Sushi U.

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The young man runs a knife down the length of a still-quivering eel as his fingers struggle to cut the tiny fins from the soft flesh. Halfway through the delicate operation, his hand slips, resulting in a jagged, unsightly slice.

“No, no,” sushi master Katsuji Konakai, 81, says as he grabs the knife and makes a perfect cut with a practiced motion, “your angle is no good.”

Working the angles is just one of the many challenges 31-year-old Takenori Hanada and his fellow students face here at Sushi University as they struggle to absorb a lifetime of experience in a matter of months.


In exchange for $15,000 in tuition and up to a year of their time, enrollees in the world’s only institution of higher sushi studies gain a certificate of merit, the benefit of Konakai’s 66 years of experience and all the sushi they can eat. Those really in a hurry can take a one-month, nine-hour-a day crash course for $17,500.

For Japan’s old guard, however, this is heresy. To really master your art, they say, you need to hone your skills over years and years--decades, even--as an apprentice.

“A great deal is lost in a world of instant results,” says Shigeo Mori, a fifth-generation master at Hatsune restaurant whose family traces its sushi roots back to 1872.

How, you might ask, can it possibly take two decades to master the art of slapping some raw fish over a vinegar-infused rice ball when surgeons qualify to operate on the human brain in less than half that time? The answer says a lot about Japan’s traditional search for perfection, its deep-seated respect for humility and hierarchy and the inevitable erosion of these standards in the modern world.

In fact, behind the debate over training is a growing split among sushi lovers. For connoisseurs, the tradition of the master craftsman preparing the finest delicacies--for meals that can cost more than $300 per person--in elite Ginza and Kyoto establishments lives on. For more and more Japanese hit by years of recession, however, sushi is increasingly nothing more than a form of fast food.

“More and more people realize this [traditional] system of training sushi chefs is a little strange and outdated,” says Jun Yokokawa, a culinary lecturer at Bunkyo University.


But those at the top ranks of Japan’s most famous culinary discipline insist that real mastery goes far beyond the act of marrying rice and fish.

Not only does it involve years of experience buying and handling seafood, preparing seasonal specialties and knowing how to keep it fresh, it also requires mastering a thousand subtleties. Such as which dishes call for new rice (shinmai) and which demand old rice (komai). Or how the treatment of surf clams differs from that of horse-neck clams. Or whether the top or bottom of the scallop is sweeter.

Beyond the technical details, the best sushi chefs are masters of their universe. They know how to read and entertain their customers, deal with suppliers, anticipate shortfalls and nurture apprentices to foster the next generation of masters.

That said, despite all the mystique, standards can get a bit wobbly. And when really pushed, many masters eventually fall back on some variation of “You know it when you see it.”

Traditional sushi masters face no requisite licensing exam or doctoral dissertation. While there is an unevenly applied ranking system, industry stature is generally the product of peer and customer recognition.

For most students at 20-year-old Sushi University, however, pursuing a traditional apprenticeship is simply not an option. Many are in mid-career or retired. And in a world of increased social mobility, delayed gratification has become far less appealing. While most say they respect traditional Japanese craftsmanship, in the end, life’s just too short.


Yoichi Mine, 60, dressed in jeans and sneakers, says he first became interested in sushi several decades ago and decided to enter Sushi U. after retiring from his corporate job. His dream is to open a small sushi restaurant in a resort town some day.

“I’m quite old,” he says, “but I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

Others, like Hanada, see the training as paving the way to live abroad, where sushi standards are lower anyway. Foreigners with unique skills can apply for special visa categories in the U.S. and other countries, and a Japanese sushi certificate is a plus.

He’s got his sights set on Las Vegas. “I love to gamble,” he says. “And I hear Americans tip a lot, especially after they’ve won.”

Despite its grand-sounding name, Sushi University’s “campus” consists of two rooms jammed with several refrigerators and sinks, an industrial-size rice maker, some lockers and dozens of knives. The school is relatively well known in the sushi world, but more for its unique status than as a producer of industry greats.

“Sushi is the soul of Japan,” reads a wooden board overhead, while a clock on the wall marks the time with sushi pieces for numbers and chopsticks for hands.

These days, even those who follow the old apprenticeship route are spending less time at it, while the generations behind them are even less patient. Medieval-style indentured servitude, after all, is rapidly going out of style, even in Japan.


Hitoshi Handa, 29, a junior sushi master at a branch of well-respected Sushisei Restaurant, says he did a three-year apprenticeship at the beginning of his 12-year stint in the industry. “It was quick but tough,” he says. “But young people these days are less dedicated and much more concerned with how much free time they have after work.” Of the 50 apprentices Sushisei takes on every year, half now drop out within three months.

Probably the epitome of the speed-’em-up mind-set in the sushi world are employees at conveyor-belt sushi restaurants. Often staffed by high school part-timers and casual labor, these chains offer sushi as inexpensive as 46 cents for two pieces on plates that circulate in front of customers. The bill is based on how many and what color plates are left at the end of the meal.

“We believe in being practical,” says Hiroshi Shiraishi, the president of Genroku, which invented the revolving sushi system. “You can’t learn anything until you do it, so we start beginners out making sushi on the first day.”

And for some, sushi’s very ability to take new forms at home and abroad guarantees the cuisine a bright and vibrant future. Sushi has only gained in popularity at a time when the traditional Japanese diet is changing, rice is ceding ground to bread and potatoes, and many cultural icons like flower arranging, the tea ceremony and even sumo struggle to attract new converts.

Among the upstarts are cream cheese and salmon “Madonna rolls” seen in Miami, peanut butter combinations sighted in New York, L.A.’s “high-food” sushi complete with bread sticks and other vertical additions, and raw horse and foie gras varieties appearing in Japan.

Sushi University master Konakai’s own apprenticeship started when he was 15, after his father advised him to gain a skill and shipped him off to a relative’s sushi shop. For the first several years, he worked every day of the year but New Year’s Day and the summer obon holiday washing floors, cleaning toilets, delivering sushi and shining customers’ shoes to encourage repeat business.


After three years at the bottom of the food chain, he graduated to cleaning small fish and shellfish. Another three saw him handling sea bream and flounder. Only after two more years did he start making the japonica rice at the heart of any “real” sushi.

His first big break came two years later when he was allowed to work behind the counter in the presence of customers, a big honor, although he could only make the most basic types of rolled sushi. Another couple of years, and he was finally allowed to make the bite-sized hand-formed sushi known as nigiri.

For much of the time, Konakai says, his pay was three yen a month, enough in those days to buy a meal. At night he slept in the back of the restaurant. He ran away five times but was dragged back. And when he made a mistake, the sushi master would often hit him over the head with the blunt end of the sushi knife. “Basically we were working for nothing,” he says.

In this strict hierarchy, the sushi master, or itamae, held absolute power, in part because his skill and customer rapport determined whether a restaurant made it. “All of us small boys wanted to be an itamae,” he says. “He was like the emperor or God.”

Fellow sushi master Mori, now the president of Japan’s 20,000-member federation of sushi establishments, saw similar hardship, although he was never beaten--in part because his father owned the shop. But being the fifth generation of a sushi dynasty carried its own burden. For months before entering his apprenticeship, he anguished over whether to follow family tradition or pursue another career.

“Ultimately, the son of a sushi maker is always a sushi maker,” he says.

Those who are the product of this feudal system say that some of the most valuable lessons are those you didn’t realize you were getting--things like patience, perseverance, human nature, subtlety and dedication to something you love.


“At first there is just hardship,” Konakai says. “But eventually understanding starts to emerge through the hardship. Young people these days only think about their paycheck. They don’t think about the pride of really doing a job well. They stop growing.”

Despite the aura of tradition surrounding sushi, the hand-formed nigiri variety most popular today is a relatively recent innovation. “Nigiri is a Johnny-come-lately in sushi history,” says Tadashi Uchida, who has written about sushi.

Although a salted, preserved dish of rice and cooked fish dates back to early Chinese history, the practice of using raw fish only emerged about 160 years ago, originally as a quick snack food. And Japan’s unofficial national dish only reached many of the nation’s inland areas in the 1950s as transportation and refrigeration advanced.

Konakai, with nearly seven decades of sushi experience, views himself as something of a bridge between the old world and the new, the apprentice system and the spoon-fed world of the classroom.

At 81, he doesn’t have too much longer to live, he says, and in the remaining time he wants to pass on as much of Japan’s sushi tradition and culture to as many people as he can, with Sushi University being about the best way he can think of to do that.

He has no illusion that he’s turning out world-class sushi experts, he says. While his best students learn quickly and show genuine interest, many others seem happy to coast.


Ideally, what he hopes to do, he says, is give his students the basics in a faster, more organized form than he got it, allowing them to take this knowledge and practice it over a lifetime. “It still takes years,” he says. “But you’ve got a running start.”

“The students are very slow,” he adds. “If they worked that slow at work, their boss would hit them. But they pay us here, so we can’t hit them.”


Hisako Ueno in The Times’ Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.