On Wednesday night/Thursday morning, I pulled an all-nighter to go to the Tsukij Market Tuna Auction. The Tsukiji Market is a large wholesale market for fish, fruits and vegetables. It is one of the largest fish markets in the world, handling over 2,000 tons of marine products per day. To attend the Tuna Auction, you have to get in line around 3 am, which means that we had stay up all night to get there in time. I’d heard rave reviews about the auction, and that it’s a “must-see” in Tokyo. And the Market is set to move to a new location later this year, outside of central Tokyo, so I figured this would probably be the last time I would have the opportunity to see it.
I left just before midnight to catch the last train in to central Tokyo. I met up with a couple other girls at Kichijoji station. There was some confusion, so we missed the train we were supposed to be on. We realized that we could still make our transfer before the trains stopped for the night, but we would have exactly a 4-minute window to do so. And it was not a simple transfer; it was to a different subway company, which meant exiting one line, running across to the opposite side of the station, down a few flights of stairs, and entering back into the right line. We were literally sprinting full speed though the station, but we made it!
We met up with our other friends at a 24-hour sushi restaurant near the market. I ordered a beer and some sushi, and we chilled for a couple hours. They only let in 120 people per day to view the auction, so if you’re not there early enough, you’re out of luck. We got to the auction just before 3:00 am, and were the last ones to make it into Group 1. They gave us all bright green vests to indicate that we were a part of the group, and led us into a tiny little room to wait. We donned our vests and sat down on the floor, because that was the only option. We played card games, drank canned coffee from the vending machines, and tried not to fall asleep.
Just before 5:25 am, they led us out of the little room and to the auction. We walked though the market, which was utter chaos. There were men walking and shouting, trucks driving, and tons of guys driving around these motorized cart things. They zoomed by as policemen shepherded us towards the auction. We entered the room, which was refrigerated. It actually did not smell at all like fish, I think because it was so cold. We were corralled into a small area, and stood to watch.
It was essentially just a big room filled with hundreds of dead tuna, each laid out on display. The men walked around and evaluated the tuna before bidding. They all had little sticks with a blade at the end to hack into the tuna. The fishermen and buyers were 100% male. My friend Ella joked about how she was going to become the first female tuna wholesaler in Tokyo. She was just joking – but her joke also highlighted a serious point about gender roles in Japanese society. Compared to the US, gender roles in Japan are still very traditional, and many fields are still dominated by or exclusively male.
We caught a couple minutes of the actual auction. My view was blocked, but I could hear the rapid fire Japanese. It was all over in a few seconds, and was honestly a little underwhelming. I think just because I was expecting something so amazing, it was somewhat anti-climatic. But in another sense, that’s what was cool about it – it was not a spectacle, not a show; it was just a slice of real Japanese life that I was able to witness. It was something so bizarre and foreign to me, but for all these men it is their day-to-day, their normal. It felt pretty surreal – at this point I was sleep deprived and exhausted to the point of being slaphappy. I thought about the ridiculousness of my situation – 5 am, standing in a refrigerated room starting at hundreds of dead fish.
On our way back out, we passed by a huge mountain of discarded Styrofoam, which made me sad to see. Apparently they recycle it, but it’s still so wasteful. It also made me think about the larger reality of the whole operation. Overfishing is a huge problem worldwide, and Japan is a huge contributor to it. Japan is the largest fish-eating nation in the world, consuming about 10 percent of the world’s catch. And we are rapidly depleting the world’s fish stocks, and destroying the oceans in the process. Those tuna I was looking at? It’s estimated that populations of Bluefin Tuna have plummeted by a shocking 96% due to overfishing. And about 80% of the global Bluefin catch is consumed in Japan. Well aware of statistics like these, the environmentalist in me was not too happy walking through the market.
But what did I do right after this? We went to a restaurant in the market, and I had a sashimi bowl for breakfast. I had the original bowl – fresh tuna, salmon, octopus, and some other seafood I couldn’t identify, with veggies atop a bowl of rice. It was absolutely delicious, and I enjoyed every bite, no longer thinking about overfishing. Maybe someday I’ll give up sushi, but I don’t think that right now, when I’m living in the global capital of sushi, is the right time.
All in all, the Tuna Auction was a unique experience, and I’m glad I was able to go, but it’s probably not something I would ever do again. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and once was enough for me!