25 Books to Read Before You Die

Reviews From


Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, January 23rd, 2005


Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World

by Theodore C Bestor

Below the Nose

A review by Murray Sayle

Pronounced approximately as a clipped "tsoo-kee-gee", Tsukiji translates from the Japanese as "man-made land" or, even more prosaically, "landfill". To Japanese ears, however, the name resonates with meanings. Tsukiji is Tokyo's central fish market, and as such the acknowledged birthplace of sushi, Japan's unique contribution to our global banquet. In some styles, sushi is by far the world's most expensive dish, evoking for Japanese ideas of luxury beyond imagining, with the inevitable dark suspicions about how astronomical prices are achieved. Tsukiji is not only the busiest fish market on our watery planet, but the hub of a world-wide, Japanese-controlled collection system, always a source of pride to ambitious Orientals. As an island of tradition in a country modernizing beyond recognition, Tsukiji has become a cultural battleground, a focus of anxiety about where Japan may be heading. Partly in consequence, Tsukiji has become an improbable prime-time tele-vision location, in Japan and, increasingly, abroad. What happens in Tsukiji, in short, tells us much about today's Japan.

Tsukiji is a close-knit commercial community. Many of the auctions are conducted in codes impenetrable even to insiders. Family and business connections go back generations. Ancient and modern mingle, calling for wide knowledge. Tanks of live eels, for instance, are daily jetted into Narita, Tokyo's main airport, by a marvel of technology, but Tsukiji's live eel dealers also make a yearly pilgrimage to a distant Shinto shrine to pray for higher prices and, perhaps, nudge them along. Tsukiji is thus a promising field for the relatively new discipline of urban anthropology. But the primary fish auctions start around 3 am, six days a week, in freezing conditions (the buyers wear divers' wetsuits to keep warm). Like most of traditional Japan, Tsukiji floats on a sea of beer and sake, and social science doctorates do not necessarily come with an iron head. Only Japanese is spoken, with much arcane slang peculiar to the market. Floors are wet and wellingtons de rigueur. Fortunately for us stayabeds, Tsukiji has now found its definitive chronicler in Theodore C. ("Ted-san", in the market) Bestor, professor of anthropology and Japanese studies at Harvard, bearded, burly and just the man (Tsukiji is a bastion of Japanese male chauvinism) for a heroic task by which, due to his painstaking scholarship, we can get an understanding of Tsukiji, and of modern Japan, without losing a single night's sleep.

The idea of an observer who studies human activity close up without being a participant is not itself new. Margaret Mead came of age, not in Samoa, but in Manhattan. Adam Smith never closed a deal in his life, but drew his picture of market mores by talking to Glasgow tobacco merchants, notably single-minded men of business. Friedrich Engels was inspired to write The Condition of the Working Class in England not by belonging to it but by sleeping with Mary Burns, an Irish girl working in his Manchester cotton mill, and later with her sister Lizzy, whom he married in a deathbed concession to (her) bourgeois morality. In all these cases the writer had a thesis to propose, or axe to grind, and their objectivity was later challenged by rival theorists. The new approach, made possible by academic or foundation funding, omits the thesis and presents only the observed facts, although any choice of facts itself implies some judgement. In one direction the new anthropology shades off into economics, the study of men and women about their everyday affairs; in another, into history, the matrix of all human conduct, acknowledged or not. Bestor leans more towards history, appropriately as Tsujiki is, or is seen to be, a contest between old and new Japan, and (although Bestor, with scholarly self-discipline, does not say so) of a universal principle, success congealing into stagnation and, ultimately, into failure.

Like bacon, brawn and biltong, sushi began as a means of delaying the putrefaction of all perishable foodstuffs. Japan is washed by some of the world's richest fishing waters, and rice is the only abundant cereal. Perhaps a millennium ago (or the idea may have come from South China) someone discovered that a raw fish buried in cooked rice set up a fermentation which preserved the fish, although it turned the rice into vinegary slush. This unappetizing (even to most modern Japanese) mess is available as a souvenir in various parts of Japan, which is now, like Victorian Britain, seeing a revival of traditions, often spurious, as talismans against rapid changes no one can see the end of. The infrastructure, however, only came into being in 1603 when Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa set up his new capital in swampy ground behind the village of Edo, at the head of Tokyo Bay, itself in those pre-pollution days a very fishy body of water. Shogun Tokugawa laid out as his future residence the biggest castle in the world, named Edo after the original fishing village, defended by a system of moats and canals leading from the bay and the seas beyond. His grandson Iemitsu Tokugawa improved security by compelling regional dignitaries to reside in his new capital, under the eyes of the shoguns' police. Partial, like all Japanese, to a nice piece of fish, he had inadvertently created a system which put his successors and their conscript courtiers within a short barge delivery run from a deep-water fishing fleet ready to satisfy their every yen -- at a price.

With an eye to maximizing taxes, the shoguns ordered all fish to be sold through the central market they set up at Nihonbashi, "Japan Bridge", where their new road network crossed the main canal leading to Edo Castle. Nihonbashi Market was soon surrounded by restaurants (the first in Japan not devoted to the needs of travellers) and it was in one of these that sushi, as we know it, was perfected in the late 1820s. The name of the culinary Columbus, Yohei Hanaya, deserves to be remembered, and it is, in the many Tokyo sushi shops that work Yohei into their signs to suggest spiritual descent from the master. Hanaya called his invention "squeezed sushi": the familiar pat of vinegared rice spiked with horseradish (originally intended to mask fish going off, retained as a sharp seasoning) topped with a slice of raw tuna, some other fish, or shellfish in colourful variety. As most of his customers were either samurai or merchants aping samurai ways, Hanaya's shop adopted military manners, bright lights, brisk service and shouted orders, and laid down the rule also observed to this day (and supported by no medical evidence whatever): women's hands are supposedly warmer than men's, and might taint the pristine freshness of raw fish if allowed to perform the critical squeezing or shaping, although sushi waitresses and female cashiers are decorative and do not pollute ready money.

With its aura of raffish high living, sushi Edomae -- "in front of Edo" -- style was soon the rage of the shoguns' capital. "Only three businesses in Edo take a thousand gold ryo (perhaps 1 million pounds sterling) a day," says a still-surviving saw: "Above the nose" (the eyes, at the kabuki theatre), "below the nose" (sushi), and "below the waist" (the Yoshiwara brothel district, renamed "Turkish Baths" and then, when the Turkish government objected, "Soaplands"). With hostess bars replacing kabuki, these are still pretty much the Japanese idea of a boys' night out. So much did the fish merchants of Nihonbashi prosper that they turned out, yard-long slicing knives in hand, to defend their privileges when the last of the shoguns was replaced by Emperor Meiji in 1868, and Edo became Tokyo ("Eastern Capital"). The new order, however, was remarkably like the old. Nihonbashi market continued to supply free-spending gourmets, an aristocratic clientele were still claimed, and the whole market was thought to be somehow under royal patronage, a Harrods Food Hall of the East.

The Japan Bridge is still there, in replica, sandwiched between a fetid canal below and a thundering expressway above. The fish market might still be there, too, but it was burned to the water's edge in the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923. Some stubborn merchants tried to carry on in sheds and shacks but, like Billingsgate and Les Halles in Paris, the time had come to move on -not far, as the new Tsukiji market is only a couple of miles down the same canal where it runs into the Sumida River and thence to Tokyo Bay. The haggling was long and hard, but by 1935 the new Tokyo Fish Market was ready for business. Japanese welcome foreign ideas consonant with their own traditions, and Tsukiji, as it still stands, is an enormous steel and glass fan in the Bauhaus form-follows- function style then fashionable in Germany before the Nazis had denounced it as non- Aryan, intended to be served by trains, barges and fishing-boats. Less visibly, most of the customs and connections of the old fish market moved as well, and it is on these that Bestor concentrates.

Tsukiji has changed little internally since 1935, to look at hardly at all, but transport technology and the society it serves have been transformed, especially by Japan's bubble of the 1980s. The last train left Tsukiji in 1986 and the tracks have been torn up. Industrialized Tokyo Bay is now all but fish-free, and deep-water fleets are too expensive for delivery runs. Only one or two boats now dock at Tsukiji; on some days none. Instead, fish arrives via Narita Airport, in value the world's biggest fish landing, or by giant refrigerated trucks which deliver fish in a day's drive over the fast (and expensive) Japanese motorways from any major Japanese port. These juggernauts would bring central Tokyo to a halt except that they time their arrivals for 3 am, thundering through a city in which (with its contiguous suburbs) 25 million hard-working people are trying to get some sleep. Once again, say urban planners, it's time to move on. But where to? The only site on offer is another piece of reclaimed land, two artificial islands further out into Tokyo Bay that once belonged to the Tokyo Gas Corporation. No one at Tsukiji wants to move. What will become, old hands wail, of the cosy sushi bars, Tokyo's last active corps of rickshaw-riding geisha, or Tsukiji's forbiddingly expensive private restaurants where politicians and bureaucrats meet to plot? Unlike Nihonbashi's, they say, Tsujiki's mystique will not transfer to a bare wind-whipped island no one else wants.

Bestor's chilly research discloses a deeper disquiet. By the early 1980s some 90 per cent of Japanese claimed to be middle class, meaning in a Japanese context aspiring to a modernized version of the admired samurai lifestyle, including comfortable homes, elaborate funerals, educating their children for a non manual business or bureaucratic career, what Japanese call a "salaryman" -and enjoying the samurai delicacy, sushi. All this takes a lot of money, and an only child can single-handedly continue the family name and tradition. The result is Japan's informal one-child-per-family policy and a chronic shortage of young Japanese ready to enter laborious apprenticeships, take dull, dirty or dangerous jobs, or submerge personal ambitions in those of a group. The paradox of luxury for mass consumption has, predictably, struck Japan. As it becomes more plentiful, cheap luxury generates a lust for ever more authentic luxury, only to be achieved by skilled hand work that the newly rich are keen to consume, but not to do themselves.

Tsukiji plays up its snobbish image by supporting children's comics glorifying its traditions, welcoming visitors, even foreigners, and staging such made-for-television PR events as the auction in 2001 of the first tuna of the new millennium, netted off Japan, whose 204 kilos went for 100,000 a kilo or, trimmed and sliced, a cool Pounds 1,020 per pound. Meanwhile, internally, Tsukiji is breaking down. Fewer and fewer young men will sign on for a six-year sushi apprenticeship of which the first two years are spent learning to boil a perfect rice and sharpen slicing knives. Heirs and heiresses of family businesses yearn for "love marriages", not those arranged to bring together two hereditary stalls in a fish market. Trendy young Japanese men scorn the drudgery of manhandling frozen fish over the slippery floors of a building that was modern seventy years ago. Many Tsukiji porters (some say half) are now Chinese, illegally smuggled in by "snakehead" gangs from the People's Republic, with debts to repay and no respect for Japanese traditions. In all this we can see a metaphor for Japan's general stagnation, the end of a unique combination of high technology, company loyalty, group-enforced pride in craftsmanship. Bestor's landmark work will not need to be repeated for a generation, perhaps ever, so much has he discovered lurking unsuspected behind the price of fish.

Murray Sayle lives in Japan and often escorts visiting gourmets to Tsukiji.

Thinking of subscribing to the TLS? Well, in the words of George Steiner,"it is unique and indispensable."

click here for subcription info. What sets the TLS apart from other literary magazines is not just the quality but the range of its coverage. In every weekly issue, you will find in-depth comment on 40-50 books, with reviews and essays on every subject from Anthropology to Zoology, and a section devoted to film, theatre, opera and the visual arts.

We also publish the best of contemporary poetry and short stories by leading writers. In fact, there's not much that matters in the world of literature, scholarship and the arts that you can't find in our pages — and all of it written by the leading minds and the best writers of our time.

To receive a free issue of the TLS please click here.
To save 43% off subscription rates click here.

  • back to top
Follow us on...

Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.