For the second sons, sometimes success: ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’

My paternal grandfather’s name was Jiro and that, like Jiro Ono, explains a lot about both of their lives. In “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” some of this goes unexplained and there are some questions that remain unanswered.

The movie begins by showing us the where. The restaurant is situated in a very exclusive part of Tokyo. We see Jiro taking the subway in to his restaurant. The stairway he climbs clearly shows us the Ginza, Hibiya and Marunouchi lines. He’s getting off at the Ginza station.

The cost of the average dinner in Tokyo is $70.64 and $181.08 for a meal at a top restaurant. Jiro’s restaurant is in an exclusive part of town. In Los Angeles, perhaps it would be comparable to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. His second son, Takashi, is in Roppongi, which might be comparable to the hip Hollywood strip on Melrose. At $300 for the tasting menu, the documentary shows us what you get: sushi, sushi and more sushi. For dessert you get a melon–a common place summer fruit in America, but a relative luxury in Japan. Melons can go for $25 and up.

The movie also shows us photos so we see the progression from one sushi chef surrounded by female employees–most likely waitresses, to an elderly man with men of different ages–chefs and apprentices. Women are not traditionally considered for sushi chefs because their hands are too small and the temperature of their hands isn’t right. That point come up later when we hear commentary from a former apprentice, Mizutani.

Mizutani is also a sushi chef and when he discusses Jiro’s son’s because Yoshikazu is already 50 and 12 years younger than Mizutani, he comments that he has no one to take over for him. The subtitles are not literal translations. What Mizutani actually says is he only has daughter(s).

In English both my grandfather’s name and Jiro Ono’s given name sound the same, but they are written differently. Still the meaning is the same. My grandfather was Jiro 次郎 as in the next boy with the “ji” standing for next in a succession such as the next station. In the case of Jiro Ono (二郎) as in the number two and boy. That might remind English speakers of Charlie Chan and his “number one son.” Jiro is the number two son.

The question then becomes: What happened to the number one son?

How this makes things more understandable is that traditionally, the eldest on inherits everything and the second son, might work to support the family business until striking out on his own. The men who chose to immigrate to the United States were usually not the eldest sons. My paternal grandfather came from a landed family, gentleman farmers who had been samurai class in Northern Kyushu. He sought his fortune in the United States, married, had a family, but sadly died in the same year that his wife died in a traffic accident. According to his only sister, he sent back money to buy land until he married. When he died, leaving orphaned children, the three youngest were sent back to Japan. The three eldest sons made their way in the world. The eldest disappeared and the second eldest became the leader of the family.

If Jiro Ono was 85 in 2011 when the movie came out, then he was born around 1926. He would have reach 20 in 1946.  Jiro recounts how he left home at age 9 and was told that he could not return home. He doesn’t know much about his parents. We see a photo of him with his father taken in 1927 or 1928 by a professional photographer. Jiro’s face is blurred because at that time, photographs required longer exposures and the subjects had to stay still. He recalls that at that time, his father was making good money, transporting people in his boat, but his business failed. “All he did was drink,” Jiro recalls. After that, Jiro doesn’t know much about his father.  He heard his father was working in a military factory in Yokohama. “I hear that he died. But I didn’t go to the funeral,” Jiro comments.

“I lived with him until I was seven. After that I don’t know. I was on my own after that,” he says. In 1929, with the stock market crash, the U.S. and the rest of the world fell into the Great Depression. Japan would recover in about 1933, but then would become involved in a war. Jiro would himself serve in the Japanese army. The documentary doesn’t go much into this and we’ll never know if his experiences there inspired his work ethic. Perhaps he discusses this in his books (see below).  Post-World War II Japan was a nation rising from the ashes of an unwise war, when imperialism had backfired and instead of enriching a nation through exploiting other countries and peoples, it had resulted in the near destruction of a nation.

Even in America, the people who lived through the Great Depression and the rationing of the war years have a different perspective on life, work and waste.

When Jiro, the sushi chef, returns to his hometown of Hamamatsu, he recounts how he was a bully and run out of his house. He somewhat bitterly recounts how although he honors his parents; they didn’t give him anything. He earned it by himself. Yet his relationship with his sons doesn’t seem to be so bad although he admits, “I wasn’t much of a father; I was probably more like a stranger “because he got up at 5 a.m. to go to work and returned at 10 p.m. Through apprenticing his sons, he has become close to them. How many fathers are close to their sons and respected by them when they are in their 80s?

Although at the beginning of the movie Jiro writes his name using two, he uses the same kanji as my grandfather for his restaurant: Sukiyabashi Jiro. The sign we are shown actually has “sushi” written more prominently.  Could this be because he didn’t want to use “2” because of the connotation that it was second?

Jiro says he hates holidays, but the restaurant is closed Sundays, public holidays, Saturday evenings, mid-August (for O-bon one imagines) and the year-end holidays. Business hours are 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. for dinner.

The food writer Yasuhiro Yamamoto isn’t the only person who has written about Jiro Ono. There are also several books out about Sukiyabashi Jiro: “Sukiyabashi Jiro Makes Sushi of the Season” by Shinzo Satomi (2001), “The Style of Edomaezushi: Expertise and Spirit of the Master of Sushi” (2009), “Sukiyabashi Jiro Talks about Sushi” by Shin USami (2009), “The Sukiyabashi Jiro Story: The Life of a Professional Sushi Chef” by Jiro Ono (2003), “How Professionals Use the Brain” by Kenichiro Mogi (2009) and “Sushi: Aesthetic, Profession and Expertise” by Jiro Ono (2009).

Jiro has already been the topic of an NHK program “Professionals: My Style of Working–Study beyond the whole lifetime.”

This movie isn’t really so much to inform Japanese about Jiro Ono, but seems aimed more for a foreign market. Consider the soundtrack. To suggest long tradition and high culture Tchaikovsky, Bach and Mozart are used along with the modern composers American Philip Glass, German-born British composer Max Richter and once piece by California-born Rye Randa. Yet for a Japanese person, Western classical music would have a different connotation.

Sukiyabashi Jiro has a website in Japanese and English. The website sells a brand of rice vinegar  which at this time it does not export. It does say that you can get your concierge to make reservations for you–does this mean for foreign guests there may not be a long wait?

Sukiyabashi Jiro is located in Tsukamoto Sogyo Building, Basement 1st Floor,2-15, Ginza 4-chome, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, Japan Map→
Phone: 03-3535-3600 (+81-3-3535-3600 from abroad)

As Yamamoto and Mizutani notes, the first son who inherits the business from the father doesn’t always do well–sometimes it has nothing to do with skill but reputation. Jiro did well enough for himself. I’d say that my grandfather’s gamble on the U.S. eventually paid off if not for his sons, for his grandsons and granddaughters.

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