How sushi went global


Date: 2000

Author: Theodore Bestor

Type: academic/popular journal article.

Full reference: Theodore Bestor (2000) How sushi went global. Foreign Policy November/December, 54-63

Availability: text free online here and here, and original paper with photos here.

Page reference: Hoffman, O. & Teich, E. (2012) How sushi went global. ( last accessed <insert date here>)

Lego re-creations

[click photos for text]


Theodore Bestor shows the global integrations between the west and non-west through the example of food. The Japanese fish market has exploded to provide Sushi to not only their nation but the western world (Source: Steve 2012 np link).

[Bestor] presents bluefin tuna as a case study in globalization. It shows that the tuna trade is a prime example of the globalization of a regional industry, with intense international competition and thorny environmental regulations; centuries-old practices combined with high technology; realignments of labour and capital in response to international regulation; shifting markets; and the diffusion of culinary culture as tastes for sushi, and bluefin tuna, spread worldwide (Anon nd np link).

In a seemingly “dis-placed” world of the global circulation of capital, commerce, and culture, [Bestor] examines the reconfigurations of spatially and temporally dispersed relationships within the international seafood trade. By focusing on sushi-quality tuna, Bestor is able to trace the commodity chains, trade centers, and markets that make up this global space. He argues that market and place are not disconnected through the globalization of economic activity, but reconnected generating spatially discontinuous urban hierarchies. The various dimensions of the tuna commodity chain, the social relationships of markets, marketplaces, and distribution circuits create global space. Responding to critiques of the (fieldwork) “sites” of anthropology, Bestor crafts an ethnography that captures the complexities of capital flows and globalization in material spaces and real time (Source: Low & Lawrence-Zunigais 2003a p.26).

Ted Bestor uses a multisited ethnographic approach to link the global flows of sushi-quality tuna through commodity chains, trade centers, and markets that result in spatially discontinuous urban hierarchies (Source: Low & Lawrence-Zunigais 2003b p.299).

[Bestor’s article] addresses commodity chains as vehicles through which producers and consumers interact to create new relationships across economic, geographic, and political boundaries (Source: Watson & Caldwell 2005 p.11).

[Bestor’s article] basically discusses the globalization affect in terms of tuna sales from New England to Japan. The author goes on to tell about how the emergence of sushi in America helped to boost tuna sales in Japan, and then later sales in America. There is a huge market for tuna in Japan, which means that new connections and relationships have been formed by fishermen, retailers and governments from all over the world. These countries did this so that they could essentially cash in on the gold rush of tuna (Source: Othay919 2012 np link).

Bestor explains how Japanese consumers are linked in a symbiotic relationship of needs and expectations with New England fishermen. By tracing the global paths of Atlantic sushi-grade tuna … [Bestor] provides vivid, down-to-earth visions of the global system. A secondary theme that emerges in this article is the creation of “value,” as Japanese buyers judge fish by standards that mystify American producers (Source: Watson and Caldwell 2005 p.11).

Theodore C. Bestor opens his article by painting a scene that represents the globalization of bluefin tuna: there is a tub of the tuna on ice in Bath, Maine, and potential buyers crowd around from New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Japan. The potential buyers extract samples of the tuna to examine their color, and they also assess the fat content of the precious fish; Japanese buyers then return to their cars to call Japan to get the morning prices from Tokyo’s Tsukiji market – apparently "the fishing industry’s answer to Wall Street" (p.13). After the auction bids are settled in a private manner, the bluefin tuna are then placed in their “tuna coffins” to be airfreighted to Tokyo for sale. In this sense, Bestor seems to maintain that sashimi-grade tuna offers new venues for capital to issue on a global scale; the tuna trade and increasing global appetite for sushi features "intense international competition and thorny environmental regulations, centuries-old practices combined with high technology, realignments of labor and capital in response to international regulation, shifting markets, and the diffusion of culinary culture" (p.14). The author is quite quick to correct popular thinking when he maintains that, while North Americans tend to think of cultural influence as flowing from West to East, Japanese culture and materials have undoubtedly permeated the cultural whims of many, if not most, North American citizens. Such a permeation occurred after the 1970s, when Americans, according to Bestor, "rejected red-meat American fare in favor of healthy cuisine like rice, fish, and vegetables. The appeal of the high-concept aesthetics of Japanese design also helped to prepare the world for a sushi fad" (p.15). Indeed, sushi seems to be offered at every popular restaurant in an attempt to lure in customers and, consequently, profit. Even though international environmental campaigns have forced countries like Japan to scale back their distant water fleets and thus made Japan’s turning to foreign suppliers unavoidable, Japanese cultural control of sushi remains, according to Bestor, unquestioned. Nevertheless, the very rapid globalization of the market involving bluefin tuna has awoken many problems of concern to the minds of fishers in terms of their relationships with their customers, governments and their regulations, and staunch environmentalists (among many other apparent hardships). In terms of contact, Bestor refers to Spanish waters to prove his point; while the workers in Spanish waters are mostly Spanish, almost every other aspect of such fishing is part of a global flow of techniques and capital: aquacultural techniques are developed in Australia and vitamin supplements are sent from European pharmaceutical giants (p.17). In addition, Japanese technicians and fishery scientists develop target market prices that dictate the livelihood of fishermen in local communities and local economies. Bestor maintains, furthermore, that such competition dictates the welfare of local farmers and fisheries that must compete with giant fishing cartels. While fishers are "forced to struggle with unfamiliar exchange rates for cultural capital that compounds in foreign currency," they return season after season and remain privy to the whims of Japan (p.19). In this sense, Japan certainly seems to assert itself as a superpower in the globalized bluefin tuna industry and thus gives Japan a forceful ruling power in the dictation of the livelihood of many fishers (Source: Bacher 2012 np link).

This article discusses the recent transformation of the sushi industry over the last few decades and how it has gone from a traditional element of Japanese custom and cuisine to a far-reaching status cuisine. Due to advances in technology and increasing efficiency within transatlantic trade in respect to food, sushi has become a dietary staple in most parts of the Western world. This transition has had a dramatic effect on the fishing industries of other nations, including our own, as sushi has increased in demand. In fact, the success of sushi fishing has come to influence how fishing around the world is done. Its rise as a status symbol and its overwhelming demand has shifted even America's fishing focus toward tuna, something Bestor mentions was barely suitable for cat food a few decades earlier. Even as Japan's economy and their demand for sushi stalled at the height of sushi exports, Americans picked up the slack and embraced it as a symbol of status. It didn't matter that the Japanese cuisine wasn't really from Japan or if it wasn't really cooked or prepared by the Japanese chefs; as long as Americans and other Westerners thought that they were indulging in a delicacy, they were willing to pay premium prices even for inferior product as they could not tell the difference in some cases. Bestor describes this as Japan's "ability to transform trash into treasure around the world” (Source: Geezer 2012 np link).

In spite of the undeniable benefits of globalization that accrue to Japan, including those of what Bestor calls “global sushi,” many argue that the worldwide effects of globalization may be devastating and that market forces may lead to increasing polarization of rich and poor countries. Bestor sees things differently. Rather than viewing the global sushi trade as the inevitable working out of market forces, Bestor draws on the insights of economic anthropology and sociology, which emphasize the cultural and social embeddedness of economic processes and institutions. He draws especially on the work of Mark Granovetter, who argues that “economic activity is firmly embedded in wider structures of social life.” Granovetter’s perspective is based on three interrelated propositions: “that economic action is a form of social action, that economic action takes place in social contexts, and that economic institutions are socially constructed.” This emphasis on social context powerfully shapes Bestor’s analysis of Tsukiji and the broader networks of the global sushi trade. It also suggests that in looking at and assessing globalization, in general, and global sushi, in particular, we need to consider social and cultural contexts of economic processes (Source: Carroll 2008 p.453 link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

In my general work on global sushi I’m pursuing three themes: -Outward reach of Japanese markets and consumer demand for high quality seafood - Growth of foreign fishing industries that serve Japanese markets and the trade channels thus created -The global sushi boom - both within Japan and abroad - now part of Japan’s “Gross National Cool” (Source: Bestor 2009 np link).

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. … 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 (Source: Gewertz 2001 np link).

In his study of Tsukiji [fish market], Bestor explains that he and his wife were living in Tokyo in 1975 studying Japanese. After eyeing a nearby sushi shop for several days they finally, and with some trepidation, entered it. They were warmly welcomed and soon became regular customers. The Bestors gradually learned more about sushi and “glimpsed an easygoing social milieu where home and workplace often overlapped and where social networks easily cut across household, occupation and neighborhood.” They also started learning about seasonal changes in the availability of types of fish and the different regions in Japan that yielded specific species of fish, and they “discovered – to our surprise – that some of the fresh seafood before our eyes was from the United States, Canada, or Southeast Asia.” Learning of the global networks of the fish trade eventually led Bestor to Tsukiji and later to what he calls “inquisitive observation” to study the market and the nexus of global networks that it anchors (Source: Carroll 2008 p.452 link).

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 (Source: Gewertz 2001 np link).

Discussion / Responses

In “How Sushi Went Global”, Japan provides the perfect example of another food type that was not expected to do well abroad. It has since become a favorite part of the American cuisine, from sushi bars to sushi to-go sections in airports. Once again, however, America has not been asked to give up any part of our own culture in order to let sushi in (Source: Brianna 2009 np link).

Americans have often thought of themselves as a melting pot and the most likely to celebrate the cuisine and ways of life of other cultures in a way to show how well-rounded we think we are, but like with a lot of other fraudulent culinary practices, we are paying for what we think is an experience but half the time is nothing more than a bastardized concoction (Source: Geezer 2012 np link).

This article was very interesting to me and relevant since lately I have noticed the increasing trend in how popular sushi has gotten. It was interesting to see how globalization works especially with a cuisine that I enjoy. One thing that the article pointed out that I found to be true is that Americans tend to think that globalization only works one way, with things like Disney spreading to Japan, but we don't realize that it actually spreads our way as well with things like Pokemon, Nintendo and Sushi (Source: Vining 2012 np link).

I thought this article was very interesting because I have seen how popular sushi has gotten in the past couple of years. Although I do not like sushi, I have many friends who love it and eat it on a regular basis. It is also interesting to see a way that Japan has influenced us here in the US. As Americans, we tend to think that our cultural ideals have helped in Westernizing Japan. We have seen McDonalds and American music become popular in Japan, but we do not think of how Japan could possibly have an influence on us, but with sushi they have done exactly that. Also, it was cool to see at the beginning of the article that the way the tuna is sold is so old fashioned: you show up at the market, you place a bid, you buy a fish. This was just cool to see because I am used to a world where everything business related involves technology (Source: Paige 2012 np link).

I'm not much of a sushi fan, but I do like seafood ... anyways I thought it was interesting to see how tuna spread over from Japan to the rest of the globe. What I found particularly interesting was the claim that most Americans see globalization as a West-to-East movement, that America is the export of globalization and other cultures want a piece of American culture. It's also interesting to read that as sushi became more popular in the U.S., it was the classy and "culturally educated" that was targeted by the market (Source: swansee 2012 np link).

It was kind of neat to see how sushi spread across the globe. I didn't realize really how much fishing was done for sushi before this, or really how big of an industry it was. I have also noticed the prestige associated with Japanese food in general and the tendency to at least fake Japanese chefs at such places to draw in customers (Source: Owens 2012 np link).

Theodore Bestor also sees the overwhelming attraction of a free market in his analysis of the commoditization of Japanese culture through sushi. Even though Japan remains the largest consumer of Bluefin tuna, the skyrocket in the global demand has produced a number of economic opportunities both in Japan and elsewhere, from the Mediterranean to Massachusetts. It has also elevated the popular perceptions of Japanese culture. Bestor writes, “Globalization doesn’t necessarily homogenize cultural differences nor erase the salience of cultural labels. Quite the contrary, it grows the franchise” (112) (Source: Laura K 2012 np link).

Prior to reading this article, I was unaware that the tuna market in the Untied States was so heavily controlled by Japanese pricing and trends. It is hard for me to picture tough New England fishermen relying so heavily on Japanese businessman for their livelihood, but I guess capitalism makes for strange bedfellows. I find it interesting that, although the market for tuna is globalized and the prices are controlled by one major nation, the techniques and strategies for catching and raising the fish vary from culture to culture. I would have assumed that, with such a valuable commodity, fishermen around the world would have quickly determined which methods were most effective and quickly put those methods into practice globally. However, the continuing practice of many different fishing techniques shows how traditional aspects of particular cultures can remain and thrive even in a connected, global economy (Source: Bowen 2012 np link).

Globalization is a very interesting and intimidating thing. One small's country's demand for a certain fish raising prices and demand all over the globe is not something I am excited about. As well, bluefin tuna are quickly approaching extinction due to overfishing and the destruction of habitats, mating areas, and fisherman exploiting migration routes. Why was that not addressed in the article? How is the extinction of an species of fish less important than the global demand for sushi? (Source: Dalton 2012 np link).

I’ve found it difficult to find many multilocale ethnographic food studies which illustrate relations between producers and consumers. Ted Bestor’s tuna study stops at the quayside (Source: Cook et al 2006 p.655).

Outcomes / impacts

The more I read Bestor’s article, the more I understood what a network was and how hybridized it can be. It is amazing how a company on one part of the globe can rely so much on the manual labor of another industry from the opposite part of the world (Source: Cassell 2012 np link).

[Bestor] shows how Japan basically went global and embedded sushi into our culture. I personally am not offended by this because I am still me and am still my own religion but I enjoy eating Japanese food. Like what Dr. Schnell said as well “people enjoy eating other food” because it is new outgoing (Source: Travis 2012 np link).

I agree with you about how change isn't a bad thing. I also love sushi and don't feel like it's changing my culture in any way. It's just there as an experience to be had. But that is right now. What about in the future? In 100 years, if there are still sushi places and McDonald's in Hong Kong, will people know of a time when there wasn't? Would that then be culture change and a move towards a homogenous culture (Source: MadelineK 2012 np link).

Before this article I never really thought of how globalization worked, and how all cultures have begun to influence each other. I did find it interesting how the article pointed out that even though Japan has influenced our culture with Sushi, American restaurants sometimes make a version of sushi that isn't exactly like Japanese culture but eating it is still a sign of status. I think this is true as well with many other types of cuisines that we market in the United States as being from other cultures such as Italian, Greek, and Mexican food (Source: Vining 2012 np link).

Sources / Further Reading

Anon (nd) Document details - Abstract, (;jsessionid=B586D4549485D9EB8F0A330B1F6AFA3B last accessed 29 June 2012)

Bacher, K. (2012) Bestor (2005) How Sushi Went Global,, 18 February ( last accessed 29 June 2012)

Bestor, T.  (2001) Supply-Side Sushi: Commodity, Market and the Global City, American Anthropologist, New Series 103:1 p.76-95 ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Bestor, T. (2003) Markets and Places: Tokyo and the Global Tuna Trade. in S. Low & D. Lawrence-Zunigais (eds) The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, p.301-320

Bestor, T. (2004) Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press

Bestor, T. (2009) Global Sushi: Soft Power and Hard Realities, BUniverse ( last accessed 29 June 2012)

Bowen, B. (2012) Comment on Article: How Sushi Went Global, AnthropologySpring2012, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012).

Brianna (2009) How Do These Three Pieces Exemplify Globalization? Emigration to Immigration, 9 January ( last accessed 2 July)

Carroll, W. (2008) SUSHI: Globalization through Food Culture: Towards a Study of Global Food Networks, Journal of East Asian Cultural Interaction Studies, 2, p.451-456 ( last accessed 2 July 2012).

Cassell, M (2012) 102 globalization writing assignment. ( last accessed 20 October 2012)

Cook et al, I. (2006) Geographies of food: following, Progress in Human Geography 30:5, p.661-665

Dalton, A. (2012) Comment on article: How Sushi Went Global, AnthropologySpring2012, 5 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012).

Geezer (2012) What the F*&k? or; How Sushi Went Global, The Latest Victims of Innovation, 21 February ( last accessed 29 July 2012)

Honjo, Y. (2005) The Fisher King: Review of Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World, ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Issenberg, S. (2008) The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy. New York: Gotham Books.

Laura K (2012) ‘Culture,’ Distinct or Palimpset?, Spaces of Globalization Course Blog, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Low, S. and Lawrence-Zunigais, D (2003a) Locating culture. in their (eds) The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1-48.

Low, S. and Lawrence-Zunigais, D (2003b) Transnational spaces. in their (eds) The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 299.

MadelineK (2012) Comment on Chapters 4, 5, 13, 14, Spaces of Globalization Course Blog, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Othay919 (2012) Ch. 4,5,13,14, Spaces of Globalization Course Blog, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Owens, J. (2012) Comment on Article: How Sushi Went Global, AnthropologySpring2012, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012).

Paige, A. (2012) Comment on Article: How Sushi Went Global, AnthropologySpring2012, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012).

Steve (2012) Culture vs Globalization, Spaces of Globalization Course Blog, 4 April ( last accessed 29 June 2012)

swansee (2012) Comment on Article: How Sushi Went Global, AnthropologySpring2012, 31 March ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Travis (2012) Chapters 4, 5, 13, 14, Spaces of Globalization Course Blog, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Vining, S. (2012) Comment on Article: How Sushi Went Global, AnthropologySpring2012, 4 April ( last accessed 2 July 2012)

Watson, J. and Caldwell, M. (2005) Introduction. to their (eds) The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating: A Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing

Compiled by Olivia Hoffman and Erin Teich, edited by Sabrina Skau and Ian Cook (last updated October 2012). Page created for as part of the ‘Ethnographies of Global Connection’ course, Brown University. Legoing by Sabrina Skau.