5 Rules for California-Roll Conservatives

I love sushi.

It’s delicious, refreshing, appetizing — any adjective applies, really. On weekends my friends and I can often be found snacking on sushi and drinking Mai Tais at our favorite restaurant. I personally like nigirizushi.

What’s funny is that I used to hate the thought of it. I hadn’t tried it; the idea of consuming raw fish made me sick. But then things changed.

One day at school the dining area was offering free sushi. I tried and was immediately hooked. Now it is one of my favorite dishes.

It’s also Jiro Ono’s.

He constantly thinks of sushi — how to prepare it, serve it, reinvent it. He has since he was a young boy. It’s why he was able to ascend to the top of the international sushi industry. His restaurant is one of the few awarded three stars by the Michelin guide. In order to eat there, you have to reserve a spot a few months in advance. And bring cash — about three hundred dollars or so.

Ono is the subject of the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which premiered in 2011. It’s currently streaming on Netflix. Throughout the film he imparts much wisdom unto the viewer. We learn, for instance, that he considers the practice of making sushi a craft — not surprising, especially since he is seen as a master. But it becomes increasingly clear that his life is one of virtue, prudence, hard work, and tradition. He honors family by passing down his sushi-making techniques to his sons, as well as his apprentices.

The film is rich, powerful, engaging, and thoughtful, and as such it has many ideas to teach its viewers; think of it as “California-Roll Conservatism.” As mentioned, sushi is an art — a craft — and those who enjoy it can discern the difference between a good and bad product. So, in a sense, there exists a hierarchical order in the world of sushi.

I would like to take this Asian cultural insight and combine it with traditionalist conservatism — the kind associated with some of my favorite thinkers such as Roger Scruton, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and many others.

These are its principles: a prejudice toward the local, a respect for community and tradition, a recognition that man must be ordered toward God, the desire to pursue the permanent things, and the enjoyment of high culture.

A quick aside: As with sushi, I used to hate conservatism. This was back in high school or so. I started drifting to the right around my senior year. Everything clicked for me, however, in college:  it was when I discovered Leo Strauss, Scruton, and the meaning of the tragic in human affairs.

Here are five life lessons courtesy of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and the beginning of coming to define California-Roll Conservatism.

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5. Education Isn’t Everything.

Jiro left home at age nine to become a sushi chef, and neither of his sons went to college. Yet all three possess more wisdom than most of the world’s public intellectuals. Why is that? It’s because they have dedicated their lives to perfecting the craft of sushi-making. This includes running a proper business, ordering the best food, and pleasing customers. It is a life wrapped in experience that cultivates strong bonds and relationships. Contrast this with the typical degreed elite floating from prep school to Ivy League to a spot in business or politics. Such a life looks good on the menu, but it lacks flavor and taste. The Ivy League Ph.D would be able to tell you about the latest theories on world affairs, but he wouldn’t be able to know a person so well that, when it came to serving him food, he could properly portion it, account for taste, and even make adjustments for which hand the customer uses. Jiro does.

Viewers here receive an important takeaway:  modern university education isn’t everything. Sure, there are some who know this — Thomas Sowell or Matthew Crawford, for instance — but the fashionable trend is to shuffle everyone through college and higher and hope that something good comes of it. We’ve forgotten that not everyone is meant to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

In fact, those who discern that their purpose does not involve college often flourish.

4. You Did Roll That.


The president’s “you didn’t build that” remark is now old news. The debate, however, hasn’t gone away, because it touches upon a fundamental difference in belief between those on the left and right: namely, are there communities created by individuals who freely associate, or are we all trapped in the collective?

As a young boy, Jiro Ono was told by his family that “he no longer has a home.” Now, what does this mean?

One might assume that his family was engaging in some sort of fanatics, but that wasn’t so — they merely suggested to him that he must make his own way. His experience would be foreign among today’s young people who are seen as children until the age of 26.

So Jiro set out. He entered the sushi businesses and slowly learned the ways of other masters. He then made his own place, and he tinkered with the menu, his style. He worked all the time — even on weekends and holidays he thought about going back to work. He then brought in his family and he taught them his secrets.

His reputation grew, and then he became one of the most renowned restaurateurs in the world. A food critic in Japan speaks about him as if he is Odysseus. Jiro had an idea, and he ran with it. He sought help along the way, and through his hard work he became a giant of the industry.

3. Pursue Your Passion.

Chicken Teriyaki Bento Ichiban Sushi

It is immediately clear that Jiro Ono is passionate about sushi. I mean, why else would he think about it on his days off? Why would he desire to get back to work so quickly? Why would he describe his profession as an act of giving himself for something greater?

This is the essence of a vocation. It exemplifies the meaning of pursuing a passion and finding purpose.

It is something that we have forgotten in today’s America. Our “progressive” educational system pushes students along without any desire to cultivate a fuller, richer sense of humanity. Now this is not an indictment of teachers. But the shift away from a traditional education to one in which students fulfill Woodrow Wilson’s vision of the citizen as a bee in the hive has never been more obvious than it is today. Why else would the Department of Education, with its new Core Curriculum, encourage the reading of “informational texts”>

Films such as Jiro Dreams of Sushi remind us that it is important to engage in self-reflection. It is necessary to figure out our interests, talents, passions, and then find something that fulfills all of those. Consider Pope Benedict XVI:

Life is not governed by chance; it is not random. Your very existence has been willed by God, blessed and given a purpose! Life is not just a succession of events or experiences. It is a search for the true, the good and the beautiful. It is to this end that we make our choices; it is for this that we exercise our freedom; it is in this – in truth, in goodness, and in beauty – that we find happiness and joy.

The film is refreshing because it reminds us that life is much more than saying:  “Hey, those hours are nice.”

2. Tradition is Everything.

British philosopher Roger Scruton often says that we live in a “tyranny of the present.” He’s right. Our culture desires us to focus on the now and it tells us to just do without consideration.

The world, in truth, is a complex engagement with the past and present and with what might be. It is important to recognize what came before us, because it allows us to be humble. We are in the service of our ancestors; we are not their masters.

The long tradition of sushi-making is apparent, with its use of terms like master and apprentice. It is a craft, one which people take time to learn. And those who are in the industry add but a small piece to it.

The question of tradition becomes prominent in the context of his sons’ careers. One has opened his own place. The other has taken over the day-to-day operations of Jiro’s restaurant. And both of them live in their father’s shadow.

But, unlike those who would want to tear the whole thing down and start over, they wish to continue what their father has given them. They want to make sure that they honor his legacy and live up to it. After all, customers have high expectations.

An important scene is when Jiro and one of his sons go to visit the cemetery. Jiro jokes that he shouldn’t be there; his family had done nothing for him. His son admonishes him, but in a playful way.

It demonstrates that, for this family, the chief concerns are not profit and fame, but reverence, tradition, and humility.

1. It Is Up to You to Change.

sample sushi platter1

Jiro Ono as depicted in the film is equal parts austere and loose, funny and dry, as well as wise. He admits that he was not always like this, though. When he was a child he was considered a bully. Indeed, Jiro visits some friends and they remember him as a “troublemaker.” He laughs.

At one point in the film he reflects on what he used to be. He says that he realized that he needed to change, and so he began to push himself. He became responsible, serious, and passionate. He continues to reflect on his life, remarking that he probably wasn’t the best father. He spent a lot of time working. He said that once, when he slept in, his sons, who were young at the time, asked their mother about the strange man who had found his way into their house. One gets the sense that the sushi-making techniques Jiro teaches his sons are a way for him to make up for lost time.

Still, this runs counter to the dominant theme in our culture — namely, that individuals are fixed. This is why they need government help. They can’t take care of themselves.

Jiro again disproves this by engaging in self-reflection and free association amongst friends. In fact, he admonishes the bureaucrats who tell people:  “No, don’t do this.” He encourages people to explore and push themselves toward who they are meant to be.

A recent example of this is the man who took the National Prayer Breakfast by storm. An older example is St. Paul.

This is simple, refreshing advice but it is needed in our relativistic age. Netflix Jiro Dreams of Sushi if you haven’t seen it yet, and keep an eye out for future articles here at PJ Lifestyle defining what it means to be a California-Roll Conservative combining the wisdom of both East and West.