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WIT Life #21: Tsukiji Auction Debacle


WITLife is a periodic series written by professional Interpreter/Translator/Writer Stacy Smith (Kumamoto-ken, 2000-03).  She watches Fujisankei news in Japanese (to keep her interpreting skills sharp) and shares with us some of the interesting tidbits and trends as well as her own insights.

For many foreigners visiting Tokyo, an early morning trip to the legendary tuna auction at Tsukiji fish market is a must. However, last year the metropolitan government decided it had had enough of rowdy tourists disturbing the auctions and forbid them to enter the area during this time. Restriction began in April with the closing off of certain sections, and it escalated to complete denial of access for the one month period between December 15, 2008 and January 17, 2009. This tourist destination that receives as many as 500 visitors a day distributed flyers and put up signs in Chinese, English, Japanese, Korean and Russian declaring the ban.  

The reasons the conflict escalated to this point were multifold. Aside from what was cited as general gaijin rudeness, there were some actions that were particularly upsetting to the auctioneers and other employees. For example, visitors would pose alongside the tuna on the boards they were placed on, causing a hygiene problem for the exposed fish. In order to get the perfect commemorative shot, some foreigners would hold or even kiss and hug the tuna! They would take pictures using a flash, even though it is explicitly written that no flashes are allowed. The brightness created as a result often blinded workers, and if this didn’t bother them their paths were often blocked by people taking pictures.

This type of steadily building outrage caused the ban, which went through despite protests from 150 countries’ embassies, tour companies and hotels. Thankfully it was lifted as planned last week, and since then there have been no major complaints. In fact, the two security guards who were dispatched by the local government seemed to be satisfied with the ways things turned out, with some tourists even offering their thanks to them.

Ironically, in the end this fiasco might have an internationalizing effect. Tsukiji workers had received special language training in order to be able to be understood if there was a need to usher out any derelict foreigners who tried to sneak in during the restricted period (there were no reported incidents). So perhaps a measure which set out to exclude foreigners will allow auction employees to better communicate with them in the future…

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