Campus & Community

Fish story

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Anthropologist Bestor looks at globalization and culture through study of sushi market

Anthropologist Theodore Bestor: ‘What interests me is how economic transactions are embedded in social institutions, and how markets are as much about social and cultural trends as they are about “pure” economics.’ (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

If Theodore Bestor had gotten his way when he was 15, he wouldn’t be where he is today.

In 1967 Bestor’s father, a professor of American history, announced to his family that he had been invited for a Fulbright professorship in Tokyo. His son was far from pleased by the news that he would be spending six months in Japan.

“Like any 15-year-old, my first thought was why would I want to do that? I wanted to stay in Seattle with my friends. My parents still claim I had to be dragged to Tokyo kicking and screaming.”

But in Japan, his view of the world changed radically

“I was bowled over by the experience. Here was this huge, complex, bustling modern society that seemed vaguely familiar in many ways, and yet I didn’t have a clue about what made daily life tick. Japanese history, language, values, even popular culture, were approachable but alien. My experiences in Tokyo decentered me as an American teenager.”

Bestor spent those six month exploring the Japanese metropolis.

“Tokyo was a safe city and I roamed around on my own much more than my parents would have let me do in Seattle. For a 15 year-old it was paradise!”

He rode the streetcars and subways, explored different neighborhoods of Tokyo, and came away with his own sense of Tokyo’s cultural vitality. When he got to college, courses in Japanese history and literature helped him to put his experiences in perspective, but he was looking for an academic discipline that could describe and analyze the kinds of experiences that had really caught his attention in Japan.

“When I took an introductory course in anthropology, I realized this was a field that could make sense of the kinds of things that really interested me – the experiences of everyday life.”

Bestor has been looking at Japanese society and culture through anthropological lenses ever since, and has spent about eight years in Japan as student, teacher, and ethnographer. His research focuses on urban anthropology, a field that opened up in the 1970s when he was doing graduate work at Stanford University, as well as the anthropological study of markets, and more recently Japan’s globalization.

This year, Bestor joined the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences as a professor of anthropology and a member of the Reischauer Institute for Japanese Studies.

James L. Watson, the John King and Wilma Cannon Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society and Professor of Anthropology, said, “All of us in the department are delighted to have Ted as a colleague. He’s one of the most sensitive and creative field workers studying Japan, and he’s also a stellar teacher.”

According to Watson, Bestor’s first book, “Neighborhood Tokyo” (Stanford University Press, 1989), which shed light on the social structure and daily goings-on of an ordinary neighborhood in central Tokyo, “established a whole new paradigm for urban studies. It’s become a model of how to do urban ethnography.”

Watson predicted that Bestor’s current work, which looks at the international fishing industry from both an economic and cultural perspective, “will be a major breakthrough in the study of globalization.”

History Professor Andrew Gordon, who has studied relations between labor and management in contemporary Japan, said that Bestor’s early work “has been very important for giving people a better understanding of urban life in Japan,” while his later work “connects the local with the global in a really fresh and important way.”

Bestor’s research for “Neighborhood Tokyo” involved spending countless hours getting to know the residents of Miyamoto-cho. The result is an ethnographic study that explores the fabric of neighborhood daily life, informal ties, local institutions like the PTA and the volunteer fire department, and the annual neighborhood festival.

The book examines how local traditions and institutions have been invented and reinvented during the past century, and how a community fits into the narrative structures of contemporary Japanese culture.

“Neighborhood Tokyo” won the Arisawa Prize for Japanese Studies from the American Association of University Presses and the Robert E. Park Award for Urban Studies from the American Sociological Association.

Sushi goes global

In his next project, Bestor looked at the economic significance of family firms and their roles in the complex and sometimes controversial distribution channels that characterize Japan’s domestic economy.

This interest led him to look at a very different aspect of Tokyo life – the Tsukiji wholesale fish market. Tsukiji, the largest seafood market in the world, does about $6 billion worth of business each year buying and selling Tokyo’s supply of seafood, and much of the business flows through several thousand small, family-owned businesses, some of them many generations old.

At Tsukiji, Bestor carried out extended fieldwork on how the market is organized, the evolution of trading practices over the past two centuries, and the market’s impact on contemporary food culture.

“What interests me is how economic transactions are embedded in social institutions, and how markets are as much about social and cultural trends as they are about ‘pure’ economics.”

As he observed Tsukiji’s daily auctions where octopus from Senegal, salmon from Norway, eel from Guangzhou, and urchin from Maine change hands in the blink of an eye – Bestor began to focus his attention on the global commodity chains that supply the market.

He zeroed in on the mighty bluefin tuna. Running on average between 300 and 600 pounds, bluefin tuna, with their deep red meaty flesh, are in great demand for sushi. Because Japanese fishermen can no longer satisfy the nation’s appetite for premium tuna, Japanese markets reach throughout the world.

Bestor’s research has taken him to New England fishing docks to interview American fishermen and the Japanese buyers who bid on freshly caught tuna, which are then flown to Japan in ice-filled “tuna coffins.” A tuna caught on Monday may be auctioned on Wednesday or Thursday at Tsukiji, Bestor said.

His work focused on the social institutions that link fishing ports around the Atlantic and the Pacific to markets in Tokyo and how commodity chains take shape and adapt to social, economic, and cultural changes on a global scale.

While pursuing his research into the international tuna market, he began to look more closely at sushi itself.

“Sushi has become an icon of Japanese culture, but it has also become an icon of globalization,” Bestor said.

Now available in suburban malls and supermarkets alongside other once-unfamiliar foods like bagels, pirogis, and pizza, sushi’s path into American tastes is unusual.

“Most foreign cuisines started out in immigrant communities. Sushi and Japanese food in general found their way into mainstream society from the top-down, through international travel and business in the 1960s and 1970s,” he said.

His ethnographic sites are now focused on Harvard Yard. “I’m teaching introductory anthropology this semester and have sent my students out to do mini-ethnographies of everyday life in and around campus. I want them to get a feel for how anthropologists make analytic sense of everyday experiences, whether it’s dining hall rituals, dating patterns, or street life in the Square. Plus, it gives them a chance to teach me what their Harvard is about.”

Before coming to Harvard, Bestor taught at Cornell University, where he was professor (1997-2001) and associate professor (1993-97) of anthropology and Asian studies, acting chair of the department of anthropology (1998-1999), and acting director of the East Asian program (1995-96).

During Fall 1999, Bestor was the Edwin O. Reischauer Visiting Professor of Japanese Studies and Anthropology at Harvard, and he spent 1997-98 as visiting professor at the Kyoto Center for Japanese Studies. From 1986 to 1993, he was on the faculty of Columbia University. He served as the director of the Japanese and Korean Studies programs at the Social Science Research Council from 1983 to 1986.

Bestor has just begun a term as the first president of the East Asian Section of the American Anthropological Association, a new organization that he helped to found. He is also a past president of the Society for Urban Anthropology.

Bestor received his Ph.D. (1983) and A.M. (1977) in anthropology, and an A.M. in East Asian studies (1976), all from Stanford University. He received his B.A. in anthropology, Japanese studies, and linguistics in 1973 from Fairhaven College of Western Washington University.

His books include “Neighborhood Tokyo” (Stanford University Press, 1989); “Tokyo’s Marketplace: Culture and Trade in the Tsukiji Wholesale Market” (University of California Press, forthcoming); “Doing Fieldwork in Japan,” edited with Patricia Steinhoff and Victoria Lyon Bestor (University of Hawai’i Press, forthcoming); and “Global Sushi: Commodity, Environment, and Consumption in the Transnational Tuna Trade” (in preparation).