Atlantic Bluefins are warm-blooded, which helps them withstand the icy waters they inhabit around the world. Bluefins are found in almost every ocean climate -- from Greenland to the Mediterranean -- and they used to be among the most plentiful of gamefish, but the American appetite for sushi -- particularly
Toro, the red, fatty tuna -- has greatly diminished the population of these amazing fish. Their meat is hugely valuable: a single one sold recently for almost $400,000 at auction.
Tsukiji was built after the great Kanto earthquake of 1923 devastated most of Tokyo, including the Nihonbashi market. The new market was built in the Tsukiji district in 1935 and went on to become the world’s largest seafood market.
It is a fascinating place; my friends and I went there almost directly from the airport and were treated to a raw tuna breakfast for about 12 bucks at one of the ten-seater sushi huts. Around every corner was something fascinating and visceral -- the non-stop fish butchery on one hand brutal, and on the other strangely beautiful. The men and women dressing the seafood, as they’ve done every morning for their whole working lives, engenders a virtuosity that is hypnotic to watch. I watched a man dress a giant fish -- about twice his size -- in only four minutes. Seriously. A leviathan pulled from the depths carved into steaks and kibbles and bits, skippy chop-chop.
We were an odd collection of visitors: four visual artists and one film director hanging on every sight like children who'd wandered through to the other side of the mirror. The Fish Market was at once otherworldly and very much of this world, expressing one great lesson and one sad moral. The lesson? In the ocean, the big fish eat the little fish and then even bigger fish eat those fish. The moral? Don't be a fucking guppy.
My etching of The Fish Market is for sale.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.