Crafting your spirit at work: The way of the Shokunin

By on May 7, 2014

Jiro Ono is a famous Tokyo sushi chef who, at 89, has no intentions of retiring unless he is incapable of showing up to work. His work brings so much meaning, purpose and joy to his life that he cannot imagine life without it. To him, work is not a paycheque – it is a privilege. As the first sushi restaurant to be awarded three Michelin star rating, he is also a recognized master in his field.

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the documentary chronicling Jiro’s approach to life, work and business, provides some key insights into the shokunin or artisan mindset that makes it possible to fill your work with joy, vitality, and purpose no matter what it may be.

Mastering Mindfulness.
Jiro is so committed to providing the perfect experience for his clients that he adjusts the size of the sushi to the size of the patron, and the placement on their plate according to whether they are right or left-handed. Details matter. They are the difference between going through the motions and really caring. This benefits the customer, but it also benefits the worker. Being mindful of the details keeps you fully engaged in your work. It brings the priceless feeling of a job well done and potential realized.

Understand Enough.
Size does matter, but bigger isn’t always better. Jiro’s 3 star restaurant seats only 11 people. He could have capitalized on his fame with a larger restaurant, but that would have prevented him from giving the kind of service and the quality of product that he is famous for. Japanese culture abounds with examples that less is often more. Jiro only serves sushi. He recognizes that excellence comes from the ability and the courage to focus. This is true not only for the size of your business and the number of your products, but for your lifestyle and work. Climbing the career ladder may not bring you joy. A small condo might bring you more contentment than a big house. Commit to right-size your life based on own values rather than competing with external standards.

Challenge, Change, and Creativity.
Jiro literally dreams of sushi and how to improve his skills and his customer experience. He experiments constantly, looking for ways to make small improvements as well as being willing to try something completely different. Success and fulfillment in any field require these same abilities.

Passion, Purpose, and Personal Responsibility.
Jiro believes that a person has only two choices – to fall in love with their work or to find new work. Would he have found the same sense of calling as a plumber, salesman, teacher or tailor? I suspect he could have, but if he didn’t he would have moved on to something else until he did. This attitude differentiates the true shokunin from the mere seeker.
The most dangerous belief I encounter in the seekers is that the successful business owner, executive, artist or guru who also seems to love her work somehow “got lucky” to find that perfect career where her passions fit her abilities. Why is this belief so dangerous? Because it assumes that a person has only one career where they can find both passion and fulfillment and that they have to get lucky to find it. Assuming that ideal work must be found rather than created propagates a lack of commitment and personal responsibility that is the antithesis of the shokunin.
Every person I have studied and worked with over the last two decades that has “found” their passion demonstrates a common skill and mindset – they took personal responsibility for actively creating passion and artistry in every job they had. Whether they were a bus driver, a clerk at 7-11, or a leading executive they brought their full passion, commitment, and creativity to whatever role they were in. While many of these success stories might also attribute their success and fulfillment to “luck”, their stories reveal the truth – it was their commitment to fulfilling their potential in every job they had that propelled them along.
The shokunin understands that there is more than one career that can bring fulfillment. You create it rather than searching for it. Through committing to challenge your creativity, work with joy, make a difference, and tap into the vitality, and purpose that comes from crafting your shokunin spirit in whatever you do, no matter how simple.


Photo by Adam Goldberg Location: Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant

Photo by Adam Goldberg
Location: Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant

Hollywood start Hugh Jackman is a regular visitor at Sukiyabashi Jiro when in Tokyo

Hollywood start Hugh Jackman is a regular visitor at Sukiyabashi Jiro when in Tokyo

Pop star Katy Perry kisses the master

Pop star Katy Perry kisses the master

Photo courtesy of The White House (twitter)

US President Barack Obama dines at Jiro Sukiyabashi in Ginza hosted by Japan Prime Minister Abe Photo courtesy of The White House (twitter)

Jiro’s famous quotes

Immerse yourself in your craft.
Love what you do, never complain about your job.
Ultimate simplicity equals purity.
Our techniques are no big secret. It’s about repeating a process and getting better each day.
Like anything, if you work hard, you will get good over time.
I get on the train at the same time and enter the same spot everyday.
I don’t like days away from what I love.
Each time a guest tastes my sushi, it needs to be better than the time before.

The best fatty tuna in the world.

The best fatty tuna in the world.

About Andrea Jacques

Andrea Jacques is the founder of Kyosei Consulting and the author of Wabi-Sabi Wisdom: Inspiration for an Authentic Life (available on Amazon.com). She has spent more than 20 years developing the potential of people and businesses worldwide, five of which were in Japan. A dynamic speaker, coach, and facilitator, her work helps individuals and organizations build thriving, purpose-driven cultures where employees know their work truly matters. Learn about career and entrepreneur coaching programs (and download some free tools for meaningful work and living your purpose) at www.kyoseicoaching.com or their workplace transformation programs at www.kyoseiconsulting.com