TOKYO – Tourists are known for acting silly sometimes. You have to cut them some slack. But licking the tuna?
Overwhelmed by an increasing number of misbehaving tourists at the world's largest seafood market, Tokyo fishmongers last month decided to put their foot down, temporarily banning all visitors from one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city — their predawn tuna auctions.
The ban, which was lifted earlier this month, was front-page news in Japan. Now, the tourists are back, but the debate goes on: Can tourists be trusted in Tsukiji?
"We understand that the sight of hundreds of frozen tuna looks unique and interesting for foreign tourists," said Yoshiaki Takagi, the deputy director of the market. "But they have to understand the Tsukiji market is a professional place, not an amusement park."
The sprawling Tsukiji market dates back to the 16th century, when the military rulers who had just moved Japan's capital to Tokyo — then called Edo — wanted to ensure they had a proper channel to get enough fish to their hungry vassals at the nearby castle.
Today, Japan is the world's biggest consumer of seafood. The market handles 480 kinds of seafood, bringing around 40,000 buyers and sellers daily. The value of its seafood trade amounts to 1.8 billion yen ($20 million) per day on average, making it the heart of the national seafood distribution system and the biggest fish wholesale market in the world.
It is the kind of place that Japanese take for granted, like, say, a big pencil factory might be ignored in the West.
But because of its long history, the traditional way that the fish are auctioned off by men in rubber boots and baseball hats using arcane hand signals, and the sheer volume and variety of fish available there every day, it has become a big hit with foreigners.
Takagi said nearly 90 percent of visitors for tuna auctions are non-Japanese — a figure that seemed pretty much in line with the crowd at Tsukiji one recent morning.
"In Holland, we have a flower market, a cheese market, but nothing like the Tsukiji market," said Jan Groeneweg, a 55-year-old banking analyst from the Netherlands who came before sunrise to see a tuna sale. "It's one of the top 10 attractions in Tokyo. You must visit here."
But popularity has brought its problems.
One of the more notorious recent cases was that of a drunken British tourist — caught by a Japanese TV crew — who licked the head of a frozen tuna while two others, also caught on TV, rode on a trolley used by wholesalers.
"Tuna is a very expensive fish," Takagi said. "One tuna can easily cost more than 1 million yen ($11,000). But some tourists touch them and even try to hug them."
Fed up, the market decided to impose a ban on visitors to tuna auctions for its peak season at New Year's.
So, when on Jan. 5, the first auctioning day of the year, a premium bluefin tuna fetched 9.63 million yen, the highest in nearly a decade, no tourists were anywhere in sight. The restriction was lifted on Jan. 19, despite some grumbling from the fishmongers.
The no-nonsense fishmongers at Tsukiji do not see themselves as an attraction, but rather as workers with pressing business to take care of. And they don't particularly crave attention.
The most common complaint from auctioneers is tourists using flash cameras, which makes it difficult for them to read the finger signal code used for bidding. The market put up English signs saying "No Flash!" but that was widely ignored, Takagi said.
"The flash of cameras really bothers me. Since I don't speak English, I make gestures to ask foreign tourists not to use a flash. Most of them stop, but some just keep doing it," said tuna buyer Yasumasa Oshima.
After the ban was lifted, the market began distributing leaflets at the entrance of the tuna auction site in English, Chinese, Korean and Russian, as well as Japanese. Along with the no-flash warning, it tells visitors to stay within the observation area and leave promptly after the auctions, which open at 5.
The post-ban crowds have been better behaved.