Asia Program

Events

Book Launch--Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World

September 15, 2004 // 3:30pm5:00pm

Theodore Bestor's new book examines numerous aspects of Tokyo's main fish market, which dates back to the 1630s and is more than seven times larger than the United States' largest fish market in New York. The fish market, Bestor contended, is not only fascinating from a gourmand's perspective—it deals in 400 major varieties of seafood and countless minor varieties—but has much to teach us about Japan's so-called "unfathomable" distribution channels and business culture.

Seafood is big business in Japan. Why does the market remain awkwardly placed in a congested area near Tokyo harbor, when almost all seafood now arrives by truck? (The joke in Tsukiji is that Tokyo's biggest "port" is Narita Airport.) Why hasn't the arcane hand-signal bidding process evolved more quickly in order to maximize efficiency? Bestor highlighted the role of culture and ritual in shaping the way Japan buys and sells one of its central dietary staples.

Bestor points out that small family-owned firms (many dating back generations) do not always behave as economists expect. Or, as he puts it, "The aggregate behavior of a market . . . can be thought of as representing collective rationality. However, these features do not correspond to individual rationality." However, the seafood business is slowly changing in the directions of "just in time" production and more efficient supermarket distribution.

In his extensive comments, Ed Lincoln agreed that economists too often look at markets in terms of inputs and outputs, without comprehending the "black boxes" that represent human economic activity. The person-to-person auctions of the fish market have developed their own intricate mechanisms to handle the mistrust inherent in business dealings. He praised Bestor for putting a "human face" on what is often described in dry economic terms—though he did wish the book contained more numerical analysis to support its conclusions.

Lincoln expressed hope that Bestor would, in his next book, include more comparative studies. For example, are there competitive-auction fish markets in other parts of Asia? On the whole, he praised Bestor's book for its rich contribution to understanding Japan's complex market systems.

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