Fishing around for a piece of history

“Enjoy it while you can,” says Professor Theodore Bestor of Harvard University. He’s referring partly to Tsukiji’s famous fish market and partly to sushi and to the fact that “some species are at risk of becoming commercially extinct.”

We are meeting to discuss his book “Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World” (University of California Press). The future of Tsukiji fish market, scheduled for a move, is uncertain enough without worrying about the finite resources of the sea. Will there even be enough fish to sell at the new Tsukiji?

Bestor, a leading expert on Tsukiji outside of Japan, is in Tokyo to put the finishing touches on the translated Japanese version of his book, to be published by Kirakusha and scheduled to be on bookshelves in November.

The bespectacled, bearded Bestor is wearing a Hawaiian print shirt to match his easy-going persona when we meet at an izakaya in Roppongi. A circuitous path in Japan eventually led him to Tsukiji. His first trip to Japan, as a high-school student, came when his father, a law professor, was here as a Fulbright scholar. Bestor remembers “walking around the vast complex of Tokyo with ‘no way to access it.’ ”

“I was hooked on Japan,” he said, and this interest became a constant factor in his academic studies, which culminated in a Ph.D. from Stanford in anthropology. As part of his research, he returned to Tokyo to study shitamachi community life in 1975. He and his wife lived in Fukagawa, just north of Monzennakacho, in Koto-ku, and became regulars at a local sushi shop. The chef invited Bestor and his wife, Victoria, to accompany him on a morning run to Tsukiji. Bestor was transfixed.

In the late 1980s, his own Fulbright scholarship brought him back to Tokyo. “My research focused on small family businesses, which eventually brought me back to the intermediate wholesalers located in Tsukiji market,” he said. The market that he had become enchanted with became the stage for an intriguing anthropological case study. His book is a culmination of research done from 1989 to 2003.

“As a foreigner,” he said, “I was at a bit of an advantage, as I could ask shop owners totally naive questions about the market, about sushi, and about Japanese cuisine.” This is when he became a regular face among the frozen tuna and the stevedores navigating their flatbed turrets through narrow aisles and mountains of Styrofoam boxes.

Tsukiji’s market is divided into two parts, the inner market and the outer market.

“The inner market, mostly wholesale, is home to 1,677 stalls and seven auction houses,” he said. “To sell in the inner market the shops must have a license, issued by the Tokyo government. The outer, mostly retail market is filled with 500 businesses, including restaurant suppliers, food shops and some restaurants that rely on the overflow of customers to the inner market, tourists and the local neighborhood.”

History of the market

Old Tokyo was built around the canals and rivers. The city’s original fish market was located at Nihonbashi. The bridge was erected in 1603, and the Nihonbashi Uogashi started operating there soon after, in the 1620s. Following the Kanto earthquake of 1923, the government moved the market to its current location on reclaimed land.

Located where the Sumidagawa spills into Tokyo Bay, “it allowed for boats at sea to come and drop off the days’ catch,” he said.

Many of the current buildings have been in use since 1935 and little has been done to keep the facilities up to standard. Electricity, phones and sanitation are a few of the areas in need of some attention. “The site has become cumbersome for the delivery trucks that now bring over 99 percent of the fish sold at the market,” Bestor said.

State of the art

The government has purchased land for a new market at Toyosu, in neighboring Koto-ku, and has said that it will be ready for occupancy by 2012.

“The shop owners already seem to be showing a fair amount of anxiety as there is little communication regarding the design of the new facilities. There is hope that the new market will preserve the name ‘Tsukiji,’ as it has become an internationally famous ‘brand name.’ “

“While the government is paying for the basic structure in Toyosu, each shop will bear the responsibility of purchasing equipment and hardware that is compatible for the state-of-the-art facilities.”

It is feared that many of the smaller shops will not be able to bear the burden of the costs affiliated with the move and will close their doors with the closing of Tsukiji. Space is guaranteed only for the license owners of shops of the inner market. The loss of the heavy traffic of customers to the inner market after its move may force many shops in the outer market to close down. “Although,” Bestor said, “merchants there are banking on the recent revival of interest in shopping and dining at Tsukiji among ordinary Tokyo residents.”

“In terms of access, the Toyosu site will be (or is supposed to be) well connected to major kosoku-doro (superhighways), and closer to Narita Airport, which is is an important point of entry for high-value overseas fish,” he said. However, it will be a bit trickier to get to for the small-scale restaurants and fishmongers using public transportation.

As for the future of the current location, if Tokyo wins the Olympic bid for 2016, it may be used as the press center.

Bestor’s next book, “Global Sushi,” will examine the world-wide spread of sushi, an icon of what he describes as Japanese “gross national cool,” embedded in the complex and sometimes controversial international trade in seafood. He warns that oceans are not infinite and that there are no simple solutions to overfishing and the effects of pollution on marine ecosystems. The recent oil spill in the Philippines is a prime example of how delicate the ecosystem is.

The daily interactions and interdependence of 50,000 people who buy or sell seafood is what keeps the market, which feeds Metropolitan Tokyo, running. About 2.3 metric tons of seafood are sold each day and, annually, over 2,000 varieties of seafood are represented. Many of the face-to-face interactions that define Tsukiji today will travel to the new location. “The charm of Tsukiji, a fascinating food market, is its connection to Tokyo’s past,” he said.

Bestor’s book demystifies the mystique of one of the greatest markets in the world. We have five more years to enjoy and explore Tsukiji; and with his book in hand there is no better tour guide.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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