Farewell to Tsukiji / Choba offices, ‘turret trucks’ tangible symbols of history

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Mayako Suzuki, center, talks to customers from inside the choba space of her Tokyo Suzukiya intermediate wholesale shop at Tsukiji market in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, on Sept. 25.

The Yomiuri ShimbunThis is the second installment of a series.

Small boxlike offices called choba, often built of wood, were a characteristic feature of the now closed Tsukiji market in Chuo Ward, Tokyo.

Through transactions conducted in these tight spaces, about 530 intermediate wholesalers moved the world’s largest volume of fisheries products through the market every day. Each intermediate wholesale shop has buyers with expertise in purchasing products at the market’s wholesale auctions. The choba were the hub of transactions at which the intermediate wholesalers then sold fish products on to shops and restaurants.

At 5 a.m. in mid-September, some people had already visited intermediate wholesaler Tokyo Suzukiya to purchase products. Mayako Suzuki, the 43-year-old president of the company, was working in the choba, which looked like an old-fashioned phone booth. She was writing down the agreed-upon content of each deal and sending shipping requests one after another.

“Such tasks last for four hours on the busiest days,” she said.

Two years ago, she took over the post of president from an aging relative. At first, it took a long time to do the accounting management. She sometimes got back home late at night, even though she started working from shortly after 2 a.m.

She had previously held an accounting job at a different fisheries company. Partly based on this career experience, she introduced computers for sales management. Tokyo Suzukiya also used the computers to organize data on customers’ preferences and the tendencies of their orders, aiming to improve service and reduce wasteful purchases.

With the market’s relocation to a new location in Toyosu in Koto Ward, Tokyo, the company is considering accepting orders on its dedicated website. “To survive, I’d like to introduce new methods,” she said.

The harsh environment surrounding the industry is behind efforts by Suzuki and other young wholesalers to streamline management and enhance competitiveness. Products were usually distributed via markets in the past, but now it has become more common for them to be sold directly from producers to major supermarkets and other places for reasons including cost reduction.

The volume of transactions at central wholesale markets across the country has been declining year by year. The Tsukiji market dealt with about 570,000 tons of marine products in 2007, but the volume fell by 30 percent to about 390,000 tons in 2017. Over the past 30 years, about half of what had been around 1,000 seafood intermediate wholesalers have gone out of business due to financial difficulties and the aging of staff.

Under such circumstances, Ebi no Urai is one of the intermediate wholesalers that are promoting the business using information technology. There are two personal computers set up in its choba, which is around 2 square meters.

Yoshiyuki Urai, the 43-year-old president of the company, shouted orders to the choba, such as “Twenty botan prawn” and “Thirty kisu whiting,” while a woman inside the choba, called the choba-san, quickly typed the numbers into a computer. Information such as who purchased how much of what could be recorded without using vouchers, which made their business speedier.

“Even in traditional places like the market, it’s necessary to change things in keeping with the times,” Urai explained. He insisted the true nature of intermediate wholesalers’ jobs would remain unchanged even in Toyosu.

“Products directly transported from production places may be the best from each place. But nobody can choose the very best among superior products from across Japan, as well as all over the world, except we, the intermediate wholesalers, who are trained to judge quality.”

One item will be passed down from Tsukiji to Toyosu: The so-called turret trucks, three-wheeled electric transport vehicles that can be called symbols of Tsukiji. The agile vehicles carrying loads of products around the market are an iconic sight. About 2,000 of them were to be sent ahead to the new market, zipping along Loop Road No. 2, which is not yet open to ordinary traffic.

The Kanto Machinery Center Co., a manufacturer of the vehicles, is also developing a new type of cart in light of the opening of the new market, which has some sloping surfaces. When a market worker has to push the cart uphill, an electric motor will give assistance.

Shigeo Kinoshita, the 69-year-old managing director of the company, said: “We must improve transport vehicles like turret trucks, which are the symbol of the market, so that they can be used more safely and more conveniently. We’d like to continue to support those working in the market.”Speech

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