Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jiro's Pathelogical Dream

Preamble/Spoiler Alert:

For which you might think I may ruin the ending of the documentary 'Jiro Dreams Of Sushi' but the spoiler I refer to is spoiling Japan for you. Ostensibly, I don't like talking about Japan, but the truth of it is, that I would love to talk about Japan. Except bitter experience (for all) is that when I talk about Japan I feel like I've just told a small child that Santa isn't real.

If you love Japan but have never been, and your life ambition is to go to Japan, you probably don't want to keep reading this post, because it may shatter the glass between you and the Japan-zoo you can experience and enjoy, and leave you smelling the feces.

Begin Post In Earnest:

Jiro is on to something, in the opening moments of his documentary, he talks about falling in love with your work, and how once you find your job and start your work you should fall in love with it. And I agree, super important to my own pursuit of happiness was seeing the image of Michael Jordan crying as he held his first NBA championship trophy, it was witnessing the power of that emotion over a sporting trophy that I realised we can arbitrarily select the purpose of our own lives and find great meaning in it.

Work IS really important, and a vocation is a wonderful thing to have. And it's possible to watch the documentary marvelling at Jiro's obsession with Sushi as he pursues the perfection of his art and reflects on the long journey to create a sushi bar with ten seats and no rest-room that costs upwards of $300 per meal and require a reservation one month in advance.

That's a pretty incredible business, a pretty incredible restaurant.

I can't claim to have watched the documentary, I only got 45 minutes through. But I find there's only so much of Jiro - and Japan's - work ethos I can take. I can respect it so far, I can't possibly revere it, and neither should you.

But it is stimulating. There's lot's about the 'Japan method' that is a fascinating study, a huge living breathing social experiment that would be too unethical to ever conduct.

The Japanese Method:

The Japanese Method I would describe as such: Assume a subjective quantity as objective, then exert all efforts trying to climb this faux-objective heirarchy.

By making this assumption Japan has produced some pretty amazing stuff, it's an extraordinary creative exercise, perhaps similar to 'lateral thinking' techniques proposed by Edward De Bono, which suspend say criticism 'assume it will work' in order to get to a place where a more creative solution will work.

But in a literal example, the Japanese method basically says 'everybody likes their spaghetti sauce silky and red.' this eliminates the problem of trying to make the best spaghetti sauce in the world when some people like their sauce 'chunky' and some people like it 'silky'. I use this example because Malcolm Gladwell does an excellent TED Talk on just this subject.

So if you want to apply the Japanese method in practice, you make the above assumption, and what you would expect would be an obsessive sauce maker who has used nano-technology and molecular gastronomy to come up with the most comprehensive blending process and a bunch of fanatical fans willing to testify as to its unparalleled silkiness being worth the price.

But it's a creative process that usurps your autonomy, your personal preference, the consumer needs to be submissive to the assumption in order for it to work.

Hold Everything Constant:

I don't understand Jazz. And the more I find out about Jazz, the less I seemingly know. What surprised me the most was that although I'd heard of this documentary, I wound up seeing it with a Jazz musician friend who'd had it almost universally recommended by a group of Jazz musicians who had all acclaimed it.

And thus everything I thought I knew about Jazz turned out to be a lie.

Knowing as little as I do now about Jazz, I can't really comment any further. But I was just a few weeks earlier at another friends Japanese Tea Ceremony performance.

Tea Ceremony is a fine example of the Japan Method, although there are different schools it answers the eternal question 'How do you like your tea?' that answer is filled and thus the practitioner of the ceremony can then pursue the perfect ritual of serving the perfect tea.

At the time I thought, 'this is like the complete opposite of Jazz' and thus of interest to Jazz musicians. But it turns out I could be completely wrong with the exact same result.

One thing I'm also unlearning, are a lot of assumptions I made about philosophy, largely with the aid of a former housemates site he is curating called 'wireless philosophy'.

Jiro's story is interesting, because you can see the philosophical nature of it. In trying to perfect his art, he is trying to rigorously hold everything constant - hence he can consistently produce the perfect sushi. So he has all these methods down for the preparation of rice, nori, marinading the fish, boiling the prawns etc.

You even see Jiro meticulously planning how to seat the customers. It extends even further, one of the documentary's subjects, a food critic, feels nervous eating in front of Jiro - as if the customer can fuck up the process.

The documentary as far as I watched it, even went up the supply chain to show the fishmongers at the fish market attempting to ensure the quality of fish was up to the rigor of Jiro's restaurant.

At some point though, as tiny as Jiro's little restaurant is, and as specialised as he can make it, things are going to be down to chance. The fisherman's catch, the pallet of the customer, the temperature of outdoors. Something will ruin the fidelity of the process, but I don't think Jiro's life is an exercise in exploring the futility of control.

His tiny restaurant, and his running of it seem strangely appropriate to this wireless philosophy video, far shorter and to me, far more stimulating than the documentary itself. It too demonstrates how complicated the task of describing what is in a room completely sprang back to my mind while watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi:

To me it's a kind of paradox, the impossibility of completely describing what is going on in a tiny room fucks with our intuition by suggesting that a tiny finite room is kind of as infinite as the whole Universe given that neither could really be completely described.

I don't think Jiro though, views his own life's work in this kind of profundity, what never has sat well with me about the Japanese obsession with perfection, to try and control as much of any process as possible is that it is risk averse. It is risk-hating. To me, the perfect morsel of sushi would most likely come about through serendipity, the right piece of fish on the right bit of rice with the right dip of soy sauce all coming together in an accidental and extremely improbable event. And it would be special because it couldn't be reproduced.

Jiro's skills should be respected, his whole game should be respected, but I, I guess I would be bemused and probably condescending to people who revere it.

A frog in a well knows nothing of the vastness of the ocean.

The Japanese have a saying that perfectly sums up the pathology of the Japanese method. My friend's video only worked with subtitles in a player that only had the 'G' in 'RGB' and thus Jiro himself often resembled a frog or turtle when I watched it.

The most heartbreaking thing about my love of Japanese people, is that they are 'Japanese' first and 'people' second. Jiro may be demonstrating that something as delicious, innocuous and simple as Sushi may be sufficient to occupy a whole life (and then some, but more on that later), but consider an alternative.

What is a game of basketball? It's in essence the same descriptive exercise. There are many people, religiously obsessed with basketball, over the past month, friends have been posting clips on my facebook news feed of articles analyzing the brilliance of Greg Poppovich's coaching and the Spurs plays.

The naive answer is that a game of basketball is the players on the court. The players on the court and the rules of the game. The players, the rules, the subjective application of those rules by the referees. The players, the rules, the referees, the tangible variables such as the tautness of the nets, the surface of the courts. The players, the rules, the referees, the physical variables, the coaches' decisions. The players the rules, the refs, the materials, the coaches decisions, the crowd engagement...

All have an impact on the game, the game of basketball is so complex it is completely unpredictable, it defies description, I didn't even get into the players and coaches heads. The status of a contract or the news of the day or the health of a players loved one all could have a significant impact on the causal chain that determines how each ball game turns out.

A master of basketball like Phil Jackson, is so much more impressive to me for exploring the idea that 'there's much more to basketball than basketball' than Jiro is for trying to reduce the universe down to as little as possible and discovering that you still don't have mastery over it.

Basketball is just one vehicle through which a frog can exit a well and explore the vastness of the ocean, this is what I would have thought Jazz was as well. The crazy thing is that the Japanese have this saying, yet if you were to characterize the 'Japanese' mind - its a frog in a well.

There are plenty of commentaries on this phenomena and it's various manifestations - eg. how the Japanese travel, socialise, consume brands, are educated etc.

Finger in The Wound:

The Japan method has an obvious failing. I think the perfect analogy is that descriptive exercise from wi-phi, in that the Japan method could be synthesised as 'erect a box, and then think exclusively inside of it.' Mastery in the Japan method is attaining the most complete description of what is happening in the box as possible.

Superficially it can produce very impressive work, I don't deny it. But it has, and always has had, and always will have one major point of weakness as a method.

There is no box.

My great love of Japan is fuelled mostly by the Japanese mind that made this observation. Musashi Miyamoto, he arrived at it in a domain of perfect objectivity - sword fighting. He was regarded as an 'invincible' swordsman, my first exhibition was about his victory over the Yoshioka School, one man versus 70. Heavily influenced by Zen, Musashi developed a fighting style to cope with vast quantities of uncertainty, immeasurable risk, and as far as I can permit myself to speculate it probably all comes from the revelation that there are no rules to swordfighting, there's just living and dying. You do whatever it takes to cut your opponent down.

If you read his treatise 'The Book of Five Rings' you could believe that you can master his style in an afternoon, his instructions on foot work for example boil down to 'walk normally' as to where to focus the eyes 'try and take in as much as possible'.

It's so banal it exposes the mysticism of the Japanese method. Yet to do this to Japanese people, that is to refuse to acknowledge the assumptions that allow so much to function, is seen as incredibly poor form.

Which is fine, if you are (as most people are) happy to ignore that the Japanese people live in cramped cold apartments working ludicrous hours with no social lives in often loveless marriages with despondent children, high suicide rates, collossal debt, a corrupt government, degraded natural environment, broke TV studios and pachinko parlors everywhere...


Scope is such an important concept, it's literally and succinctly a way of determining 'there is no box'. Is Jiro's sushi the perfect sushi? Or even as close to perfection as one can get?

The petty response is to say 'no, it's subjective, nobody has the authority to define the perfect sushi.' it's petty, but probably correct and as far as most should need to take it. But let's explore a more robust line of argument.

You are sitting in a french restaurant. A waiter places a cloth hood over your head, muting all your senses but smell and taste, you take in a sweet delicious aroma that sets you to salivating, then you pop a delicate morsel in your mouth. It tastes rich, and succulent and sets off a whole flurry of pleasure in your mind.

You remove the hood, and the waiter describes what you have just experienced:

They take a live quail, and plunge it into Cognac, as it drowns it inhales lungsfull of Cognac infusing it's lungs with the flavor, they then roast the quail giving it it's rich flavor.

I've been told this dish actually exists. The question is 'How delicious is it now?' there's many different answers to this. The very fact that we have both vegetarians and the rest of us in this world suggest that people taste different things.

Suppose you sit down and pay $400 for Jiro's sushi. Most people will taste and appreciate the fishmongers dilligence at the auction, Jiro's 4-am starts, the 50 minutes of massaging the octopus, the lack of holidays he ever took. Can you taste the estrangement from his father? Can you taste the way he treats his staff? Can you taste the unapologetic demands he makes? Or the notion that you the customer can get it wrong? Can you taste the imposition of his dream onto the lives of his sons?

Those last two are the most important aspects of scope to me. Because the Japan method only works if you can get people to tow-the-line, it's why it isn't just a 'method' worthy of respect, but a nationwide pathology.

You can make an assumption 'everybody likes silky tomato sauce' but that doesn't make it true. Essentially the truth of the assumption shouldn't be important, all it says is 'there is no perfect pasta sauce, there are only perfect pasta sauces' as per Malcolm Gladwell's talk. But if your life is dedicated to making the perfect pasta sauce, you need to take control of consumer preferences. It introduces a tiny little thought crime. eg. 'you cannot like chunky pasta sauce.'

There simply isn't enough space to expound on just how pervasive this is in Japanese culture. Scratch the surface and you'll find it though. It manifests in the Jiro documentary when not one but several people talk about how nervous they are to eat at Jiro's restaurant. That they cannot be relaxed and comfortable.

The other telling moments are the interviews with the son's, and the former apprentice who feels sorry for the eldest son. The son's talk about how they hated working at the restaurant at first. Jiro uses the telling phrase 'I convinced them not to go to college and start working in the restaurant.'

The scope of a dream, it's limits, are your own pursuit of happiness in your own lifetime. Jiro's life is all about sushi, it even invades his dreams. But that's not enough, his son's lives must be dedicated to perpetuating his dream. His consolation in death is that his dream will continue, that not only did he dedicate his whole life to making sushi, but he dedicated as much time as possible to reproducing his skill set in his son.

It's a vanity, an usurpation, a conceit. I would expect that any maverick that breaks the status quo, would extend to their children the opportunity to pursue their own dream. I've experienced first hand this old fashioned conceit being applied. My understanding of 'convincing' isn't a rational and persuasive dialogue so much as emotional blackmail and bullying.


In some form I could respect Jiro's story, but I know too much. I find myself having to be consistent.

Jiro's vocation for all it's admirable and legitimate aspects, the joy he claims to derive from it, is a cop out. It's a placating answer to life's bigger questions.

How can I be an athiest, that thinks the consolation of heaven is a poor argument for religious belief, being that it has no bearing on truth. In the same way, a dogmatic dedication to spending every waking (and unwaking) moment to the preparation of sushi is not just an answer to 'what is my purpose in life?' the arbitrariness of which I can respect, but through the imbalanced pursuit it is also avoiding the question.

It's just an arbitrary certainty, like faith in god, that you have all the answers that matter. Rather than facing the uncertainty and imperfection of the world with courage and optimism. To me it's a kind of cowardice, a cop out.

The other aspect is that in the 45 minutes or so of the documentary I watched, a critic featured heavily in screen time and Jiro's wife didn't feature at all. She could show up, I don't know. But it put me in mind of Mike Patton's 'How We Eat Our Own Young's essay, particularly it's most attention seeking quote 'why would we rather have the warm tongue of a critic caressing our arsehole than our spouses?'

Jiro, like many in Japan is a masochist, his view isn't extraordinary or visionary by Japan standards, Japanese workaholia is long standing, he is an artisan rather than an accountant though. He derives pleasure from the pain of his pursuit, that's all he is really saying. He produces sushi, respect his game, don't revere it.

The Japanese devote their lives to the part of the learning curve that is almost flat, attempting to achieve virtually imperceptible increments of improvement at colossal personal cost. Most musicians, artists and creatives would expand their mind much more to cultivate in themselves a respect for the happiness achieved by people who go to school, have a vacation in Bali, get married, buy a house and have children.

That world is exotic to you and worthy of study, worthy of understanding and respecting. Otherwise the most important person in your life may wind up being some fucking critic.

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