Thursday, August 9, 2012

All Around the World: Behind the Bamboo Doors

Behind the Bamboo Doors---
A Glimpse of Japanese Culture

Asheley Gao

            In the corner of Ginza subway station in Tokyo lies a small sushi restaurant. Gray marble walls, dim lighting, inconspicuous business signs, the restaurant blends in with the station so well that it can easily be missed by busy passengers. Through the bamboo door, one can catch a glimpse of the entire restaurant: a chef’s counter, an elongated bar table, and a total of ten seats surrounding the table. Once in a while, the bamboo door quietly slides open, followed by a small group of customers walking in and out of the restaurant; they sometimes stop at the entrance and chat with the restaurant owner, bowing and smiling as they speak. As the door slides shut, the restaurant returns to its quiet existence, hiding itself from commuters at one of the world’s most populated subway stations.

            The name of the restaurant is Sukiyabashi Jiro, the first restaurant of its kind to ever receive a near-impossible 3 star from Michelin review. Journeyed into Asia for the first time in its 108-year history, Michelin guide showered the restaurant with praise, admiration and its invaluable golden stars. The owner of the restaurant, Jiro Ono, is an 85-year old sushi chef who has been rewarded as a National Treasure by the Japanese Government for his contribution to the nation’s culinary culture. Reservation of this restaurant has to be made months in advance and has to be confirmed multiple times to secure the seats. It has become such a sensation that film director David Gelb followed Jiro for years in order to produce the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which receives 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. The story of Jiro goes beyond raw fish and rice; it provides the audience a unique scope into Japanese culture and most importantly, the spirit that lies within this culture, which constantly propels the society forward.        


“We massage our octopus for forty-five minutes before serving.”
                        -------JIRO ONO

            “Other restaurants may be okay with thirty minutes; for us, however, it is always forty-five minutes.” Jiro continues, watching over his apprentice who is rubbing and stroking the octopus with so much strength that a layer of foam forms on the octopus’ maroon skin. A lengthy massage gives the octopus a much more tender texture and potent flavor. Octopus massaging is only one of a million details that Jiro is obsessed with. From the chopstick arrangement for his ten-seats sushi bar to the the vinegar that marinates the fish, Jiro oversees all the aspects of daily operation. “I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit.” Jiro said, smiling, “There is always a yearning to achieve more. I'll continue to climb, trying to reach the top... but no one knows where the top is.” 

          The pursuit of perfection is contagious within a culture. Jiro’s suppliers, including rice farmers and fish dealers, are all among the best in the industry. More importantly, they reserve the top tier of their products to Jiro because they know very well that only Jiro “will do it right.” Jiro and his colleagues’ constant pursuit for perfection can easily  be found in other industries in Japan as well, and most prominently the electronic industry, which dominates global market shares by consistently generating high-quality products. Sony, JVC, Canon and Nintendo are just a few names among the leading companies in the industry.

             A classic case of perfectionism can be found in the robotic industry in Japan. While more and more foreign companies (like Samsung and LG) are rushing into the emerging market of robots by introducing various domestic robots like Roomba (a cleaning robot), Japanese robotic companies, despite being the leader in this industry, experience a rather slow entry into the market. An article in Sankei News did a lengthy report on electric company Panasonic and its research and development on robotics. “We already have all the technology,” explains an employee, “but we can’t guarantee 100% safety yet.” 

         Unless the octopus is massaged for forty-five minutes exactly to achieve its perfect tenderness, Jiro will never present it to his customers. In this case, unless the robotic technology is absolutely safe and perfected, Panasonic will never introduce its robot to the market. In 2009, Panasonic unveiled its own robot Fukitorimushi (“wipe-up-bug”) in a technology exhibition in Milan, a robot that soon gained the name of “Roomba Killer.”


"You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That's the secret of success... and is the key to being regarded honorably."
                                                                                                                                                                                                            -------JIRO ONO

            Jiro’s day starts on his bicycle trip to the fish market before 6:00 AM every morning. The winter in Tokyo can easily go below freezing, yet Jiro insists on riding his bike, which has a small basket at the back for fish. He meets up with his seafood dealer who already picked out the best batch from the 5:00 AM auction where more than 400 types of freshly-caught seafood are put up for sale. As he returns to his restaurant, he designs the lunch and dinner menu for the day based on his morning purchase. After a day of operation, Jiro instructs his apprentice to prepare for the next day, from confirming reservations to setting up a little gas stove in the after-hour subway station to dry seaweed sheets. “I've never once hated this job.” Jiro explained, “I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it.”

            The word “hard-working” can barely describe the level of dedication Jiro has toward his job. It also fits in the stereotype that many Westerners have towards the Asian population, from the Asian students who can always be found in the libraries after midnight, to Asian rice farmers whose workload is around three thousand hours per year (for more information please check out Malcolm Gladwell’s national bestseller Outliers ). 

           Dedication to one’s work can be presented not only by the nature of the work but also the way one approaches it. For instance, earlier this year CNN conducted a short interview with the CEO of Japan Airlines (JAL) Haruka Nishimatsu. For the past two years Japan Airlines have been heavily affected by the recession. In order to secure the employment of his workers and reduce the impact of the recession, Nishimatsu cuts his own salary, rides public transportation to work every day and waits in line with his employees at the cafeteria for lunch. Two years later, Japan Airlines, Asia’s largest carrier, paid off all its creditors and escaped from bankruptcy. It is very unlikely that Nishimatsu could make such a sacrifice unless he absolutely “falls in love with his work”, his company and his employees, and puts their interest before his own.


“My son must do this for the rest of his life.”

            -------JIRO ONO

            “Your wasabi is too strong. It’s making me cry”
            “Sorry, father.”
            “Start over.”
            “Yes, father.”

            That is a short conversation between eighty-five-year old Jiro and his fifty-one-year old son, Yoshikazu. In Japanese culture, it is common for the eldest son to take over the family business. In Yoshikazu’s  case, however, simply taking over is not enough; he has to live up to his father’s expectations, and yet, not overcome his father with his shadow. Learning and practicing as an apprentice to Jiro ever since he graduated from high school, Yoshikazu, like his father, has dedicated his whole life to the sushi restaurant. “Always look ahead and above yourself,” he talks about his career, clearly inheriting his father’s perfectionism, “Always strive to elevate your craft.”

            This father-son relationship pattern can be traced back to the time of the Samurais where family, clan, and honor are placed above everything else. From a father to his son goes through a transition of leadership, skills and authority. This transition has been one of the most popular motifs in Japanese literature, movies and TV series which often depict a stern father with high expectation and a rebellious son who, after twists and turns, reunites with his father and regains family honor. 

          One of the well-known example is the relationship between animation master Hayao Miyazaki and his son Goro Miyazaki. Creator of Sprited Away, Princess Mononoke and so many other popular animation, Hayao Miyazaki gained the name of “Walt Disney of the East.” His son, however, was reluctant about carrying on his father’s animation studio and devoted himself to construction consultant. Goro’s first attempt at animation, which was storyboarding and directing Tales from Earthsea back in 2006, caused much friction between the father and son. Hayao, as much as he wanted his son to be involved in animation, did not want Goro to debut his film until he was absolutely ready (sounds familiar? Panasonic robots!). Eventually, even though the movie ended up a near disaster, Hayao dramatically showed up at the premier and reconciled with his son.

            After the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, most people left the movie theater with a hungry stomach and a brain full of questions. Many found Jiro’s dedication to his work incredible, if not completely insane, while others pity the life of his son who seems to be destined to massage octopus all his life. Of course, individualism, leisure, or daring innovation are not the priority of Jiro’s story, yet in a culture where collectivism, diligence and consistent progress are highly honored, Jiro and the Japanese spirit he embodies go way beyond inspirational.

CNN video clip on JAL’s CEO:
The New York Times: Michelin Gives Stars, but Tokyo Turns Up Nose
Yohei, Waseda Opinions: article on Panasonic Robotics

The Culture Columnist, Asheley Gao:

My name is Asheley Gao and I’m a junior at Cal, majoring in History of Art and minoring in French. I grew up in Asia, the land of dragons and jasmine green tea, as a kid with too much imagination. Indulging myself in exploring different cultures and what they have to offer (art, movies, cuisine, you name it!), I’m on my way to becoming a woman whose country is the whole world. Along with all the excellent writers at Unleashed, I would love to share with you my adventure and take you all around the world.

1 comment:

Bubba Thor said...

Early morning bike ride and a passion for one's work and life. Massaging an Octopus for tenderness and potency. I had never imagined these activities together. Now I have and I'm smiling broadly. Thanks....John Hasle