Tuna, Esq.
June 2, 2006 10:53 AM   Subscribe

The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, commonly known as the Tsukiji fish market, is the largest fish and seafood market in the world, and the premier place to buy some of the best tuna in the world. The long history and tradition of the market includes a special court created by the state to manage conflict between buyers and sellers of tuna. In the paper linked above, Eric Feldman examines the history of the market and the development and function of the specialized court. Although there are various picture galleries of the market available online, I could find nowhere else on the web the detailed and interesting discussion included in Feldman's paper. From the abstract:
Legal scholars have long emphasized the corrosive impact of conflict on long-term commercial and interpersonal relationships. To minimize the negative consequences of such conflict, members of close-knit groups who anticipate future interactions create ways to resolve their disputes using internal group norms rather than state-enforced legal rules. From farmers in California's Shasta County to jewelers in midtown Manhattan, the literature describes people who create informal norms of conflict management that are faster and less expensive than formal law and that lessen the harm that conflict causes to their relationships.

This Article tells a different story. It describes a tightly organized group of commercial traders - tuna merchants in Tokyo - who are repeat players in a discrete marketplace where there are regular problems with the quality of auctioned goods. Rather than ignoring those problems or quietly resolving them with reference to informal market norms, Tokyo's tuna merchants make use of a highly specialized court created by the state - the Tuna Court - that follows formal rules and procedures that are contained in a government ordinance. The supposed disadvantages of legal rules are nowhere apparent. The Tuna Court is fast and inexpensive, and the process of articulating and resolving claims serves to strengthen individual relations and the cohesion of the market community. A comparison between Japan and the United States demonstrates that there is more disputing and more legal formality in the Japanese tuna market, and this Article credits a mix of economic and cultural factors for the difference. In short, by presenting a detailed case study of a highly specialized court that operates under government auspices, this Article argues that formal state law can outperform informal group norms by satisfying the business needs of close-knit merchants while simultaneously contributing to the shared values that underlie the success of their future transactions.
Feldman isn't the only academic interested in Tsukiji. Ted Bestor, an anthropologist at Harvard, has written extensively on Tsukiji and the global sushi market. Although most of his work is unfortunately unavailable online, Bestor discussed his studies in articles in Harvard Magazine and the Harvard University Gazette, and has a book out on the subject.

As I mentioned, there are several photo galleries of the market online (previously discussed), and over 4,000 photos of the market available at Flickr.


posted by monju_bosatsu at 10:53 AM on June 2, 2006

(makes popcorn)
posted by bigschmoove at 11:01 AM on June 2, 2006

Wow, looks like great reading, thanks.
posted by freebird at 11:03 AM on June 2, 2006

I certainly hope no dolphins were harmed in the making of this post.
posted by gigawhat? at 11:04 AM on June 2, 2006

Fascinating stuff.

(This is the last posting of a legal PDF file - now with context! - to make a point, though, right?)
posted by jack_mo at 11:05 AM on June 2, 2006

The supporting links are more interesting than the SSRN paper. Bravo.
posted by smackfu at 11:06 AM on June 2, 2006

Was just there a couple weeks ago. Didn't notice the Court, but my hosts got an impossible to beat deal on a fish that became, by the end of a long day of sightseeing, an impossible to miss odor on the rush hour train home.

I bet there were some folks wishing there was a set of formal state laws to regulate the transport of wilting fish on public conveyances.
posted by notyou at 11:08 AM on June 2, 2006

smackfu, did you read the paper? There's a ton of interesting historical and economic context in there.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:12 AM on June 2, 2006

jack_mo said exactly what I was going to say.
posted by brain_drain at 11:16 AM on June 2, 2006

Triple horray for Monju interesting link. I'm reading the PDF and so far one thing that I didn't know

whether it is farmed or wild (tuna)

I didn't know tuna were succesfully farmed !
posted by elpapacito at 11:20 AM on June 2, 2006

Includes a shout out to Macaulay and Galanter, two very interesting thinkers.
posted by caddis at 11:31 AM on June 2, 2006

But when it really mattered, they turned to the government for rules and structures that could facilitate the resolution of conflict. In effect, they turned their backs on informal norms (perhaps because they were inadequate, or contested, or for some other reason; the historical record is insufficient to say), and moved away from what some scholars suggest is a particularly efficient way of handling conflict. Instead, they dragged the state into their conflicts, just as they drag their tuna to the Tuna Court.

It's unfortunate that the most interesting feature of the Court - why it developed in the first place - is not analysed in any depth (obv it's a law review rather than history article, but still).
posted by patricio at 12:50 PM on June 2, 2006

An interesting system indeed

a) a jury of highly experienced tuna evaluators on rotation to avoid formation of prejudice or favour
b) a sparkling of necessary formalization to make judgment accessible, standardized, predictable ; thus not placing a cabal-legal barrier to entry
c) a cost that reflects the relevance, frequency of the statistically predictable fish defects
d) a distribution of risk between buyer and salesman that doesn't rely on consumer to sustain the cost of problem
e) a system that allows disagreement to be composed and doesn't make a judge particularly powerful or particularly hated

It seems such a system can only be

a) corrupted by buying judge
b) reformed by scientifical advancement or diversification of market, eg more detail in tuna analysis

Yet it's a leap forward a more efficient, dynamic, tought and analysis producing court. Quarreling is limited and there is no incentive for lawyers to drag the thing on forever.

It has some shortcomings

1) it benefits from cooperative schemes, rooted in japanese mentality , but not necessarily elsewhere
2) it partially borrows on the concept of losing face, that could be mutuaded by lost credibility that is as good as the will to remember errors
3) the fact that it can be applied to very little, almost punctual markets in which there isn't a clear cut dominance by key players that could exert incredibly powerful contractul force, silencing dissent by the virtue of monopsony (a la walmart)
posted by elpapacito at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2006

Does it prolong the problem of sellers selling bad tuna though? If we assume that the normal reaction of a buyer after purchasing bad tuna would be never to use that seller again, then then standard incentives would be for sellers not to lie about the fish quality. By allowing a seller to take a chance on a judge's ruling, does the court in fact give sellers greater scope for selling bad quality fish?
posted by patricio at 1:33 PM on June 2, 2006

The problem as I read it, patricio, is that because tuna is sold whole, both buyer and seller may be unaware of defects in the fish until after the transaction is completed and the buyer is cutting the fish. The problem, then, isn't lying, but rather a posteriori allocation of the risk of defects.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 1:54 PM on June 2, 2006

[As a side note, don't learn your latin from lawyers. They usually use a phrase incorrectly to mean something different from what most intend by the phrase.]
posted by monju_bosatsu at 2:03 PM on June 2, 2006

So it's a return to mefi status-quo? Good, accessible, well-thought-out links stay, while bad, overly repetitive links get deleted. I like it.

I'm wondering whether the tuna court is some very oblique comment on administrative alternatives. Mefite posters are like japanese fish-sellers, maybe? (I especially like the combo of face-saving and low-cantankerousness with speedy outcomes.) The post is like the uncut tuna... the readers cut the post open and find tasty fish-flesh or disease-ridden carcass inside the links... or something. Care to expand, monju?
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:10 PM on June 2, 2006

monju: ianal, but I know some of my high school latin. You could "post facto" meaning "after the fact" or "after the event" while I am not sure about " a posteriori" which makes sense, but may not be as used as "a priori" which is the exact opposite.

patricio: By allowing a seller to take a chance on a judge's ruling, does the court in fact give sellers greater scope for selling bad quality fish?

Yes, but it seems that complete examination of tuna -before- the consumer-sale-time would ruin many qualities of the fish. Obviously the consumer doesn't want to
pay full price for an inferior product (or is willing to pay less) which isn't optimizing.

So instead of pre-cutting the tuna, the sale is done, the cutting is done and if a defect is found the jury can quickly decide what damage can be awarded depending on the -technical- defect of the fish ; the jury is also composed by very specialized experts so the judgment takes little time and is of high quality. Also consider the jury has no incentive to drag feets, there is no lawyer wishing to bill more hours then necessary, everything is expedite, efficient, formalized.

Certainly the judging has a cost, but it is still better then underselling the fish as catfood quality and allows producer/seller not to completely wash off his hands of risks.
posted by elpapacito at 2:46 PM on June 2, 2006

I'm wondering whether the tuna court is some very oblique comment on administrative alternatives.

Sometimes a Tuna Court is just a Tuna Court. (We don't have any court here, it's a benevolent dictatorship like Bhutan.)
posted by caddis at 2:54 PM on June 2, 2006

Toro! Toro! Toro! (not)
posted by rob511 at 8:21 PM on June 2, 2006

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