TOKYO — Even before the reports about cyanide and arsenic being found in the soil, the plan to move Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market to a new site was controversial.
Sure, the swanky, new $6 billion glass-and-steel market might be easier for the hordes of tourists to navigate, but where, the critics asked, is the character? It looks more like a public library than the epicenter of one of Japan’s finest culinary traditions, they said.
Now, less than two months before the tenants in the ramshackle old Tsukiji market were due to make way for infrastructure related to the 2020 Summer Olympics, the plan is on ice.
Tokyo’s new governor, Yuriko Koike, this month postponed the market move, planned for early November, after revealing that a 15-foot layer of soil meant to guard against contamination at the new site, previously home to a gas plant, was never laid under five key buildings.
Instead, there are hollow spaces under the buildings — designated for selling fish and other marine products, as well as fruit and vegetables — where water has been accumulating.
Scientists declared over the weekend that it was potentially polluted groundwater, not just rainwater that had pooled under the structures.
This has left vendors — many of whom were reluctant to move but have come on board over time — annoyed, alarmed and at a loss to know what to do.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” said Kiyoshiro Sugama, who has sold sea bream, flounder and octopus at the Tsukiji site for almost 40 years.
“The only way that we get information is through media reports, and we keep hearing about all the carcinogens at the new site,” he said, eating instant noodles and reading a comic book in his little truck after the morning rush. “I’m really worried. We can’t sell food at a place that’s polluted.”
Keiko Kobayashi, who sells sheets of dried seaweed from a shop that’s been at Tsukiji for more than seven decades, had similar concerns.
“We deal with something that people eat, so if there’s a risk of contamination, it’s best to be on the safe side,” she said.
Tsukiji, the world’s biggest and busiest fish market, has been supplying Japanese restaurants and retailers from the current site since 1935.
But with the economic boom of the 1980s, and the growing popularity of sushi abroad, the market — and particularly the tuna auction held before dawn — has become a must-see stop for visitors to Japan.
Throngs of camera-wielding tourists now wander through the dilapidated old market, where three-wheeled trucks ricochet around like pinballs, never diverting their course for the pesky gawkers. Signs in English at the entrance advise tourists not to bring strollers or wear flip-flops on the wet pavement, and certainly not to touch the fish.
The fact that the market was never designed as a tourist destination, combined with the impending Olympic Games, led the Tokyo metropolitan government to decide to move it to a custom-built, 100-acre site a little farther south on Tokyo Bay that is not just more tourist-friendly but was also designed to be more sanitary. The authorities were going to build a road through the Tsukiji site to connect two Olympic villages.
But news that the decontamination work was not carried out as ordered means that the new market cannot open Nov. 7 as planned.
Tests are being done to see if the water found under the new site contains chemicals that would be dangerous to workers and potentially taint the food. Previously the site was home to a Tokyo Gas plant that converted coal into gas, a process that involved benzene and cyanogen, among other toxic substances.
Groundwater tests at the site have found minute amounts of benzene, arsenic and chromium hexavalent, although the various chemical concentrations were within acceptable levels as set by health and environmental regulations, metropolitan government officials have been quoted as saying in the local media.
But Koike, a former environment minister, has not ruled out nixing the project.
“I’ll wait for an objective judgment,” she said at a news conference this month. “Then I will choose the wisest way to spend taxpayers’ money.”
She has reconvened a council of experts to advise her on what to do and will release the results of soil pollution testing this week.
“It will be difficult” to fix the problem using the old plan, said Tatemasa Hirata, who was the head of the council that recommended eight years ago that the soil be cleaned and a new layer put on top. The metropolitan government spent $830 million on soil decontamination, but the elevation of the ground, meant to insulate the new market from the dirt below, was not carried out.
“We will discuss what should be done without the elevated land,” Hirata said at a news conference, suggesting that engineers would have to figure out how to proceed with the market as it is.
This weekend, as he presented the finding that groundwater had seeped under the buildings, Hirata told reporters that the level of chemicals in it presented no safety issue. Still, the rubber-booted population of Tsukiji is in limbo.
“Now everything is up in the air,” said Yusuke Chiku, who works at a transportation company that delivers fish around the country. “I personally think it would be better to solve the problems, then make a decision.”
But Sugama, the wholesaler, said he was worried that the controversy would damage the reputation of Tsukiji, just five years after the triple meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactor led to concerns about Japanese fish being contaminated with radiation.
“Tsukiji has always been associated with high quality,” he said. “But this won’t be the case if people think Toyosu is contaminated. We’re worried that rumors might spread overseas, that people might again question whether Japanese food is safe or not.”