Shokunin and Sushi: What Jiro Can Teach Us About Mastery
Jiro Ono started working in a restaurant at the age of 7. He became a qualified sushi chef by the age of 26. About 14 years later, in 1965, Jiro opened his own sushi restaurant named Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza Tokyo. To this day, Jiro makes the trek to work at his 3 Michelin star restaurant, one of the most heralded sushi restaurants in the world.
Jiro has one massive talent: making incredible sushi, which he has done for the past 50 years. You would think one would get tired of sushi after so long. Hell, nowadays we get tired after doing the same thing for a few days if not a few hours.
So how exactly was Jiro able to be so disciplined in his singular focus of creating the best sushi experience money can buy? It starts and ends with shokunin.
“The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin’s responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.”
In short, shokunin means ‘mastery of ones profession’. One that is devoted to his or her craft. Jiro, along with many Japanese professionals, share this mentality, this craftsmen’s spirit, that drives their work ethic and discipline. No matter what the profession, if one acts with such devotion and takes pride in their work, they are able to achieve shokunin.
Once you decide on your profession, you must immerse yourself in your work.
It is this ideal that led Jiro to carry on doing the same work for 50+ years. He is devoted to his craft and is always working to improve upon it. If we applied the same devotion to our own work, imagine where we would be. Yet, the Western approach is focused on advancement and upward mobility. This is most obvious when we observe the end of careers, as it was known over the previous decades.
Today an employee holds a job for an average of 4 years before they move on to bigger and better things. There is no loyalty or dedication to a single skill or endeavor. Even I struggle to write for an hour everyday, I think I would go crazy if all I did was write, but then again I’ve never tried to focus in that way.
Mastery is certainly more difficult and takes more time, yet the results speak for themselves. Everything else seems to fall into place if we dedicate ourselves to achieving mastery.
Maybe we need to re-think what is truly important. Maybe we need to focus on the craft more and not so much the external factors: the promotions, the money, the titles, and the fame. Those will come and need not be chased. Instead, focus on being the best.
Shokunin is a way of life, one that we would all be better off striving for.
On a side note, if you haven’t seen Jiro Dreams of Sushi yet, be sure to check it out as soon as you get the chance. It’ll give you some perspective on how we work and for what reasons.