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 Circular economy, fish market and construction boom

We are all waiting for the World Circular Economy Forum 2018 in Yokohama next week with great expectation. It's only second event of its kind: the first one was held in Helsinki last year. This one, too, is organized by The Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra, now together with Japan's Ministry of Environment. It seems Finland has taken lead in this new global economic model and it fits well that that the second ever place for the event is in Japan. It's a hot topic now globally with rapidly growing waste problem and continuing carbon emissions challenging our nature.

Circular economy is no new fancy theory, but rather a total concept that collects sustainable lifestyle and business practices under one name. We all know the old 3 R's rule - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – to divert us from the usual "Take, Make and Dispose" throwaway business. Now add a couple of more R's – Repair, Remake and Regenerate – and Rethink through the life cycle of all materials and products from the beginning to the end, design out waste and pollution from the start and make sure the product will provide further benefits at its end through Reuse and Recycling. It's a systemic shift to long term sustainability that applies to both individuals, businesses and the society at large.

Circular model fits well to Japan's "mottainai" culture: no unnecessary waste, use up all material and dispose responsibly after use. Think of traditional food culture using every part of the fish or pig and all kinds of wild vegetables to complement cultivated ones. Think of housewives carefully planning dinner materials so that they can be reused for breakfast, too, and think of KonMari philosophy, started by a housewife and now world renown, to clean up your cupboards of unnecessary old things and keep the remaining minimum in good order. Think of second hand shops for clothes and books that abound in Japan's shopping streets – the best known Bookoff has developed into a nationwide chain. Think of internet sites that now cater for consumers to sell their old things online by themselves. Mercari, a startup just 5 years, performed last year over USD 1 billion worth transactions despite strong competition from others. Its IPO this summer fetched USD 1,2 billion. It suits well that Mercari CEO is one of the Japanese speakers at Yokohama WCEF next week.

Come to think of it, sustainable thinking is especially well-spread here at consumer grassroot level; there's more to do at higher echelons of big business and government. We can still see too much wasteful spending, polluting energy and misguided action by many companies and government offices. This big international forum with official support, top speakers and 1000 participants from all over the world should help the Japanese decision makers think better. Hopefully captains of industry and ministries, especially all powerful METI, not just MOE, will find their way there in big numbers. Would do no harm to see a few politicians either.

Just think of all the money and time wasted in building the new Toyosu fish market to replace the 83 year old Tsukiji. The move was finally realized last week, two years behind schedule, following billions worth rebuilding that were supposed to be done in the first place to protect the buildings, the workers and the fish against poisonous materials in the ground. It was well known there were remains left behind by the old gas factory, yet the cleaning and protection work was not properly done. Sure hope it's OK now that Tsukiji's 550 fish wholesalers and 100 vegetable traders - totally 14,000 workers handling 480 kinds of products worth JPY 1.4 billion (USD 125 million) daily! – trundled down the 2 km stretch in a long convoy over two bridges to their new place.

It looks big, spacious and light, totally different from the dark, congested old labyrinth. Moreover, it has plenty freezers and air conditioners that the old place lacked. Instead tons of ice was used every day to cool down the products - hardly energy efficient process. The new place also has a glass-walled gallery with good view into the hall to keep the 28,000 annual tourists away from touching the fish and disturbing the busy work.

Despite such clear improvements, many dealers loved the old place and resisted the move - typical for their closed society with own language, signs and terms. Resisting any change is a time-worn tradition in Japan for all, not to talk about such special people. In fact, their forefathers also resisted 100 years ago request to move from their original place in Nihonbashi where first shogun had given them special rights 300 years before when Edo was established. Complaints of smell from big banks and corporate head offices, which had grown there by then, were to no avail. Only when Tokyo was totally destroyed in the Kanto 1923 earthquake, City managed to forbid them rebuild their stalls and move to Tsukiji instead. The new place was practically located by Sumida river to allow fishing boats deliver their cargoes directly. Of course, there's no such boats today but a monstrous truck rally that blocked the Ginza main street, so even in that respect the new location next to the Tokyo Bay highway is well selected.

What's left now at the old place is the 300 shop Outer Market servicing individual consumers and tourists. Wonder how it will manage to maintain its popularity without the attractive market show and how Governor Koike can make true of her plans to develop it into a big food entertainment park.

Unfortunately, what's left behind is also thousands of rats in the basement gutters. Municipal health officers have been ready for the fight to prevent them spreading in look for new food by blocking all pipes, cutting off overhead power lines and installing fences and terminating them all with hundreds of traps and spreading poison allover now that market has moved away. They say they trapped 1700 rats already before the market moved. Hope they will succeed to catch the rest as well: would not like to see any of those creatures next time in a sushiya there or in a fancy Ginza restaurant nearby.

As it happens, Olympic athletes' village is rising on island next to the new fish market and the Organizing Committee gave us the good news that it has been able to cut the cost for the Games by US 4.3 billion. The total cost estimate now stands at USD 12.6 billion of which City pays about half with the rest coming from central government, corporate sponsors and IOC itself. If so, what are we going to make of the claims that the total cost is actually going to be USD 30 billion?

Well, it all depends what you are including there: there's a huge construction boom going on in Tokyo and it's clear only some of it is related to Olympics. Improvements into infrastructure are rushed to get ready for the expected crowds, but they will stand to benefit us Tokyoites long after the Games. As well, no less than 75 new big buildings are under construction for hotels, offices and apartments, yet they are neither only for the Olympics. In fact, the boom looks to continue well beyond 2020 as several big development projects around major railway stations will take their time due to their size. Shinagawa area redevelopment will be completed 2024, Shibuya with 7 new sky-scrapers will be finished 2027, Shimbashi will get new high-rises including Japan's tallest apartment tower by 2026 while Tokyo Station will get the tallest office building (390 m) by 2027. As if we didn't have enough high-rises already!

No doubt, Tokyo skyline will look like Manhattan, Shanghai or Hongkong, if it did not already, yet there still will be plenty quaint Old Tokyo left elsewhere in our big city. No temples or old historical surroundings are being erased to make way for the new towers and there's no big project in Katsushika-ku as far as I've heard – Tora-san's shopping street with his statue will stay.

Seems Tokyo City, its people and businesses have hit the right combination as it is being elected No.1 time after time in global media. Last week half a million readers of Conde Naste Travel voted Tokyo as the No.1 city destination in the world outside USA. Backing up the choice to travel here was Kyoto at No.2 spot and Osaka at No.12. I'm sure hotels, restaurants and tour operators love having American tourists pad further up the current wave of Chinese, Korean and other Asians.

How about Europeans? Seems they are sticking to their own continent. At least Finnish travelers said in a recent poll that their favorite city destinations are London, Rome and Copenhagen. No wonder, it's Japanese customers, who fill the seats on Finnair's 31 weekly flights from Helsinki to Japan.

Timo Varhama  
Tokyo, October 15, 2018  

Previous Columns

2 October 2018
"Abe's "third reich": challenges abound"

17 September 2018
"From Osaka typhoon to Osaka fever - dark side and bright side of Japan"

6 September 2018
"Emperor: love, peace and reverence"

23 August 2018
"Summer heat, new scandals and export worries - but Tokyo is best"

8 August 2018
"Petty politicians, bungling bureaucrats and profitable business"

30 July 2018
"While we were on holiday"

17 June 2018
"From Singapore to soccer - wrapp up for summer"

11 June 2018
"Showdown in Singapore, commotion in Canada and cover-ups in Tokyo"

28 May 2018
"Morals and responsibility, blind loyalty and power harassment"

17 May 2018
"Big Business in record results again, but consumer are not convinced - North Korea spectacle continues under Kim direction"

26 April 2018
"Political spectacle approaches grand finale
- people's trust sinking ever lower"

17 April 2018
"Cruise missiles and cronyism, business boom, old people and sumo"

6 April 2018
"Mystery train and other unpredictable moves in geopolitics around Japan"

26 March 2018
"Trump Unchained and Abelympics – Can PM Make the Party?"

16 March 2018
"Anniversaries, updates, fallacies and deception"

5 March 2018

26 February 2018
"Korean Olympics: sports shine, politics stink"

14 February 2018
"Korea: Murky Politics and Big Business Behind the Sport Spectacle"

4 February 2018
"It's "smile time" in politics, Olympics, economics and business"

23 January 2018
"Moomin crisis, panda frenzy and Olympics turned into political farce"

12 January 2018
"Heisei 30 looks good: share prices soar, PM rides high "

About the Columnist

The columnist is a Japan veteran among Finnish business, our Chamber ex-president and today Member of the Board of Trustees.
After running a major Finnish industry company's Japan business for over 20 years, he is now Senior Associate in a strategic consulting company.

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