A Shokunin of Words

Sushi Sashimi bridge by Pedro Moura Pinheiro from FlickrOver the weekend I watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was one of the more enjoyable hour-and-a-halfs that I’ve spent in front of my television recently.

The film is an understated look at Jiro Ono, who is considered to be one of the greatest sushi chefs in the world. The man is eighty-five years old and has been making sushi for his entire life. I, personally, hate sushi, but I’m fascinated by it and the process of making it. Something about the required details and the pure artistry that goes along with it makes me stop and stare whenever it is discussed. The film manages to be both beautiful and accessible, full of culture yet familiar, deep but funny. And, again, I hate fish. I mean tuna I can get behind, not because of its taste which I still hate, but the beautiful red flesh and the massive creature it comes from are relatable to me. But this movie made me “ooh” and “ahh” over disgusting slimy eel. It’s a powerful piece of work.

The parts I loved most, and I think the reason that cooking in general, and sushi specifically, fascinates me, were the parts where they discussed the craft of sushi. Jiro a few times mentions the word “shokunin” and what it means to be one.

Looking up the word “shokunin,” one finds an almost freakish lack of definitions online. I’m used to punching anything I want more data about into Google and after scanning a few sites, having a grip on what I want to know. “Shokunin,” however, is a bit murky. I think it means “artisan” loosely translated. I’ve also seen “master” or “tradesman” used as definitions. But one gets the sense that there is much more to the word. It conveys an attitude towards one’s work, a mania of sorts, a dedication that exists to create only the best possible result whenever work is done. It also implies constant subservience, a willingness to always be learning, to always want  to learn, as much as possible, in order to create greatness.

But again that doesn’t quite capture it as well as the details of the film do. For example, one apprentice working under Jiro made a certain egg dish for two-hundred days straight until Jiro decided that he had finally made an acceptable version. We visit the fish vendors that Jiro, or at least his son nowadays, visits to shop for ingredients: the shrimp vendor will know, upon looking over the catches in the morning, right away if a shrimp will be good enough to meet Jiro’s standards; the tuna vendor is considered an outsider in the trade and will simply not purchase tuna if there are none that meet his standards; the octopus vendor was quite simply insane (fun fact: to prepare octopus for sushi, it is massaged for forty or fifty minutes before cooking…another apprentice task).

These are people who have no thoughts of anything but their craft. They don’t care what their dedication looks like, they only want to make the best sushi possible, and under Jiro a little society has built up of like-minded people who gather to either learn or appreciate these skills.

One of the strongest feelings I experienced while watching this movie was jealousy. I’ve always felt that writing is a craft that lacks many of the bits and pieces required for anyone who wishes to dedicate their life to it. There’s nowhere you can go and apprentice and write year after year after year under the tutelage of a master. There are no word markets where you can go and pick through the wares of the day with an expert eye. There are no places where constant feedback can be received for your work. The closest thing I can think of is a newspaper, but I’m talking about writing fiction, not news. Plus newspapers have to be large scale; Jiro’s sushi shop seats about eleven people…you never get the feeling that he is just crapping out sushi to meet a huge demand.

Now, granted, even if such a place did exist I have no idea if I’d be up for it. They do talk about how many of Jiro’s apprentices don’t make it, and how a few didn’t even make it through one day. If such a place does exist I doubt I’d have wound up there just because there were certain tracks my life was nailed to for most of my existence. I do know that creative writing courses, the ones I have encountered, are not what I’m talking about. The feedback in those is provided by the rest of the class, which is a tiny subset of readers not at all representative of a larger culture and easily domineered by a loudmouth or two. The amount of work required is kind of light, you can write a hell of a lot more than they demand because most of the time you are required to critique other peoples’ work. Which seems like it would teach critiquing and not writing. It was just critique, write one or two stories, get critiqued, rewrite that story, and get graded by the teacher. There was zero attention given to finding an audience, connecting with an audience, gaining faith in your voice and your own strength as a writer.

These are the things I feel a shokunin of words ought to have. There should be a place where you can sweat out fiction at a level and speed you never thought possible and have it picked over by fans and masters alike. Of course eating a piece of sushi takes about thirty seconds, and reading even a short story can be a twenty minute affair…so I’m not sure how it would work.

But, as always, my imagination turns towards the internet and what writers can perhaps cobble together in this strange new world.

Until then, I’ll always have sushi.