Japanese Sushi Chefs: Suffering for Art or the Art of Suffering?


This article on the trials of become a genuine Japanese sushi chef is interesting:

To the untutored, a little ball of rice with a slice of raw fish on top may look like a simple affair.

But students on the twice-yearly course in Tokyo soon learn that for masters of the art, there is so much more to it than meets the eye.

“The best students will take at least two years before they can do this properly,” said teacher Kazuki Shimoyama. “The slowest may take four.”

And before they even get to the stage where they are allowed to combine the delicately formed nigiri (rice balls) with a slice of sashimi, they have to learn how to cut the fish.

2-4 years just to gain basic competence as a sushi chef. To reach the highest level can take many more years, under the guidance of masters who make Marine drill sergeants look like wimps.

This tradition of seeking perfection through self-control and commitment (called Shokunin) involves an obligation to serve society as well. It is one of the moral ideals at the center of Japanese culture.

The comments on this article (at an alternative site) were quite interesting as well. Here is one representative comment regarding the complexities of sushi preparation and appreciation:

Self congratulatory hogwash.The most vital ingredient for any “connoisseur” to enjoy any of this claptrap is to be told it’s “special” so they can fawn all over it and pretend they “see” how “special” it is.

I run into this “anti-snob”, “faux populist” attitude regarding wine as well. I understand the attractions of thinking someone with esoteric expertise is really a charlatan. It saves one the trouble of having to learn anything, without suffering any loss of self-esteem for one’s ignorance, while serving up a dollop of extra self-esteem at having exposed the unclothed emperor. That is quite a psychological payoff!

The finer points of wine, whiskey, sushi and many other foods require training and experience to discern. Why would someone who lacks such training have the standing to make the judgment expressed in the comment. This is the general problem with these anti-snob arguments; they are typically made by people who lack the experience to discern what they dismiss as absent.

No doubt snobbery is a bad thing’; but when expertise born of training and commitment is dismissed as snobbery we are in the realm of the stupid.

So are these Japanese chefs suffering unnecessarily, toiling for years to grasp something that a few lessons in knife skills could provide? Being outside that culture, and lacking expertise in the appreciation of sushi I can’t say for sure.

But the world tends not to work in that way. We tend to gravitate towards the path of least resistance, the way that requires less time and fewer resources. It is doubtful that for centuries the sushi chefs who undergo this discipline and devote such time and energy to it are delusional. If there were no difference between sushi created by the accomplished chef and sushi created by the novice I doubt this practice would have lasted centuries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.