Steven's Blog

Tsukiji, Sayonara

Saturday, October 6th, marked the end of an eighty-year era as the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo closes following its final tuna auction. The fish market has been moved to a new site in Toyosu about two kilometers away, and opened on October 11th. Tsukiji is undergoing a dramatic change.

The Tsukiji Market is not just about its world-famous tuna auction, which is closed to the public except for limited and controlled visits for tourists. There is a whole ecosystem of an outer market that has sprouted up around the restricted inner one, and the outer market is open to the public.

There must be hundreds, if not over a thousand small storefronts, stalls, and shops. These serve not just as suppliers to an industry of alimentation buyers, but also the myriad tourists and local Japanese visitors who come for great food and some good fun. Tsukiji is vibrant in the early mornings, when most of central Tokyo is deserted and even before salarymen are only beginning to stir in their suburban homes, contemplating their arduous commute into work.

I am a morning person—and when I say morning I mean the wee hours. For me, a kind of perfect day starts with a visit to the Tsukiji Market at the crack of dawn, long before any morning appointments I might have in Tokyo. I go to shoot photographs in Tsukiji—lots of photographs. Breakfast in Tsukiji for me can be a plate of tuna sashimi, or a plate of Chinese roast pork with eggs, or Japanese egg omelet on a stick, or any of a number of other delicacies. I have gotten to know a number of the shop owners where I have become a regular. They are amused by the Japanese-speaking American with an old Leica M3 camera who frequents their businesses and chats them up.

Tsukiji is special to me as it is to many others.

The change at Tsukiji is no different from the dramatic organizational change I see in companies. There are the resistors who cannot accept change, a vanguard who are excited by the opportunity that the change portends, and those who are on the fence, resigned to the inevitability of change and are waiting to see how the wind blows with either cautious optimism or guarded skepticism. Some Tsukiji vendors who will not make the move to Toyosu fear the change. They worry that their customers, whether tourists or industry buyers, simply won’t come around anymore, and certainly some won’t. Others have protested and demonstrated against the move to Toyosu. Some vendors have decided to close shop and cash out. Still, others see the move to Toyosu as an opportunity to grow their businesses, or even to start new ones. All view the change differently.

In Japanese, the word akogare (憧れ), pronounced AH-KO-GA-RAY, is sometimes translated to nostalgia, but really there is no exact English equivalent. Akogare does not merely mean affection for the past. Akogare also has a connotation of want and yearning. In akogare, there is a modicum pain. To those for whom Tsukiji has some meaning, including me, whether we feel positive about the change that is about to come, feel pessimistic, or are simply undecided, everyone with whom I have spoken expresses a sense of akogare. It is the one emotion that unites us all.

In organizational change, we talk a lot about overcoming resistance, gaining buy-in, leveraging the early adopters, evangelizing the future, and so on. We seek consensus, a shared vision, and unified action. Yet all of this is merely an unattainable ideal. Everyone in a company will have his or her view of any change proposed and will adapt at his or her own pace.

However, akogare is present in organizational change just like at Tsukiji. While you can never achieve a consensus view on a change of any significant magnitude, those for whom a change has meaning always share some degree of akogare in common, even those who think that what the future portends is an improvement on the past. There is always some melancholy for what is lost.

Acknowledging the pain of loss, no matter how small, is the only way that anyone can truly let go and move on, and there is nothing negative in that. Click To Tweet

Yet, akogare is the one emotion that leaders in organizational change tend to ignore.

I feel the akogare of Tsukiji, as many others do. I went to Tsukiji last Saturday morning, wanting to experience Tsukiji for the last time while the inner market was still there. The place was mobbed. There were a small number of protesters demonstrating against the move to Toyosu, but mostly lots of businesses were taking advantage of the increased attention and foot traffic. There were helicopters hovering above and TV crews on the ground. There were loudspeaker announcements reminding people that much of the outer market will remain for their enjoyment long after the inner market has left, beseeching the day’s visitors not to abandon Tsukiji.

What will become of Tsukiji? Who knows? There is already talk about making Tsukiji a cultural icon of Japanese food. At the same time, there are noises about turning the inner market facility into a giant parking structure for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Only time will tell.

But for now, here’s to Tsukiji.

Thank you Tsukiji, and sayonara.

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