David Blecken
Oct 11, 2018

As Tokyo’s iconic Tsukiji market closes, will the brand endure?

The Tokyo government wants to preserve one of the city’s strongest cultural assets in a new location, but lacks a strategy.

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

As the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) opens the $3.5 billion Toyosu fish market for business this week, demolition is already underway at Tsukiji. But even though the buildings will be razed, there are hopes that Tsukiji’s brand—or soul—will remain intact.

Over its 83 years of operation, Tsukiji became known as the biggest, most dynamic fish market in the world. It also became Tokyo’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing around 30,000 visitors a day.

Although there has been no deliberate effort to build an identity, Tsukiji Market is arguably one of Japan’s most valuable brands, and one that means different things to different people, from the proud workers to the awe-struck tourists.

For regular Japanese people, Tsukiji is a source of pride that “denotes history, quality, security and nostalgia,” said Shoko Miyauchi, a culinary entrepreneur who has acted as an unofficial ambassador for the market for some years.

But a cloud of confusion now hangs over its identity.

The decision to move has been controversial, with protests running right up until Tsukiji’s closure. While the government has positioned the relocation as being in the interests of safety and modernisation, sceptics see it as a means of freeing up prime land for commercial development, which some speculate could be a casino. They argue that the new location is less practical geographically and could jeopardise the individual businesses that call the market home. Others see the move to a sanitised environment as squandering Tokyo’s trump tourism card. (Tokyo aims to become the world's leading tourist destination, according to TMG.)

In an effort to dispel these concerns, TMG has voiced an intention to maintain the “Tsukiji Brand” even though the new premises is officially called Toyosu Fish Market.

A government spokesperson for the market described Tsukiji as “a pillar of the Japanese food industry” that had been “shaped by its history and tradition, its reliability in terms of quality and variety, and its lively atmosphere”.

Workers will “continue to uphold the Tsukiji spirit in their future dealings,” the spokesperson said. “Therefore, the Tsukiji market’s brand will not only live on, but gain further momentum and appeal”. The spokesperson added that the Toyosu market has “courses for visitors and facilities to safely welcome tourists”.

At the same time, the government has not outlined any concrete measures to develop or support the brand identity. “They seem to have hopes and not a strategy,” said one observer with knowledge of the proceedings.

Vendors hope to safeguard Tsukiji's spirit

This has led individuals to take matters into their own hands. Masahiro Sugimoto, a vegetable wholesaler who has run his business, Kushiya, from the market for 40 years, patented the branding ‘Tsukiji Damashi’ (Tsukiji Spirit), which he carries on his new premises and makes available in the form of merchandise to those who want to use it. He hopes the patent will safeguard it from use by those not affiliated with the market. Sugimoto sees the Tsukiji brand as “irreplaceable” but said its strength is down to the power of the community.

Stickers produced by Masahiro Sugimoto

“Tsukiji people’s spirit won’t change,” said Kanako Ito, the proprietor of a shop specialising in rubber boots, who described Tsukiji as her “second family”. Her shop, which is relocating, also sells T-shirts bearing the ‘Tsukiji Damashi’ logo. “Although the building will be new, the people will move so it will remain the same… It will just take some time to develop some atmosphere there.”

Nonetheless, people such as Sugimoto and Miyauchi believe the government should actively promote the new location as a continuation of the character that has evolved over the decades. But Sugimoto is doubtful of the authorities’ commitment to their promise.

Traders like Sugimoto need to start thinking of their own businesses more as brands too, and work to emphasise the value they bring. The volume of goods and the number of merchants operating at the market have declined steadily over the past 10 years. Technological advances mean would-be customers increasingly buy direct from the source, sometimes without even seeing the produce. Kanji Takahashi, a 76-year-old fish wholesaler who has also spent his life working at Tsukiji, is worried that fewer clients will go to the sellers at the new location.

“We want to encourage them to visit directly,” he said. In his view, whether or not the Tsukiji brand endures depends on them. If they drop off, it will be a question of starting all over again. “You can’t establish a brand in a couple of years or even a decade. It takes time.”

Kanji Takahashi at work in the market

There is also confusion over what is moving. While wholesalers and restaurants within the market are relocating, shops and restaurants in the area outside are staying—but swathes of the public think they are either moving or closing. In a crude communications campaign that aims to make up for the lack of one by the government, small businesses last month began producing plastic bags bearing the line ‘We’re not moving’.

Toyosu needs to forge its own identity

Maki Isogai, a fifth-generation restaurateur who claims to be one of the first to usher in a culture of tourism to Tsukiji and its eateries, pointed out that the market (and her family’s restaurant) has already survived another move: prior to Tsukiji, it was in Nihonbashi. For her, Tsukiji has been “life” rather than a brand, but she sees it as something “unique” that attracted visitors for its culture as much as for its food. Her restaurant, Sushi-Bun, is moving to Toyosu. She sees it as a reset, with the Tsukiji brand playing little role in their fortunes from now on.

She expects it to take a number of years to replicate the popularity her restaurant enjoys today. “It took 10 years to get lines outside here,” she said. “It was hard. I think I’ll have to do that again. But social media should make it easier.”

Maki Isogai (left) outside her restaurant, which has now relocated

From a tourism perspective, Tsukiji “counts as a brand but not as a brand identity”, said Bo Linnemann, co-founder of the Danish branding and design consultancy Kontrapunkt, which developed individual identities for the various departments of Denmark’s government. Linnemann has been a keen visitor to the market over the years and went during a trip to Tokyo in Tsukiji’s final week of operation.

“A site can be a brand without having a visual identity,” he said. For him, Tsukiji’s is a combination of “the smell, the blood on the floors, the fish and people with big knives, the machines and trucks”. “It’s vivid, remarkable and you don’t experience it anywhere else,” he said.

Tsukiji became an icon because of its unpolished nature, agrees Simon Browning, a branding and design consultant with experience in Japan and the UK. That is sure to change: Where visitors to Tsukiji rubbed shoulders with workers and jumped out of the way of speeding turret trucks, they will now be more likely to observe proceedings from behind glass.

When London’s Billingsgate Market moved, it changed from being seen as a traditional working market to an industrialised processing centre. Browning sees a similar path for Toyosu, but he thinks it will need to become an attraction based on its own merits rather than on the Tsukiji legacy.

Browning thinks any branding efforts should have begun much earlier, involving the various stakeholders directly and communicating long-term goals to them. But he is wary of anything too heavy-handed in terms of stamping a brand identity on the new location.

Kanako Ito at her Tsukiji market shop

Tsukiji is more than just a brand

For Browning, much of the equity the government hopes to leverage is made of intangible qualities including history and a glimpse of what people consider the “real” Japan. He cannot think of a location with equivalent appeal in Tokyo.

“Run-down authentic charm” is something that can’t be transferred, he said. Above all, he warns against offering tourists a “theme park” experience.

“The appeal of Tsukiji is the same thing that forced its relocation: the fact that it isn’t really a brand, but a real-life look into another culture’s life,” he said, adding that inconveniences such as the early morning starts to catch the auctions and eating in a “working neighbourhood” augmented the appeal by adding a feeling of discovery and exclusivity to the experience.

“The more the government starts defining everything in brand terms, the more that thing will lose its appeal. The skill is sensitivity. I feel the government is already too involved in regulating the image of Japan, and they typically do a clumsy job.”

Linnemann does think that the new market could benefit from a more tangible identity, but feels that for visitors, tying it to a particular location might not be as important as people think.

“Do you think tourists actually know it as Tsukiji?” he asked. “I’ve never thought of it as Tsukiji, and I don’t think most outsiders do. I’ve always thought of it as the Tokyo fish market. Maybe it shouldn’t be called anything based on the location but a more universal name. After all, it might move again.”

Editor’s note: That Tsukiji Market is seen as a brand at all is testament to the exceptional work of the people who have made a living there over the years. It is also a reminder that substance is a brand’s most important component. Ultimately, taking into account global appreciation of Japan’s food culture, the new location is likely to remain popular with tourists, even if the experience is somewhat diluted. A bigger concern is whether the individual business owners will be able to market themselves effectively among more challenging business conditions.

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