What can an 85 year old sushi chef teach us about the skill of developing our craft and our audience? A LOT.
I recently watched the movie: Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which shows how one man established a tiny, 9 seat establishment in a Tokyo subway station as one of the best sushi restaurants in the world. Here is the trailer:
What you find is an adherence to constant improvement, one that focuses on craft. It becomes obvious that this level of dedication is a lifestyle, and one that is not easy. I think there is a lot here that writers can take away as positive examples of how they should approach their own craft and appreciation of audience development.
Jiro ensures that he and his staff are always eating the VERY expensive food that they prepare, as well as that from other restaurants:
“In order to make delicious food, you must eat delicious food. The quality of ingredients is important, but you need to develop a palate capable of discerning good and bad. Without good taste, you can’t make good food. If your sense of taste is lower than that of the customers, how will you impress them?”
The palate, in this instance, is the most foundational level of skill, of quality. The ability to tell high quality from merely “good” quality. To distinguish the subtleties in a well prepared meal. This aligns to a phrase I have heard: “To become a great writer, you need to be a great reader.”
There is a Japanese term used in the movie to describe the value of repetition, of doing the same thing every day for years, in order to slowly master your skills: SHOKUNIN.
I found a very compelling definition by a woodworker:
“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 skill, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. These qualities are encompassed in the word shokunin, but are seldom written down . . . . The shokunin demonstrates knowledge of tools and skills with them, the ability to create beauty and the capacity to work with incredible speed . . . . 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.”
– Toshio Odate
A restaurant reviewer in the movie explains the apprenticeship process in Jiro’s sushi restaurant:
“When you work for Jiro, he teaches you for free. But you have to endure ten years of training. If you persevere for ten years, you will acquire the skills to be recognized as a first-rate chef.”
When you watch the film, it is obvious that Jiro does not just focus on the craft of the sushi alone, but of everything related to it: how to source great vendors; seating arrangements; etc. He studies his customers as they eat his food so he can learn from them.
A vendor at the fish market reflects on the nature of dedicating yourself to your vocation:
“It’s not about the money. These days, the first thing people want is an easy job. Then, they want lots of free time. And then, they want lots of money. But they aren’t thinking of building your skills.”
To me, this is incredibly inspiring, and helps explain why so much of what I do involves training, courses, and workshops with writers. Because I have seen, again and again, the value in developing not just their skills as writers, but as those able to connect with readers, and grow their audience. That too, is a skill.