Woman Succeeds Brother as Tuna Wholesaler at Tokyo’s Toyosu Market

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Masako Tanaka carries tuna she got at an auction in Koto Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 5.

A woman who succeeded her brother as an intermediate wholesaler following his untimely death recently made her debut at a tuna auction at Toyosu Market in Koto Ward, Tokyo, believed to be one of the world’s largest seafood markets.

Masako Tanaka, 54, was a cooking teacher before taking over the shop last year.

This month marked the fifth anniversary of the relocation of the now defunct Tsukiji market in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, to Toyosu in 2018. Tanaka, a new face at the market, is working hard on the frontlines of this institution that supports food culture in Japan.

Early in the morning one day in early October, Tanaka returned from a tuna auction to Oguro Shokuhin, an intermediate wholesale shop in the market complex. She was dragging a cart piled with chunks of frozen tuna, happily saying, “Today I was able to get three tuna!” After cutting up a large chunk of the meat, she quickly and skillfully wrapped each piece with two employees. They then sent out the tuna pieces to restaurants in and around Tokyo, one after another.

Courtesy of Masako Tanaka
Hiroshi Oguro, Tanaka’s younger brother

Oguro Shokuhin was founded by Tanaka’s grandfather Kyohei Oguro at Tsukiji market about 60 years ago. The fish market used to be a place where only men worked. Therefore, since Tanaka and her younger brother, Hiroshi Oguro, were children, it had been taken for granted that Hiroshi was going to succeed their father, Tsuyoshi Oguro, the second-generation head of the company. Tanaka quit working at a security company when she got married and started teaching cooking to children at home while raising her own child.

In August last year, however, Hiroshi, who was working hard as the third-generation head of Oguro Shokuhin, suffered a stroke and died at the age of 51. Tanaka hastily became the fourth head of Oguro Shokuhin. The store’s sales had slumped due to the novel coronavirus pandemic; moreover, the store had lost its pillar, Hiroshi, who had been single-handedly taking care of everything.

Tanaka was half ready to give up, thinking, “Trading is not something you can do in a makeshift way. I will have to shut the store.”

Decision to rebuild business

When Tanaka was younger, she had at one time helped out her father and brother at Oguro Shokuhin. But until 2022, she had never been to Toyosu market. Unlike Tsukiji, where turret trucks ran back and forth down narrow alleyways crowded with people, Toyosu market is bright and clean, and stores stand in neat rows. Tanaka was amazed.

And yet, the market was as lively as Tsukiji, with auctioneers calling out spiritedly and brokers busily shipping fish and vegetables.

When people at the market saw the surname “Oguro” on the name plate of the cap Tanaka was wearing, they realized she was Oguro’s sister. They called out to her and encouraged her.

“Even though the market has been relocated and renewed, its liveliness and people’s kindness have not changed,” she said.

Seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, Tanaka decided to pull the business together. She followed veteran employees of Oguro Shokuhin around and learned how to examine tuna and bid in auctions.

Consistent quality

After the employee in charge of going to auctions retired, Tanaka took part in a tuna auction for the first time on July 11. At a loss as to how to evaluate the fish, she consulted another wholesaler at the auction, who advised her by saying, “If you’re paying that much, I recommend this tuna.” She then made up her mind and raised her hand high with a finger sign to indicate the price, and the auctioneer called, “Oguro!” Her bid had succeeded.

“Other intermediate wholesalers gave way for me, partly because of my brother,” Tanaka said humbly.

At the same time, she felt the excitement that comes from having the blood of a tuna shop family running through her veins.

Auctions are difficult, but Tanaka has now improved to the point where a long-time client praised her, saying, “The tuna you choose have a consistent quality.”

Making the most of her experience as a cooking teacher, she has also developed recipes using swordfish sold at her store to secure new clients.

“Since my grandfather’s time, we’ve been able to continue the business thanks to our clients and colleagues at the market. I’d like to pay back their goodwill by protecting this store,” she said determinedly.

Volume declining

Toyosu Market opened on Oct. 11, 2018. The market has an area of about 40 hectares, 1.7 times larger than its predecessor in Tsukiji. Unlike Tsukiji market, Toyosu is an indoor facility that shuts out the outside air, making it easier to control temperature and to keep it hygienic.

The Tokyo metropolitan government had high hopes for the new market, expecting a rise in the amount of marine products handled there. However, the amount handled dropped from 390,000 tons at Tsukiji in 2017 to 310,000 tons at Toyosu in 2022, partly because of the increase in off-market dealings, such as direct sales from producers to major supermarkets, and also because of the blow dealt by restaurants closing or suspending operations due to the pandemic. The number of intermediate wholesalers has decreased from 536 in April 2018 to 458 as of Oct. 1 this year.

The number of visitors, which had declined because of the pandemic, is returning to normal. In February next year, a new facility aimed at drawing a crowd called Toyosu Senkyaku Banrai will open next to the market. The facility will have shops, hot springs and restaurants using fresh food from the market and is expected to attract 2.6 million visitors every year.

“Toyosu Market could operate during the pandemic thanks to its excellent hygiene policies,” said Yutaka Hayama, the chairman of the Wholesale Cooperative of Tokyo Fish Market. “We’d like to publicize the quality of Toyosu at home and abroad.”

Meanwhile, the Tsukiji Outer Market remains at Tsukiji and is crowded with tourists and shoppers day after day. A large-scale redevelopment is planned for the former site of the Tsukiji market.

“Toyosu is the stomach of the Tokyo metropolitan area. Tsukiji is also lively with food. Toyosu and Tsukiji will remain big attractions of Tokyo from now on,” Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said at a press conference on Oct. 6.