By MIKI TANIKAWA
Published: August 13, 2010
MultimediaTOKYO — At the sound of the buzzer, Kensuke Aoki starts furiously pressing rice into shape in his left palm. Adding dabs of bright green wasabi paste and quickly placing slices of mackerel on top of the rice, he completes each nigiri one after another. Three minutes and 18 nigiri later, time is up, and his instructor comes around to sort the well-shaped ones from the ill-shaped, as Mr. Aoki wistfully looks on. Just 12 have made the grade.
“It’s hard, but I am getting better every time I do it,” said Mr. Aoki, a student at the Tokyo Sushi Academy. “Speed is as crucial as quality because efficiency is what they will seek in the real world.”
Mr. Aoki, 30, believes that having a real-world sense of things will help him and his classmates gain the skills they need to plunge into the competitive market for sushi chefs in places like Germany, the United States and Australia.
Students at the privately owned academy plan to join the growing ranks of professional Japanese chefs eager to serve a growing overseas appetite for sushi. Their plan to seek jobs abroad comes as revenue is declining within the Japanese sushi sector amid a cutthroat price war within the restaurant industry overall, which means consumers expect to pay less and receive more.
By contrast, the sushi restaurant market overseas is a rich source of entrepreneurial opportunity for young Japanese, said Hiromi Sugiyama, a director of the academy, which also hosts a Web site, www.sushijob.com, for chefs seeking jobs in other countries.
“Graduates of this school often earn much more than they would make here in Japan,” she said, as more sushi restaurants open in Europe and Latin America.
The academy enrolls about 100 students each year in either intensive, two-month programs or yearlong diploma courses. More than 700 students have graduated from the academy since it opened in 2002, its executives say. Of the 10 people in Mr. Aoki’s yearlong program, 9 said they were preparing for careers abroad.
Mr. Aoki sees his training as a way to return to the United States, where he spent two years as a college student in Reno, Nevada.
“I liked the lifestyle there,” he said. “The working environment seems better, and the nature and the wildlife is terrific.”
A more fragile job market in Japan may also be a factor. The ¥1.5 trillion, or $17.4 billion, sushi restaurant industry in Japan is changing, says Akihiro Nisugi, a restaurant consultant at Funai Consulting, based in Tokyo. “The fast-food ‘rotating conveyor belt’ sushi chains are growing,” he said, “but the traditional sushi restaurant is facing contraction.”
Revenue at traditional sushi restaurants in Japan declined to ¥1.049 trillion in 2009 from ¥1.08 trillion in 2006, according to Funai. Sales at fast-food sushi places amounted to ¥428 billion in 2009.
Decades ago, an aspiring chef would have joined a traditional sushi restaurant as an apprentice, dreaming one day of becoming a taisho, or a sushi restaurant owner, in places like the chic Ginza district of Tokyo, where restaurants are renowned for providing the highest-quality sushi. But with that sort of job security crumbling, along with the concept of long-term loyalty to one employer, chefs are directing their attention abroad.
Taira Matsuki, 39, who completed a short-term program at the Tokyo Sushi Academy two years ago, set up a catering business in Warsaw last year after working at a sushi restaurant in Poland.
“Here, sushi and pizza are two categories that are growing strongly and where people are making money,” said Mr. Matsuki, who now employs five Polish workers. His mainstay product is a $7 sushi lunchbox aimed at business executives in downtown Warsaw.
The speed with which he was able to open his own business contrasts with the centuries-old traditions of the Japanese sushi apprenticeship. Young people are shunning the profession at home partly because the industry requires years of mopping floors and washing dishes before an apprentice is even allowed to touch rice.
“People say it takes three years before you can master the nigiri, and five years before you perfect maki sushi, the roll, and you need 10 years before you become a full-fledged sushi master,” said Ken Kawasumi, chief instructor at the Sushi Academy and a former sushi chef. “That’s not a valid approach anymore.”
Plus, his students are not willing to wait that long. Koji Ohno, 30, another student at the Tokyo Sushi Academy, has worked as an information technology engineer and wants to reinvent himself as a sushi cook overseas. Going the traditional apprentice route is not part of his plan. “That’s a risk I am not willing to take at this age,” he said. “I wanted to get right to the training.” He plans to move to Munich, where he once studied German.
But traditionalists say the regime of years of training is integral to achieving the right mental attitude as a professional who works directly, almost intimately, with consumers. “In sushi,” said Issei Kurimoto, a head chef at a sushi restaurant in the Yurakucho area of Tokyo, “you work in an open kitchen counter, facing your customers and serving them directly. You need to develop direct hospitality skills.”
Mr. Kurimoto, who has hired sushi school graduates over his 40-year career, says students need more than a diploma. The true skills of a sushi chef are learned at a tension-filled counter, repeating the routines over and over “until your body knows it,” he said.
On-the-job experience also adds to subtle knowledge of the product — the seasonality of the fish, for example. Some fish are only available during a particular season, he said, while an item like squid, which is available year-round, “is different in condition between summer and winter, and requires a different slicing technique.”
“You have to go through several summers or several winters before you are fully equipped with that kind of skill,” he said.
Some restaurants, however, acknowledge that they need to revise the system to attract the sushi chefs of the future.
“Young people want visibility in terms of a career, and it’s difficult to get that if you have to wait three years before you are allowed to touch the knife,” said Hiroshi Umehara, a spokesman at Kiyomura, which operates 30 sushi shops in Tokyo.
The company opened its own sushi school four years ago, making sure that “you touch rice the first day,” Mr. Umehara said.
The school enrolls 20 students for a three-month program, which is repeated twice a year, he said, and students increasingly seek career opportunities overseas.
Even with the training, the skills needed in overseas markets can vary from those required in Japan.
“There are certain skills that are not useful overseas,” said Suehiko Shimizu, 70, another instructor at the Sushi Academy. Some Japanese favorites, like conger eel, are not available in most overseas markets, he said, while many consumers in European markets turn up their noses at raw shellfish like clams, or salmon roe, which are standard fare in Japan.
In fact, Mr. Matsuki, in Warsaw, says that half of the contents of the lunchbox he serves are fried. “Many Polish people aren’t used to raw fish yet,” he said. “I also tweak the sauce so it is a bit sweet, which is to the liking of the locals.”