TSUKIJI: The Fish Market at the Center of the World, by Theodore C. Bestor. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004. 411 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

A superb study about the people, pandemonium and relationships that define the Tsukiji fish marketplace, Theodore C. Bestor’s “Tsukiji” is enriched by more than a decade of ethnographic research on a subject key to an understanding of Japanese food culture and identity. Bestor’s writing conveys an easy familiarity and command of the subject, shifting smoothly from anecdotes and fishwive’s tales to discussion of how the institutions and networks of this marketplace define and are shaped by time, place and culture.

Bestor makes a compelling case for understanding markets as much more than places of supply-and-demand and commodities. He focuses on the participants, their families and the web of practices and institutions that render Tsukiji a vibrant marketplace.

It is a place where families are bound by business and marriage ties, a place where the principle of “buyer beware” is subject to arbitration if a flaw is detected in a fish subsequent to purchase. The warren of stalls arranged in seemingly haphazard fashion is subject to regular rotation so that the best locations are shared. There is a strong preference for sharing risk, promoting equity and dampening divisive competition. And what happens in an auction if two bidders name the same price? Naturally they break the tie with an impromptu round of the child’s game, jan-ken (rock-paper-scissors)!

Readers are reminded that culture is constantly in flux and so thus are the cultural influences on Tsukiji. Here, culture is not some reified, ossified, timeless and unchanging link with an imagined past. Bestor charts the evolution of Tsukiji over time: how food fads and economic, transport, technological and other transformations are accommodated and become part of the “processual fluidity” amid lingering continuities. The people of Tsukiji may see themselves as guardians of a valuable repository of tradition and in some way recognize that they are part of a complex social organization, but they are also making a living and respond accordingly. Alas, time is running out as “Tsukiji traders realize that there is little chance to pass on what is, for them, the real essence of their working selves — their craft, in both its mundane details and its elaborate embellishments of culinary and social tradition — to another generation.”

Fascinating and fun food trivia and lore are sprinkled throughout the text. Why are eels sliced along the belly in Osaka, but along the back in Tokyo? Tokyo had a larger samurai population that considered belly-slicing a bit off-putting. The “tradition” of eating eel on the Day of the Ox as a way to beat the heat is in fact a recent invention, conjured up in an ad campaign. You won’t really want to know why eel traders propitiate the god associated with eyes, but that is here too. Why is it common to eat iwashi (sardines) and maki (rice rolls) on Setsubun (Japanese festival celebrated on Feb. 3)? It’s all about keeping the devil at bay.

The portraits and conversations with people from different echelons of Tsukiji’s hierarchy convey the ambience of this dynamic community and demonstrate that reality is more fascinating than our assumptions. Nodding through an interview about the importance of long-term business relationships, the interviewer and reader are brought up short. Hearing Bestor’s familiar comment about maintaining trust and commitment, the warm and fuzzy ties that bind, the trader “stopped and looked at me quizzically. He shook his head and explained with resigned patience, ‘No, that’s not it. You stick with your established suppliers not because you trust them more, but because you mistrust them less.’ “

Culture matters. Bestor focuses on “the social institutions and cultural meanings that endow Tsukiji with a sense of place, a social identity, a structural order and a historical memory, as well as an economic purpose.” He explains, “For the engines of economic activity, culture is not simply a lubricant or a fuel with higher or lower octane ratings. The hand of culture designs the cylinders and camshafts, turns the key, shifts the gears, unfolds the road maps, and writes the traffic tickets.”

Trends in the food-culture industry are decisive. “Culinary principles and practices stand as a root explanation for many elements of Tsukiji’s trading system, but currents in the political economy of Japanese production and consumption exert influences that, focused through marketplaces like Tsukiji, reshape and redirect the flow of Japanese food culture. The interaction between culinary meaning and the social practices of trade permeates the marketplace.”

The theater of the markets is best viewed during the early morning auctions where the auctioneers stand on small blocks and appear to almost dance and rap as they call out the bids. As Bestor writes, “with voices like chainsaws and staccato hand gestures . . . . They can roar through a dozen lots in only a minute or two . . . . A burst of abbreviated jargon; a blur of waving hands; quick, almost imperceptible gestures; all signify prices asked and offered.”

Readers also learn the arcane rules and relationships of the auctions and the businesses they involve. The author’s practical guide to visiting Tsukiji is thrown in for good measure.

After reading this wonderful and mouth-watering book, going out for sushi will never be the same.

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