Where Obama and Abe ate sushi

Where Obama and Abe ate sushi

(Last of three parts)

In the past two weeks, we discussed the perfectionism of Jiro Ono, the founder of Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo, the first sushi restaurant in the world to receive three Michelin stars, and featured in the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” by David Gelb.

Today, we look at Jiro’s succession plans and challenges.


Chef Jiro has two sons, Yoshikazu the elder and Takashi the younger.


“I let them graduate from high school,” says Jiro. “Then they wanted to go to college, but I convinced them to help out at my restaurant.”

During the documentary filming, Yoshikazu was in his 50s, and was still apprenticing under his father at the restaurant. Meanwhile, Takashi had already left home to set up a second branch in Roppongi.

READ: The world’s best sushi master

“When l opened this restaurant, my father said, ‘Now you have no home to come back to,’” says Takashi. “He said that I would be buried in Roppongi. Failure was not an option.”

Chef Jiro explains, “I knew he could do it. If he weren’t ready, I wouldn’t have made him go. But I felt he was ready, so I gave him a gentle push out the door.

“When I say things like this, people often disagree. But when I left home at the age of nine, that’s what I was told: ‘You have no home to come back to.’ I had to work just to survive. That has never left me.” Needless to say, Jiro doesn’t remember his parents fondly, and didn’t return home while his parents were alive, or even for his father’s funeral.


READ: Dreaming of sushi with Jiro Ono

“It’s difficult to maintain a restaurant and it’s difficult to leave and start your own,” says Takashi. “But if we both were to continue working at our father’s restaurant, when he retires only one of us could be the head chef. And I don’t think I’m inferior to my brother just because I was born later.”

Like many founder patriarchs, Jiro’s passion and perfectionism—qualities that make him a great chef—also make succession a bumpy process.

Yoshikazu took over the shopping duties at the fish market at dawn from his father only at the age of 37, a full 18 years into his apprenticeship, and this happened only after Jiro suffered a heart attack.

“The heart attack was a catalyst for Yoshikazu to start going to the market,” says food critic Masuhiro Yamamoto. “Jiro felt that if he continued to go, he wouldn’t be able to pass the torch to his son.”

Besides the delegation of business responsibilities, the more difficult aspect of succession is whether Yoshikazu can get out from under his father’s shadow.

“It’s not going to be easy for Yoshikazu to succeed his father at the same restaurant,” says Jiro’s former apprentice Mizutani. “Even if Yoshikazu makes the same level of sushi, it will be seen as inferior. If Yoshikazu makes sushi that’s twice as good as Jiro’s, only then will they be seen as equals. That’s how influential his father is.”

“Were you jealous when Takashi started his own restaurant?” the documentarian asks Yoshikazu, who replies: “In Japan, the eldest son succeeds his father’s position. That’s what is expected of me.”

In 2014, then President Barack Obama and then Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had their state dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro—a quick one, possibly, as one full course at the restaurant lasts only 15 to 20 minutes.

In recent years, diners concur that Yoshikazu is already the main chef of the restaurant, while Jiro has receded from public view. (One would hope so, given he is 98 this year.)

But the restaurant continues doing good business—so good, that in 2019, it lost its Michelin stars, for the reason that it was fully booked so many months in advance, the Michelin Guide could no longer consider the restaurant “open to the public.”

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When asked about the future, Yoshikazu says, “I hated it at first. For the first two years, I wanted to run away … I wish my father could make sushi forever. But at some point I’m going to have to take his place. We’ve gone through a lot to maintain the integrity of this restaurant. I must continue my father’s tradition.”

TAGS: All in the Family, Sushi

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