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  • Placing EdomaeThe Changing Environmental Relations of Tokyo’s Early Modern Fishery
  • Roderick I. Wilson (bio)

The term Edomae conjures up many images in Japan today. Waves rushing over sandy beaches or crashing into jagged shoreline rocks. Trawlers hauling in nets that are spitting out seawater and bursting with silvery-blue bodies of mackerel, sardines, or pacific saury. Fishermen wearing weathered faces, whiskers, and bright clothes. The Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo bustling in the early morning with forklifts and carts laden with white Styrofoam boxes full of iced seaweed, shellfish, shrimp, and fish. A chef quietly serving nigiri-style sushi with slices of delicate sea bream, boiled octopus, or fatty tuna atop vinegared and pressed balls of rice to a customer sitting in one of the restaurant’s ten chairs. Edomae is embodied by all of these things, and it is also a specific place.

Literally meaning “in front” (mae) of “Edo,” Edomae came to refer specifically to the shallow waters of the bay closest to Edo (now Tokyo) in the eighteenth century. Then by the early nineteenth century, Edomae, reflecting the city’s intimate connection to these waters, also became synonymous with the verve and vigor of Edo’s Low Town (Shitamachi)—its boat pilots and fishers, fish merchants, and fish markets; its homegrown seafood cuisine, especially tempura, eel broiled in the kabayaki style, and nigiri-style sushi; and the urbane culture of the Edokko (Edo native). While the term Edomae continued to express these multiple nuances into the early twentieth century, over time it grew to embody Edo’s local culture and fishery as well as the increasingly [End Page 242] distant fishing communities and previously uncommon varieties of fresh fish and shellfish like tuna and abalone. More recently, in 2005 the Fisheries Agency of Japan conceded to the desire of seafood companies and the region’s fish cooperatives to brand this well-known term by defining Edomae as encompassing the whole of Tokyo Bay from the Miura Peninsula to the Susaki Cape on the Bōsō Peninsula.1 Therefore, today, all fish and shellfish harvested within these waters can be marketed under the label Edomae.

As these different dimensions and definitions suggest, placing Edomae is more than an exercise in historical mapmaking. It is an effort at identifying and tracing the changing relations that shaped and constituted the place identified at different times as Edomae. In what follows, I begin by placing this history of Edomae within the secondary literature, before exploring the nexus of local and regional environmental relations to show how they contributed to the emergence of Edomae as a local toponym in the eighteenth century and to a brand-worthy term of national recognition by the late nineteenth century. In the next section, I argue that it was Edo’s growth to over 1 million people by the 1720s and its concomitant commercialization and expanding appetite for hitherto unavailable varieties of fresh fish and shellfish that effectively extended Edomae to encompass the whole of what is today called Tokyo Bay. In the final section, I focus on Shibaura, a fishing community in southern Edo, to demonstrate that it was the city’s continued urban and commercial growth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that led to a twofold transformation of Edomae. On one level, the city’s growing appetite for fish and shellfish continued to draw the bay into the city and extend the city into the nearby sea and countryside, in effect generating the regional relations that came increasingly to define and sustain Edomae. On another level, the environmental relations of the local fishery changed with increased competition and declining catches in the original Edomae fishery as fishers found it increasingly difficult to earn a living in the waters closest to Edo.2 Thus, even as Edomae remained most deeply identified with a specific locale, it also came to embody a tangle of region-wide environmental relations. Moreover, by focusing on the waters, fishers, and other creatures of the bay, I offer an environmental history from below—one that ultimately emerged from the bay to shape the eating habits of one of the world’s largest cities. [End Page 243]



Additional Information

pp. 242-289
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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