Friday, February 27, 2015

Culture and Generation at a Crossroads

The United States calls itself a nation of immigrants. It has a poly-cultural set of social traditions—mostly anniversary holidays—which commemorate events and people from our two-and-a-quarter century past.

Japan is a mono-racial island nation (sokoku), isolated and closed to outsiders for more than a thousand years. In that time, strong traditions—based on rice-farming and seafood, weather with distinct seasons, a vertical “top-down” social hierarchy (jumbahn) and religion (Confucian, Shinto and Buddhist)—dictated and controlled the behavior of its people.

Historically, Japanese have venerated and respected their elders, teachers and social superiors; practiced self-restraint and suffered in silence (gaman); and placed group welfare (wa) above that of the individual. A familiar Japanese maxim is: “the nail that sticks up will be hammered down.”

While Americans support group welfare at home and abroad, it is a value secondary to the individual’s right to do as s/he legally pleases. “Be yourself,” Americans are told; and discovering the identity and expression of that self is up to each of us. By contrast, Japanese are taught that life is a process of “becoming”: one strives to embody and perfect a centuries-old set behavioral ideal.

Making sushi.
The inevitable tension between tradition and individuality is at the heart of Kimber Lee’s tokyo fish story. Koji, a sushi master (shokunin) in his late 60s, is still revered by native Japanese and foodie tourists for the perfection of the meals he creates at Sushi Koji, his small Tokyo restaurant. But overfishing has increased the cost and decreased the dependability of preparing the finest sushi, and his clientele has diminished.

Given those conditions, lesser chefs—who apprenticed under Koji—have abandoned traditional values. One of them now runs a popular restaurant chain serving inferior versions of the cuisine for less and marketed like fast food franchises. Daisuke, a top manager for that firm, is making offers to take over Koji’s restaurant; and failing that, to hire away his loyal help.

The most valued member of Koji’s shrinking staff—his sous chef or number two—is Takashi, who has worked under him for 20 years. Takashi’s blooming expertise and creativity as a sushi chef is kept under wraps. Tradition dictates he must prepare and serve Koji’s menu and that menu only.

Nobu, in his late 20s, blends Japanese hip-hop style with the patois of American rap (“Oishi—your lateness prevents your greatness, my dude!”). He has been working under Takashi for five years, moving up from apprentice to basic kitchen chores. His contemporary mindset allows him to honor Koji’s tradition, while urging Takashi, whose talents Nobu recognizes, to create new solutions.

In 2015, few Japanese youth are willing to spend the years necessary to apprentice in a sushi kitchen, and Sushi Koji has experienced rapid turnover in that bottom level position. The young men who apply are unreliable and/or deficient, and tradition dictates that the position cannot be filled by women—though Ama, a punked-out Goth, is eager to try.

As Koji struggles daily to sustain the values and excellence he has pursued all his life, his age, the past and the ongoing decline of sushi’s key ingredients combine to bring Sushi Koji to a crisis—one which ultimately brings loss and liberation for all who work there.

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