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  • Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World
  • Anne Allison
Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. By Theodore Bestor. University of California Press, 2004. 411 pages. Hardcover $60.00/£38.95; softcover $24.95/£15.95.

The central wholesale market of Tsukiji is the world's largest marketplace for fresh, frozen, and processed seafood. Open six days a week and busy from four to ten in the morning, Tsukiji traffics in more than 2.3 million kilograms and 2.1 billion yen (approximately $19.4 million) of seafood everyday. Here, fifty thousand people converge on a daily basis, engaging in everything from small transactions—buying for a local sushi restaurant—to large—purchasing for a large supermarket chain or global wholesaler. Affectionately called Tôkyô no daidokoro (Tokyo's kitchen or pantry), in part because, despite its massive scale, small family firms still play a dominant role in its activities, Tsukiji is also a highly technologized marketplace informed by the latest in information capitalism. With its complex interweavings of the local and global, old and new, traditional and (post)modern, Tsukiji is a rich complex that is more than a market, selling a commodity that is far more than mere food. In the eyes of many, in fact, seafood is the very foundation of not only Japanese cuisine but Japanese culture, a view reinforced by the rising cachet of items like sushi in the global marketplace. To write a book about Tsukiji that does justice to the complexity of an institution at once economic and cultural, domestic and transnational, is a daunting task, and Theodore Bestor is to be congratulated for undertaking and achieving it in this masterly ethnography. In this eminently readable, scholarly, and evocative text, Bestor has captured Tsukiji with a richness that reflects and unpacks that of the marketplace itself and with an immediacy that brings alive the people, transactions, labors, and meals rendering seafood such a major industry and cultural lifeforce in Japan.

Bestor, professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard University, conducted fieldwork on Tsukiji between 1989 and 2003. The research, both multisited and multitiered, encompassed small family-run shops operating at the "street-level," intermediate wholesalers and their connections to retailers, an on-site study of Tsukiji's physical layout and operating procedures (laws, policies, practices), distribution channels for certain kinds of seafood (including whale), fishing ports in the global trade outside Japan (in North America, Korea, and Europe), the history of Japan's seafood industry and its Tokyo marketplaces (including recent and current efforts to move Tsukiji to another location), and pop culture and customary practices that center on food, especially seafood. The scope and orbit of Bestor's ethnographic reach is no less than outstanding. But the lens he used was also quite purposeful: to study the political economy of a marketplace not only as a business but also as a site of/for cultural meanings, social institutions, and national cuisine. In his words: [End Page 288]

. . . this is an ethnography of trade and economic institutions as they are embedded in and shaped by the cultural and social currents of Japanese life, an ethnography of how economies—how markets—are themselves created by the production and circulation of cultural and social capital as well as goods, services, and financial assets.

(p. xvi)

The perspective Bestor takes here structures both the ethnographic push and theoretical approach of the book: that an economic enterprise is multiply determined and determinant—informed by cultural meanings and social institutions it also produces. Bestor studies this at the specific site of Tsukiji (reading into and out of this the wider complex of what he calls Japan's food culture industry) by charting an ethnographic map that proceeds from his own introduction to Tsukiji ("Tokyo's Pantry"), its physical layout and daily transactions ("Grooved Channels"), and history from the seventeenth century to the present ("From Landfill to Marketplace") to Japanese food culture ("The Raw and the Cooked"), three chapters on the social networks and institutions that make Tsukiji run ("Visible Hands," "Family Firms," and "Trading Places"), and a conclusion on present conditions ("Full Circle"). Throughout all this, Bestor is also...


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