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 the world over as Tsukiji (pronounced “SKEE-jee”) and it is a mesmerizingly visual, aural and sonic assault on the senses. Every manner of seafood and sea creature is 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 bue tuna are pulled form the oceans and auctioned at Tsukiji. The auctions are oddly 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 blue tuna become more and more scarce. This fish has been teetering on 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 fisherman, eradicating anything that gets between them and the tuna. For centuries, they also have 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 still also actively hunt whales (one of the only countries to do so in modern times) and there are legendary bloody battles between the whalers and organizations like Greenpeace. The Japanese do not fuck around on the high seas and defend themselves with great alacrity. Every day though, the haul of blue tuna gets smaller and smaller. Even the Japanese fishing industry, long opponents of regulation, are beginning to implement quotas for the mighty beasts.
Watching the 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. Another man walks the rows of giant tuna carcasses and paints figures on it with red dye which determines the final price of the fish bought. From there, the tuna are quickly hustled away, often to onsite butchers who have to cut the huge bluefins with a band-saw, after which the pieces are cut again–filet syle–into sushi grade pieces with a huge fucking knife called a maguro-bocho. Often times 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. Everywhere, electric carts laden with ice and the morning’s catch zip 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 with the smell 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 that are 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, 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 used to be among the most plentiful of game fish. The American appetite for sushi, particularly toro (the red, fatty tuna) has greatly diminished the population of these amazing fish. This meat is hugely valuable. A single tuna selling recently for almost $400,000US at auction.
Tsukiji was built after the great Kanto earthquake in 1923, that 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. Me and my friends went there almost right from the airport and, at one of the 10-seater sushi huts, were treated to a raw tuna breakfast for about 12 bucks. 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 like they’ve done every morning for their whole working lives enables a virtuosity that is hypnotic to watch. I watched a man dress a giant fish, about twice his size in about 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 the other side of the mirror. The fish market was at once otherworldly and very much of this world; where there is one great lesson and one sad moral. 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.
This is a new etching and it is for sale.