Book: Tsukiji by Theodore Bestor

Fascinating and fabulously detailed

Theodore C. Bestor
Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World
University of California Press, 2004
ISBN: 0-520-22024-2
320 pages (main text) plus glossary, notes, bibliography, etc.

A visitor to Tokyo from North America is apt to arrive with considerable jet-lag. Or perhaps jet-lead is a better term since you're likely to wake up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. Tokyo's shops don't typically open before 10:00, you're not likely to have a business meeting any time soon, and you may even have some trouble getting breakfast that early. But there is one thing happening at that hour in Tokyo. The Tsukiji fish market is likely to be in full swing. And it's probably convenient since it's only about two kilometers south of the glitzy Ginza.

The market's hours are geared toward getting fresh fish to restaurants by lunchtime. Pre-auction inspections begin around 4:30 a.m., fish auctions start around 5:30 and last an hour or two, and the wholesalers who buy at the auctions and sell to restaurant buyers, fishmongers, and so on finish their day's business between 10:00 and 11:00 a.m. And Tsukiji is pretty impressive. It's the world's largest wholesale fish market. The shops there sell around 2.3 million kilograms of seafood a day, worth around $13 million. About 50,000 people do business there every day.

Because of judicious use of tiny bottles of vodka saved from the plane, I've never seen Tsukiji in operation. But I'm quite sure that it's fascinating, and one of the best reasons I have for thinking that is Theodore C. Bestor's big and detailed book Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (the source of the statistics above). The author is a professor of anthropology at Harvard, but unlike a stereotypical anthropologist, he doesn't study fossils or primitive tribes. He studies contemporary Japanese economic institutions.

The book is a serious work of academic scholarship but, happily, it's only a little less readable for that. Professor Bestor descends into opaque academic jargon only once and then pretty briefly. (It rather feels as though he does it once just to prove that he can.) Other that that brief bit, there's only a smattering of academic jargon in the book and most of it is perfectly understandable. Professor Bestor is occasionally a bit repetitive, and there are a few inelegant chapter introductions and summaries ("In this chapter I have..."), but there's very little here that hinders an interested lay-person's enjoyment of the book. Besides, who but an academic would spend 15 years visiting and learning about a fish market? Anyone who has an interest in Japanese culture should be glad that Professor Bestor did because there's a lot to learn from reading it.

Professor Bestor explains the market's history, its seventeenth-century origin in nearby Nihonbashi, its move to Tsukiji in 1923, its move into the current buildings in 1935, its closure during the second world war, its resurgence in the 1950s, and its likely future move to a new location across the Sumida river. In equally careful detail, he tells us about the market's mechanisms and its participants: the auctions and the seven auction-houses, the hundreds of wholesalers and how they do business, how the market changes in anticipation and reaction to consumers' changing preferences, and so on.

There's no question that there are a lot of interesting facts here. I'd never have guessed that sushi as we know it was invented in the middle of the nineteenth century. But, perhaps not surprisingly, Professor Bestor is at his best when he's interpreting and analyzing as an anthropologist. Economic transactions don't happen in a vacuum. They happen because particular pairs of people want to trade. As Professor Bestor says:

    These social ties and cultural processes are
    not market imperfections; rather, they make
    markets and their components -- economic
    processes such as auctions -- visible.
    (p. 181, emphasis in original)

We get a wonderfully clear picture of the numerous overlapping formal and informal relationships among the market's participants and between them and the various parts of local and national government that license and regulate the market. We also get to see wholesalers changing their businesses, not just in response to short-term market changes, but also in response to larger-scale economic trends. While they were once exclusively family businesses, many are now becoming increasingly like ordinary corporations.

Japanese social structures are famously opaque to outsiders and Professor Bestor has done a fabulous job learning about and explaining a fascinating place. And his descriptions are good enough that you can almost smell the fish. There's also a useful guide to to visiting the market at the end of the book.

There's a tiny editing error in that "octopi" isn't the right plural for octopus (p. 10).

Posted: Tue - March 21, 2006 at 08:24   Main   Category: