Theodore C. Bestor, Reischauer Institute Professor of Social Anthropology and Japanese Studies, Harvard University
Theodore Charles Bestor, cultural anthropologist and widely recognized ethnographer of contemporary urban Japan, passed away in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 1, 2021, just shy of his seventieth birthday. Ted, as he was fondly known to friends, colleagues, and students, was the Reischauer Institute Professor of Social Anthropology and Japanese Studies at Harvard University. During his twenty years on the Harvard faculty, he served as Chair of the Department of Anthropology (2007-2012) and Director of the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies (2012-2018). He was the founding president of the Society for East Asian Anthropology, and he served as President of the Association for Asian Studies in 2012-13.
As a scholar and teacher, Ted made lasting contributions to the study of Japan, in particular its urban character and social fabric. Ted was a skilled observer and stylish writer, blending rich description with wit and thoughtful analysis. He had the ability to make not just the ‘strange familiar’ but the seemingly mundane, significant, be it a neighborhood association meeting, a fish auction, or just a fish (Bestor 2000). Linking what he aptly labeled “inquisitive observation” of small swatches of urban life with macrolevel structures and larger debates, Ted enormously enriched our understanding of Japan and demonstrated Japan to be a compelling site for contemporary anthropological inquiry into the social relations and material processes that compose community, market exchange, and global flows.
Ted was born on August 7, 1951, in Urbana, Illinois. At age 11, he moved to Seattle where his parents took up faculty positions at the University of Washington. Ted first went to Japan as a high school student, accompanying his father on a Fulbright visiting professorship. It was an early experience that made a deep impression. As an undergraduate at Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College, Ted majored in Anthropology, Japanese Studies and Linguistics; he returned to Japan soon after graduation to continue studying Japanese at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Tokyo. Ted went on to earn two master’s degrees from Stanford, first in East Asian Studies (1976) and then in Anthropology (1977). He completed his PhD in Anthropology at Stanford in 1983, with anthropologist Harumi Befu serving as his advisor. After two years directing the Japanese and Korean Programs for the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Ted joined the Anthropology faculty of Columbia University. He then taught at Cornell University before coming to Harvard’s Anthropology Department in 2001.
Ted is widely recognized for two significant ethnographic monographs, Neighborhood Tokyo (Stanford University Press, 1989) and Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World (University of California Press, 2004). Neighborhood Tokyo was the result of dissertation field research carried out in “Miyamoto-cho” a mixed residential neighborhood in southern Tokyo between June 1979 and May 1981. It is a fine grained study of a neighborhood that many Japanese would find familiar “without ever having set foot there” (Bestor and Ikeda 1992). Arguably, the ordinariness and indistinguishability of Miyamoto-cho contributed to the monograph’s durability as a study. While the boundaries of Miyamoto-cho were indistinguishable on a map, they were well understood and enacted through the daily interactions, relationships, and affiliations of the 700 households who considered it to be their community. The ethnography explores the overlapping and intertwined social and political institutions while remaining attentive to the textures and rhythms of daily life—the comings and goings of shop keepers’ families, school events, end-of-year preparations at the local Shinto shrine, which inspired the neighborhood’s pseudonym, Miyamoto-cho. Ted argues that this sense of identity and local connectedness contributes to broader constructions of national identity. Two decades after the book’s publication and in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster, Neighborhood Tokyo continues to be a reference point for social scientists studying community resilience.
Ted’s second monograph, Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World, focused on the trade and consumption of the world’s most perishable commodity and the role that a single market at the mouth of the Sumida River plays both in the global flow of fish and within Japan’s food culture. Ted’s first encounter with Tsukiji actually predated his involvement with Miyamoto-cho. As language students in the mid-1970s, he and his wife, Vickey, had a belated honeymoon dinner at an expensive sushi restaurant on Tsukiji’s outer fringes. Months later, they returned at the crack-of-dawn for a tour of the market led by the apprentice of a local sushi restaurant near their apartment. It wouldn’t be until after the publication of Neighborhood Tokyo and on a follow-up visit to Tokyo that Ted would revisit Tsukiji and get hooked (Bestor 2010).
Like Miyamoto-cho, Tsukiji is situated along commuter train lines and between salaryman commutes. Its lifeblood are family firms and small businesses that play a critical role in the functioning, dynamism, and struggles within the market. Ted’s ethnography shed light on these livelihoods, at once hard labor and skilled artisanship as well as the complex relations among sellers, buyers, and auctioneers. The attention he paid to the conditions of trust and mistrust, competition and obligation, bureaucratic regulations and informal rules throws fresh ice on the cultural embeddedness of markets that so enlivened disciplinary debates a generation earlier. But Tsukiji isn’t just for food for anthropologists. Its audience also includes historians, geographers, gourmets, tourists, and even film makers. The book was translated into Japanese (2007) and became an important reference for the 2016 documentary film, Tsukiji Wonderland, directed by Naotaro Endo and produced by Maiko Teshima and Kazuha Okuda for Shochiku. Not only were Endo and the production team inspired by the rich ethnography, but they were equally impressed by the close personal relationships Ted had cultivated over the years of his research. During the filming, Ted provided commentary alongside famed Japanese chefs, scholars, and Tsukiji fishmongers themselves.
Another significant contribution Ted made to the anthropology of Japan was in the practice of fieldwork. In his teaching and writing, Ted was a leader in promoting a broader multi-disciplinary discussion of fieldwork within Japanese studies. Doing Fieldwork in Japan (2003), coedited with Vickey Lyon Bestor and Pat Steinhoff, remains an essential resource for students and teachers in Japanese studies, and it has inspired recent volumes focused on method and design (Kottmann and Reiher 2020).
During the past decade, Ted’s engagement with Japan remained strong. In the wake of 3.11, he was involved in the Reischauer Institute’s efforts to promote awareness of the triple disasters and support recovery efforts. He made several visits to Tohoku and the Minami Sanriku area in particular, as part of a multi-disciplinary team of Harvard-affiliated researchers and designers, who collaborated with various Japanese universities and community members on a project to support local recovery efforts and promote community resilience.
In his last years, Ted had also initiated work on several new projects. His long engagement with an anthropology of food led him to the politics of cultural heritage generated by the UNESCO designation of Japanese cuisine (washoku) as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” (Bestor 2018). He was also engaged in follow-up research on the closing of Tsukiji’s inner market and its “off-shoring” to a newly built facility on landfill in the middle of Tokyo Bay. As an expression of his abiding fascination with Tokyo, he was an avid collector of vintage Tokyo postcards and oversaw the digital archiving of a selection of his collection. Over 200 postcards from Ted’s collection have been added to Harvard College Library’s online image archive and are searchable by the public.
Ted is survived by his wife Vickey, fellow Japan studies scholar and former Executive Director of the North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources, and his son Nick. Ted will be remembered for his gregariousness and humor; for his professional informality, capacious interest, and keen insights; for his tuna print Hawaiian shirts and seafood lapel pins; and for bringing Japanese localities and livelihoods into a global appreciation of our shared humanity.
Gavin H. Whitelaw
Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies
Bestor, Theodore C. 1989. Neighborhood Tokyo. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
—. 2000. “How Sushi Went Global.” Foreign Policy 121: 54-60.
—. 2004. Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World. Berkeley: University of California Press.
—. 2007. Tsukiji. Translated by M. Wanami and S. Fukuoka. Tokyo: Kirakusha.
—. 2010. “Networks, Neighborhoods, and Markets: Fieldwork in Tokyo.” In Urban Life: Readings in the Anthropology of the City, edited by George Gmelch, Robert V. Kemper and Walter P. Zenner, 20-35. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.
—. 2018. “Washoku, Far and Near.” In Devouring Japan: Global Perspectives on Japanese Culinary Identity, edited by Nancy K. Stalker. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bestor, Theodore C., and Hajime Ikeda. 1992. Neighborhood Tokyo. In Japan Resources for Understanding. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources (DER).
Bestor, Theodore C., Patricia G. Steinhoff, and Victoria Lyon-Bestor. 2003. Doing Fieldwork in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Kottmann, Nora, and Cornelia Reiher. 2020. Studying Japan: Handbook of Research Designs, Fieldwork and Methods. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.