Tsukiji, Tokyo's huge world-famous fish market, is a major attraction for foreign tourists to Japan, which is odd since there's not much for a tourist to look at or to buy. (Would you take home a kilo of fresh tuna?) There aren't any guided tours either. Yet the market is described as a must-see in most tourist books, and this in a city that has next to nothing in terms of tourist attractions. But perhaps this makes sense; Tokyo is a place where one can be and do rather than look and marvel, and the Tsukiji market is exactly that.
Tsukiji is almost nothing to look at but walk in and its people have things to do and places to go. The marketplace's grimy aging rows of cramped wet stalls house a teeming population of busy auctioneers, stevedores, and customers. Theodore Bestor's book brings it all to life and goes further by analysing in depth several aspects of the market.
After justifying Tsukiji (chapter 1) as a fit study for an anthropologist to pursue, Bestor gives us a thorough description of the key aspects of the Tsukiji marketplace: Tsukiji's neighbourhood, its (in the 1930s) avant-guarde form-follows-function layout (chapter 2); it's history (chapter 3); the importance of food culture in Japan and Tsukiji's lead-and-follow role in it (chapter 4); an economic analysis the value Tsukiji adds to the production chain (chapter 5); a true anthropological study of Tsukiji's society (chapter 6); a description of the mechanics of Tsukiji's auctions (chapter 7). At the end (chapter 8) Bestor peers a little into the future and reflects on Tokyo's changing landscape and the effects and likelihood of moving Tsukiji to a new location.
I originally intended to give Tsukiji only four stars because of a few drawbacks, but decided that this would have been churlish given how much I loved it. But here are a few warnings. Chapter 1 for instance is really meant for anthropologists who might question the study as legitimate anthropology; this chapter could have been shortened and included as a preface instead. Also, some of the material will confuse people who have never traveled to Japan. For instance while Bestor does point out that Japanese households buy their food daily, he doesn't dramatize it much. A section on how a typical Tokyo family spends a typical weekday from dawn to dusk, with a description of the children's lunch box, the husband's favourite eatery, and the wife's shopping would have helped the chapter on food culture.
But these are quibbles. Readers who live or visit Japan will love this book, readers who don't will need to work a little harder at visualizing some of it. And it is rewarding. "Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World" is a tightly focused study of one particular aspect of Japan; it will give readers a more intimate look than would a more general book on all of Japan.
All in all, highly recommended!