Singing The Bluefin Blues at Biggest Fish Market in the World

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It is 5 a.m. You are following the gaikokujin, or foreigners, through the immense Tsukiji Fish Market. Everyone is looking for the famous tuna auction. Everyone is lost. The sun has not yet lifted the foggy gloom of morning. It is your first day in Tokyo, and you are fighting jet lag, hunger and culture shock. The sight of the fish doesn’t help. Hundreds of bluefin tuna are lined up like nuclear bombs, their bellies sliced open, their tails removed, with red calligraphy encoded on their skin. Buyers inspect the expensive interiors of the gutted creatures in the icy, funereal mist. Armed with flashlights and long hooks, they extract a little meat and delicately rub it between their thumb and forefinger to check for color, texture and fat content. There is nothing dainty about this work. Tough as yakuza, as leathery as longshoremen, the somber buyers are decked out in muted colors, high boots and unpretentious hipster headgear. Smiles are not part of the outfit.

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This exercise is not simple shopping, but a touch of the theater and a nod to tradition. Few public spectacles in Japan are without kata, the ancient pursuit of perfection, whether in sumi painting, sumo wrestling or in search of the ideal tuna. Unfortunately, that tuna is large and young and sweet and dramatically shrinking in numbers. You want to be a good guest, reserve judgment, appreciate customs, but your stomach is turning and your mind is tumbling around the statistics: Atlantic and Mediterranean bluefin have been depleted by 60 percent in the past decade; southern bluefin in the Pacific has plunged to about 10 percent. The numbers are slippery, inexact. Bluefins cross borders. Fishermen forget to report. Agencies are lax. Still, a good 80 percent of all bluefin tuna is consumed by the Japanese.

They know the issues. They know they will suffer first and most. They refuse to cut their intake to save face or fish. It is no greater a death wish, they believe, than antibiotics in the American livestock. Japan without maguro? Imagine Yankee games without hot dogs, Fourth of July family barbecues without burgers and birthdays without cakes. Magurohas more symbolism than taste or nutrition.

A cowbell is rung by an auctioneer at 6 a.m. Guests are limited to two shifts, 60 at a time. It was not always this way. Tourists once flooded the auction like salarymen cramming into a Tokyo subway car at rush hour. Then a few randy Aussies, capping off an all-night binge, were caught smooching with some bluefin corpses. Pescophilia? You can almost hear them saying, being escorted to the curb, “I did my best, matey, but she just laid there like a dead fish.”

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Today, tourists stand quietly near signs that spell out the proper etiquette in five languages. God forbid your flash pops—you will be shown the exit by two white-gloved guards carrying batons. You should sooner scream obscenities in the middle of an aria at La Scala. The Japanese may be hospitable, in the extreme, but rules are rules.

This auction is more subtle and more flamboyant than most, with grunts and taunts, little head bobs and arcane hand gestures. Auctioneers pump up the action like deejays, creating a rhythm, keeping the prices moving upward at a steady beat. $20,000 for one fine frozen hon-maguro is normal. If you wanted to convince a Martian of the ultimate demise of the free market, you might take him to the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on an insane day when everyone appears hopped up on PEDs and greed. If you want to stop someone from eating bluefin tuna, take them to the predawn spectacle at Tsukiji (pronounced skee-gee).

I couldn’t handle the truth. Long before the auction wrapped up, before workers hauled off the tunas to be hacked or sawed into chunks for delivery, I had to walk away. Not yet 7 a.m. in Japan, friends in New York were just stepping out for dinner the night before, maybe for sushi, maybe for tuna that was on this site just yesterday. I had avoided red tuna for years, in my home and my restaurants, a fish joint in Bridgehampton and an Italian place in Brooklyn. We served albacore tuna only, from the waters off Montauk Point.

Outside the auction center is a frenzied fish market 43 football fields in size, teeming with purveyors and tourists and shoppers and vehicles of every shape and speed: cars, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, vans, forklifts, wooden handcarts, and turrets, motorized three-wheelers. The turrets take corners as if in a chase scene from an action film. It is controlled chaos even if you feel all the chaos and none of the control. You look both ways before every step. Ice blocks the size of hay bales are fed by hand into machines that spit out crushed ice. You are mesmerized. A policeman asks you to leave a restricted area you didn’t know was restricted. You bow and move along. You find a safe spot. You watch frozen tunas thrown off the back of a truck onto a tire to break their fall. You are surrounded by fish, like a ceramic deep-sea diver in an aquarium. The enormous variety of fruits and vegetables gets lost in the majesty and activity of the fish. One out of every five fish caught on the planet is sold here at Tsukiji.

The stench is so pervasive you don’t smell it. Or maybe there is no stench because everyone hoses down everything all the time. There are drains in every floor, inside and out. As red octopi catch your fancy, a policeman waves his baton, signaling you to move along at once, once again. You bow and scoot. Vehicles whiz by. Everyone knows the choreography except you. You could easily lose a foot or a spouse, and who would know? Blood and fish guts are everywhere.

Business transactions take place in alleys, in trucks, in offices, in 1,700 stalls. Besides the fish stores, there are restaurants and there are shops that sell anything you need to cook or consume or sell fish: utensils, baubles, bowls, scales, seaweed, knives, chopsticks, fish art. The whole experience is comparable to strolling through Cor-J one morning when the LSD hits and the fish market is suddenly the size of Tanger Mall and a bike rally begins and a 5K walk ends and all the cars have Jersey plates and valet service is provided by Hell’s Angels. You are the outsider at the fishmongers’ anarchist ball.

The sun finally rises. Sweat is pouring. You are distressed. It is obvious. A fisherman with time on his hands and English on his lips offers assistance. You are surprised how few Japanese speak English, or deign to. You pepper him with questions. He has a brother in Houston, Texas, and he likes Obama and he recommends a sushi place for breakfast and he bows and disappears. You are the only Americans in the small sushi restaurant. The tension at Tsukiji is palpable and not unknown to Hamptonites; they welcome tourists, they fear tourists, they are beholden to tourists, they resent tourists, they want to share their culture, not watch it trampled. Every day is Labor Day at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

A half million tourists arrive here every year and a half million tons of seafood depart. Officials are proud to say 480 species of fish are for sale, from abalone to zebra mussels, with oysters as big as softballs thrown down the middle of the plate. You wonder why the world can’t get along with 477 species and leave the bluefin alone. Just for a while.

Magnificent 7: Rules Posted at Tsukiji Market
Do not enter areas restricted to authorized personnel!
Do not obstruct traffic!
Do not bring large bags or suitcases into the market!
Do not enter the market in high-heeled shoes or sandals!
Do not bring small children or pets!
Do not smoke in the market!
Do not touch anything!