In 1657, what is now known as the Great Fire of Meireki destroyed the majority of the Japanese capital, Edo.
There are many legends as to how this fire started, with the most famous of all being that a priest was ceremonially cremating a cursed kimono which took the lives of three young girls – each of whom died under different unfortunate circumstances – and during this process accidentally set fire to his temple.
Whatever the initial cause, a mix of wood-based architecture common at the time, along with abnormally dry conditions and hurricane force winds meant that this fire immediately spread throughout the compact, congested city of Edo, and within three days destroyed around 60% of the Japanese capital and claimed over 100,000 lives.
Over the next two years the city of Edo was reorganized and rebuilt at the command of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate (or “Edo bakufu”), and in this process declared that new land should be reclaimed from the sea – this newly reclaimed land was to be called Tsukiji.
While the main designated purpose for Tsukiji at that time was for the ruling class, already some fish merchants who where before the Great Fire of Meireki based in Nihonbashi began to move to the newly built Tsukiji area.
Did you know?
In Japanese “Tsukiji” literally means reclaimed land.
Tsukiji 200 years later: reborn as a gateway to the outside world
Fast forward approximately 200 years to the period known as the Meiji restoration – the Edo bakufu which had been ruling Japan for over 2 centuries comes to end, and Japan gradually begins to open itself up to the outside world. Treaties were signed with the major seafaring nations of the time, beginning with the United States, allowing foreign countries to trade with Japan at specially designated treaty ports. Within these treaty ports there were special areas where foreigners, for the first time in living memory, were allowed to live and do business.
In Tokyo, Tsukiji was chosen; very quickly foreigners and the cultural traditions they brought could be seen all around Tsukiji – hotels, mission schools, bakeries, foreign technology, arts, religion… for the Tokyoites of the time, Tsukiji became a gateway to the outside world where they could experience the newest cultural vogues.
Tsukiji Fish Market
The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 destroyed Nihonbashi Fish Market, the main fish market serving Tokyo at that time. After a construction process lasting 10 years, the new fish market was finally completed in 1935, in Tsukiji.