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Matthew E. May

Quality Insider

The Best Sushi Chef in the World

Applying the five attributes of the artisan

Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013 - 11:49

A good friend of mine recently recommended a wonderful documentary to me: Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I now recommend it to you. It’s a phenomenal and fascinating study of a man who embodies the disciplined pursuit of perfection.

The 85-year-old Jiro Ono owns Sukiyabashi Jiro, a 10-seat, $300-per-meal, sushi restaurant located in a Tokyo subway station. (Yes, you read that right... 10 seats, subway, $300!) He is considered by many to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. You need to make a reservation months in advance, and many people have waited a year.

It’s the only restaurant of its kind to be awarded the coveted three-star Michelin rating, which it earned in 2008. As Japanese food critic Yamamoto tells it, “The first Michelin guide was published in 1900, in France. Michelin inspectors look first for quality. Next, they look for originality. Finally, they look for consistency. A perfect three-star rating means it is worth making a trip to that country just to eat at that restaurant. Jiro’s restaurant easily meets these standards.”

Jiro has been making sushi for more than 75 years. He left home at the age of 9, and has been making sushi ever since.

In the film, we learn that Jiro embodies the spirit of the shokunin, the craftsman or artisan, and manifests all five attributes of the shokunin:
1. They take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level.
2. They aspire to improve their skills.
3. They maintain a clean workplace.
4. They are impatient: the shokunin are better leaders than collaborators. They are stubborn and insist on having it their way.
5. They have a deep passion for their work.

“Jiro has all of these attributes,” Yamamoto tells us. “He’s a perfectionist.”

As Jiro tells us, though: “All I want to do is make better sushi. I do the same thing over and over, improving bit by bit. 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. Even at my age, after decades of work, I don’t think I’ve achieved perfection. But I feel ecstatic every day. I love making sushi. That’s the spirit of the shokunin. Once you decide on an occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That is the secret to success... and the key to being regarded honorably.”

If you’d like to apprentice with Jiro, be prepared to work for 10 years to attain the title of chef. Jiro’s oldest son, Yoshikazu, age 62, is in line to take his father’s place.

“Always look ahead and above yourself,” says Yoshikazu. “Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft. That’s what he taught me. We are not trying to be exclusive or elite. The techniques we use are no big secret. It really comes down to making an effort and repeating the same thing every day. He repeats the same routine every day. He even gets on the train from the same position. The way of the shokunin is to repeat the same thing every day. They just want to work. They aren’t trying to be anything special.”

That kind of humility is indicative of the older Japanese culture but is something quite rare here in the West.

Jiro’s younger son, Takashi, age 50, knew his only chance to become a head chef before becoming a senior citizen was to start his own restaurant, Roppongi. His is the mirror image of Jiro’s because Takashi is right-handed, while Jiro is left-handed. “My father’s skill is incomparable,” Takashi says “He’s been making sushi since before I was born. So there’s nothing I can do to top him. I have to lower my prices to satisfy my customers.”

(Michael Porter readers will recognize the two, and as Porter would argue, only two, business strategies at play here: differentiation and low cost.)

As for the fifth shokunin attribute of passion, well, that’s where the film’s title comes from.

“I’ve never once hated this job,” says Jiro. “I fell in love with my work and gave my life to it. I would make sushi in my dreams. I would jump out of bed with ideas.”

Your assignment this weekend: Log onto Netflix and watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi. You do not need to be a sushi lover to appreciate the artistry and discipline of Jiro Ono.

This article first appeared Feb. 22, 2013, on Matthew May’s Edit Innovation blog.


About The Author

Matthew E. May’s picture

Matthew E. May

Matthew E. May counsels executives and teams through custom designed facilitation, coaching, and training using four basic ingredients: strategy, ideation, experimentation, and lean. He’s been counseling for 30 years, a third of it as a full-time advisor to Toyota. He is the author of four books, the latest The Laws of Subtraction (McGraw-Hill, 2013), and is working on his fifth book. His work has been appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many other publications. May holds an MBA from The Wharton School and a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University.