To be a shokunin (artisan) in Japan means, among other things, rising in the morning to do the exact same thing as yesterday and the day before and the day before. Past and future melt into a flowing continuum of a never-ending present where the artisan and his or her craft are cocooned together, engaged in a conversation from which everyone and everything else is excluded. The bond is tighter than family. The obsession and dedication exceeds any love relationship. The true shokunin is far less interested in seeking personal happiness than in having the confidence that tomorrow, their craft will be a little better than today.
At 87, sushi master Jiro Ono of restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro remains locked into the sacrosanct niche of artisanship he carved out for himself some 70 years ago. His restaurant, a literal hole in the wall located in the underground corridor near a Tokyo subway station, has a global reputation for serving the most precious sushi meal a human being can hope to savor. The place seats just 10, but chefs such as Joel Robuchon of Taillevent to Ferran Adria of El Bulli have dined there. Tom Cruise is a famed Ono fan, and Hugh Jackman tweeted about the “unbelievable” meal he had. But no matter who walks in through the doors, Ono remains expressionless — or rather, his normal expression of self-discpline and dedication never wavers. He rarely makes small talk with the customers, with the exception of a few long-time regulars. When he cracks a smile, it shows he’s in an exceptionally good mood, which indicates the fish procured that day has met with his aesthetic approval. Otherwise, it’s just him and his sushi, and his concentration is intense.
In 2008, a young man from New York strode into Sukiyabashi Jiro. David Gelb was 26 years old at the time and was accompanied by famed food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto, who was given to understand that Gelb — son of Metropolitan Opera manager Peter Gelb — was making a documentary about sushi. But as the two began to eat Ono’s legendary omakase (leave-it-to-the-chef) plate, the younger man from America fell silent. What he was about was much too serious, his taste buds seemed to be exploding with ecstatic joy. By the time the meal was over, Gelb’s mind was made up: His film was going to be about Ono and none other, and he told Yamamoto so right away.
“I come from a family that values art, food, music — we always celebrated culture,” says Gelb, whose childhood memories are studded with spectacular meals both in restaurants and at the family table. “So I have this innate, inbred appreciation of good food. But I was floored by the experience at Jiro.” So floored, in fact, that when his request to film Ono at work over a four-week period was flat-out denied by the master himself, Gelb politely asked again. And again. Ono was skeptical about the young filmmaker’s assurance that the shooting would in no way disrupt the work flow behind the counter. The minute that happened, Gelb said, he would stop the camera and go away.
Ono was in a quandary. Since earning a three-star Michelin rating the same year, the sushi master had been inundated by media requests and he found the whole thing so distracting he refused to grant any interviews — period. But Gelb’s gentle persistence won out, and Ono found that the young director was as good as his word. Gelb was never disruptive, was unfailingly polite and Ono could sense his deep sincerity. In the summer of 2010, Gelb came to Tokyo again for another month, to film the tuna auction at the Tsukiji wholesale market. This time, Ono consented to have Gelb along on a rare (albeit brief) holiday trip to his hometown in Shizuoka Prefecture.
To the average Tokyoite, eating at Jiro’s restaurant just does not happen, perhaps in the same way the average Parisian can live and die without ever dining at La Tour d’Argent. At Jiro’s reservations must be made at least three months in advance and the price starts from ¥30,000 per person. The place is open seven days a week and it’s full every night. Ono must be no stranger to wealth and all its privileges, but there’s no evidence of that in Gelb’s documentary. “He could open 100 restaurants if he wanted to. He could have retired to any exotic location on the globe decades ago,” says Gelb. “But for Jiro-san and thousands of shokunin like him, work — or their chosen craft — is its own reward. I find that fascinating.”
Ono’s two sons feature in the film (his eldest son, Yoshikazu, works in the main restaurant alongside his father, and his second son, Takashi, had opened a more relaxed venue in Roppongi Hills) but no one so much as mentions the existence of Ono’s wife. Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he couldn’t help but wonder whether when making love to his wife Ono regretted the time spent away from his sushi. Indeed, Ono says anything in life not pertaining to work is pretty much a time-waster. Strange as it may seem to a Western perspective, the Japanese mindset will accept this as natural.
A real shokunin will immerse himself in the lake of his profession and never come out, as personal emotions and concerns fade into an obscure background. The Japanese have an inherent understanding that this is what it takes and there’s really no tradition for analyzing the reasons why. Consider that in the Edo Period (1603—1867) caste system, the artisan class ranked higher than merchants — they were respected and protected as contributors to tradition, whereas the merchants were a little despised as nothing more than moneymakers.
“Still, I know that Jiro-san loves his sons deeply,” says Gelb. “You can see it in his face in some of the scenes. His own father had never been there for him, and I think that kind of experience can drive a man in two different directions — repeat the cycle of misery, or try to be better. I get the feeling that once Jiro-san chose to go the latter route, he has striven every day to be better on multiple levels. As a father, as a sushi master, as a craftsman and a human being.” Or maybe for Ono, there simply is no distinction.