Cultures clash at popular fish auction in Japan

For workers at the Tsukiji fish market,the final indignity may have been when an intoxicated British tourist licked the head of a frozen tuna.

Written by L A Times,Washington Post | Tokyo | Published:March 14, 2009 11:09 pm

For workers at the Tsukiji fish market,the final indignity may have been when an intoxicated British tourist licked the head of a frozen tuna. In the now-notorious incident,captured by a Japanese TV crew,an irate market official shouted in English,“Get out! Get out!” as the man patted the tuna’s gills.

Every day before dawn,hundreds of visitors gather to witness one of the most popular events on the Tokyo tourist agenda: the daily tuna auction. Clogging passageways,they gawk at the sheer size of a market as big as 43 football fields put together. Each year,the market handles tens of millions of visitors and 600,000 tonnes of seafood in 480 varieties — 1 of every 5 fish caught on the planet.

But some visitors misbehave,infuriating market officials so much they closed Tsukiji to outsiders for several weeks during the busy New Year’s buying season.

Fish cutter Saito Shiro says many foreigners don’t respect his profession.

“They get in the way,” says the 75-year-old Tokyo resident,who has worked in the market for more than half a century.

The market relented in January,but the mood is still frosty in the drafty warehouses that make up the market.

“I don’t blame them,” says tourist Bart Brinkman,a 37-year-old export consultant from the Netherlands,who is already wide-eyed as he wanders the market at 5 am. “These people are very serious about their work.”

All around him,men in baseball caps zip about on motorised three-wheeled carts. Others in rubber aprons and boots brush past with flashlights and large fishhooks,pointy ends facing outward. Their message — Stay out of my way.

Now that the crowds have returned,the debate has,too: Can tourists be trusted in Tsukiji? The issue symbolises the culture clash between foreign visitors and residents of a nation that prizes manners and orderliness.

“More than 99.9 per cent of Japanese know how to obey the rules,” says Brinkman,who travels here frequently. “They’re not used to dealing with hordes of often drunken Westerners who see this place as an amusement park.”

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