Japan and Work Ethic

By Bryson Torgovitsky

In my most recent post, I reviewed the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and the work ethic exhibited by Yoshikazu Ono, the son of renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono. I expressed how impressed I was by Yoshikazu’s tenacity when learning how to make tamagoyaki and how that tenacity was explained in the documentary as a shining example of Japanese work ethic. When I discussed the documentary with my teacher, she recommended that I read a section of A Geek in Japan by Héctor García about the apprenticeship system in Japan. After hearing from the (Japanese) food critic in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” that Yoshikazu Ono was a prime example of how the Japanese operate in their jobs, I was impressed but skeptical that such tenacity was such a widespread phenomenon. Once I read Geek in Japan and learned about the three-step Tao-Zen philosophy, I was assured that the food critic was speaking honestly and not from a patriotic bias.

The steps of the Tao-Zen philosophy are fairly simple.

  1. A set of ideals, patterns, or behaviors (culminating into a lifestyle called kata) has been set prior to the beginning of an apprenticeship.
  2. That kata is practiced by the apprentice for many years, with each part being practiced via daily repetition.
  3. The beauty of the kata is found through the perfection of its multiple parts over time, then fit into its continued practice, thus leading to personal enlightenment.

While García exemplified the practice of Tao-Zen through references to Buddhism (from which the philosophy originated) and martial arts, it is also apparent in how Jiro taught his son how to make tamagoyaki. As I wrote previously, Jiro had Yoshikazu practice by making over 200 practice tamagoyaki dishes and found faults in all of them before finally deeming his son’s cooking acceptable enough to be sold to their customers. That amount of daily repetition is part of the second step of the Tao-Zen philosophy. Jiro’s application of Tao-Zen to the teaching of his son is made more evident by his visit, with his son, to a Buddhist temple during a trip to his childhood home.

While the Tao-Zen philosophy being prevalent in how Jiro Ano taught his son is clearly evidenced by Jiro having Yoshikazu repeatedly make tamagoyaki as practice, and his Buddhist roots, I want to avoid making a generalization that all Japanese people follow Tao-Zen. Jiro Ono himself complained that people are doing less disciplined work in his documentary, citing parents who allowed their children to return home if their job did not go as planned or young people not establishing a lifelong career until their 20s or 30s (he began his apprenticeship in sushi-making at the age of 10 and was told by his father to leave home for work in the first grade). Thus, I am still uncertain about the true extent of Tao-Zen in contemporary Japan despite what the food critic claimed. When I finally get to see Japan for myself, I plan to pay close attention to working people and ask how they were prepared for their jobs so I can obtain a firmer comprehension of Japanese lifestyle.

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