All of life between the sea and the sushi

May 6, 2005

Dolores Martinez is hooked by a work that sets local customs in a global net

The Japanese are renowned for their appetite for fish and seafood, and their demand keeps fishermen around the world busy. As Japan's largest fish market, Tsukiji is truly at the centre of a global trade.

This ambitious book, longer and denser than many more recent ethnographic accounts, aims to understand the local within the global using economic theory as its main analytical tool. Theodore Bestor, professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard University, spent 12 years researching this book, which he begins by describing his initial encounter with Tsukiji in 1987.

The book goes on to describe Tsukiji's place in the global fishing industry; its history; how the business is shaped by Japan's food culture and its tradition of small shops working within the keiretsu (vertically integrated conglomerates) system; the processes of doing business; the networks created by the family-owned shops; how the market is physically structured and what the future holds; and a concluding chapter with two appendices including one on visiting Tsukiji.

No other outsider could claim to know the market as well as Bestor. It is clear that although he had the chance to do only brief, intensive bouts of fieldwork, he has read all the pertinent Japanese literature. He has also made time for trips to the various parts of the world that supply Tsukiji - a list of fisheries and trading companies involved in joint ventures with the Japanese is provided.

The strength of the book lies in this familiarity: Bestor demonstrates what can be accomplished with a command of the language, persistent research and an ability to make friends. His enviable achievement is made all the more admirable by his ability to write beautifully about the details that anthropologists call "empirical data" but other people would label "the stuff of life". The most ethnographic chapters of the book are four, five and six, which are vivid and wonderful to read, conveying a real sense of place and people. Chapter four, especially, is a fascinating analysis of how the Japanese appetite for fish has shaped a global fishing industry that caters to local tastes: in its peak year, 1987, the trade in all of Japan's fish markets combined saw 890 million kg of seafood sold. At the heart of this activity was Tsukiji.

Does the book achieve its aim of trying to reinvest a somewhat moribund theoretical terrain, economic anthropology, with new vigour? The task, a daunting one, involves combining economic theory with anthropology - a discipline populated largely by scholars who have trouble with numbers. The understanding of economic theory is not a strength of many anthropologists, who are happier theorising about the subject in a loose, and sometimes vaguely Marxist, way. The global is generally understood as being bad for the local: capitalism is seen as succeeding on the back of slave-like labour in the Third World, while development occurs at the cost of the environment.

Bestor does acknowledge the crises in fisheries all over the world, but he does not grapple with any of these issues, nor does he convince me that he has fully explored the relationship between global economic flows and local embeddedness. For example, Bestor notes that American crab ends up in Tsukiji, but he tells us nothing about how the networks to get it there were established or are maintained: do the owners of the small businesses that populate Tsukiji speak English? Do the Alaskan salesmen speak Japanese? How is payment made? This lacuna in the analysis means that despite the book's many impressive tables outlining sales and the cost of seafood, I am still not sure how Tsukiji has come to be the fish market at the centre of the world - although I believe Bestor when he tells me it is.

The tension is between a book that claims to be about the global but is seduced by the fascination of the local.

Moreover, in its attempt to speak to a broad market - anthropologists, Japan specialists, economists, business scholars, tourists and general readers - there is some repetition: each of the first three chapters reads like a new introduction to the book.

These, however, are minor critiques of what is an important work, which has set the standard for all anthropologists who find that fieldwork has turned into something that can be done only sporadically and piecemeal over the years.

Dolores P. Martinez is senior lecturer in anthropology with reference to Japan, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World

Author - Theodore C. Bestor
Publisher - University of California Press
Pages - 411
Price - £38.95 and £15.95
ISBN - 0 520 22023 4 and 22024 2

to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments