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'I'm angry at the virus': Tokyo's famous sushi scene crippled by outbreak

In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, small sushi joints in Tokyo are struggling, with some facing the possibility of closure. CNN's Blake Essig reports.

Posted: Mar 23, 2020 5:11 PM
Updated: Mar 23, 2020 5:11 PM

Shortly after dawn, Hideki Sugiura moves swiftly through the narrow aisles of Tokyo's Toyosu Market.

It's much quieter than usual, and the sushi chef doesn't need to buy as much fish for his small restaurant, Sushi Marubatsu.

Business is down around 50%, Sugiura says, due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has spread through large parts of Asia and is now gripping Europe and the US, with more than 300,000 cases globally. Japan currently has more than 1,000 confirmed cases, several dozen of whom have died.

"Simply, customers stopped coming," Sugiura tells CNN. "I'm very sad. I'm angry at the virus."

Nearly every day for the past nine years, Sugiura has been carrying out his daily ritual at Toyosu -- the wholesale section of the famous Tsukiji fish market, which moved to new premises in 2018.

Sugiura creates his daily-changing menu on the fly as he sees what fish is on offer -- and at what price. This time, he goes for tuna, salmon, red snapper, yellowtail and shrimp.

His tiny restaurant, which fits about a dozen diners, is in Shibuya, near Tokyo's famous intersection with a four-way pedestrian crossing. But the majority of his business comes from local Japanese.

"Company workers who used to come in for lunch don't come at all now," he says. "And housewives used to come in at lunchtime, but none of them come now."

He says that business was already hurting before the virus spread, due to an ailing economy that slowed after the Japanese government increased the consumption tax in October.

"We've had a de facto shutdown of all the major engines of demand," says Jesper Koll, a Tokyo-based economist. "That's consumption, business spending, export of goods and inbound tourism."

Many businesses had been holding out for the expected economic boost of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, due to be held in July and August this year. But now, the future of the event -- and the associated benefits for Tokyo's retail and tourism industry -- looks uncertain due to the pandemic.

Now, the current crisis is pushing Sugiura to consider closing the doors on the restaurant.

"If my business stays this way because of the virus, I cannot operate at all," he says. "There is no other way but closing it down."

Tsukiji fish market suffering

The impact of the coronavirus is also hurting the original Tsukiji fish market, a hotspot for tourists.

Some of the market vendors tell CNN that their business is down by 70-80%.

"(Business is) terrible, terrible," says Naoto Furusawa, who has worked at one of the stalls selling dried fish and other food items for 23 years.

Usually, he says, the streets are teeming with visitors from all over the world.

"It is just a sea of people," Furusawa says. "(Usually) I can't even walk through."

Tourists have also noticed the huge drop-off.

"I came three years ago and I couldn't walk (through the crowds), and now it's barely anyone," says Colombian tourist Andres Bitar (32).

When the inner wholesale market moved to Toyosu, the outer market, which has dozens of shops and restaurants, stayed open.

But how long it survives depends on how long it takes for the coronavirus crisis to end, Furusawa says.

"Everyone is saying, all they can do is be patient," he says.

Off the main streets of the Tsukiji market are several dark, narrow alleys which are crammed with dozens of small sushi joints -- also suffering from the economic contagion of the coronavirus.

"There are many businesses closing down," says Toru Honma, who owns one of the small restaurants. "Three to four places have closed down in the last month or two."

Most mornings, 68-year-old Honma is serving up sashimi rice bowls, platters of fresh sushi and cups of steaming Japanese tea to visitors who stream in after shopping in the market.

But now, he's just counting his losses.

"I feel very sad -- it hurts," Honma says. "It was such a sharp decline."

Honma has been a sushi chef for 45 years, and says he has never seen anything like this before -- even after the devastating earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan in 2011.

But the situation is likely to deteriorate further, as experts say the impact of the coronavirus crisis is far from over.

"You're going to see for the next three or four months at least, economic data that's going to continue to deteriorate, you're going to see profit data that continues to deteriorate," Koll says.

The crisis has left small business owners in Japan -- and the rest of the world -- facing an uncertain future.

"We don't know when it ends, and it is getting worse day by day," Honma says.

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