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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Feb 1, 2024
By Leron Lehman

Categories: Transition & Succession Solutions

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a 2011 documentary about a Japanese Sushi Master in his 80s who built a Michelin three-star sushi restaurant. The story is intriguing, in part, because it is so unusual and unlikely. Jiro Ono’s restaurant has only 10 seats, is in a Tokyo subway station, and its prices start at almost $300. The documentary was a sensation when it came out, as it presents a powerful story about craftmanship, longevity, focus, and passion – and the excellence that results from practicing these disciplines for decades. It is as inspiring as it is entertaining.

I recently watched the film again and was struck by the family dynamics at play and the issues it raises related to generational succession. A theme that is present throughout the story is how the Onos’ history, family system, and culture have defined the business and the paths that Jiro’s two sons have taken.

To many 21st-century Western viewers, Jiro’s background might seem very unusual. His family was very poor, and he was responsible for taking care of himself from a young age. He started working in a restaurant at age seven, quickly becoming very independent and adopting a “workaholic” mentality that endured throughout his life. Jiro married and started a family, but he wasn’t present when his children were young because he fully dedicated himself to his work. There is an anecdote in the film about his children asking their mother about the stranger sleeping in their house – they didn’t even know their own father. Jiro is demanding and his work ethic is legendary; he only takes a day off on national holidays. By Japanese standards in the mid-20th century, Jiro’s focus on work isn’t particularly noteworthy, but it certainly doesn’t foster a healthy family system from our 21st-century Western perspective.

Both of Jiro’s sons have also become accomplished sushi chefs and are well into the second half of their careers. Jiro’s older son has worked in the business his entire life and expects to succeed his father. This is his traditional role as the eldest son in the family, and he seems to have accepted it without question. Even though his father maintains firm control, the older son is supportive, diligent, and committed to the family and the business. The younger son left the business to start his own sushi restaurant, doing so with his father’s blessing. Somewhat surprisingly, this seemed to be a natural decision and was not an apparent point of conflict or stress for the family.

As is the case in many family businesses, Jiro’s children are very aware of the long shadow cast by their father and the related challenges of living up to his expectations; it is not easy for them to forge their own identities. It is perhaps more pronounced for the older son as he thinks about a future without his father in the business. It is nearly impossible for him to improve on anything within the restaurant, and that creates a certain asymmetry in his work – there is almost no upside but there is plenty of downside. To varying degrees, the older son’s experience reflects the plight of many next-gen successors, and it can be a heavy burden to bear. It can feel like one has to choose between two less-than-attractive options: on one hand, stay the course and risk being criticized for not being as good as your father, or, on the other hand, put your own stamp on things and risk being criticized for screwing up what your family has built over the years. Either way, the pressure to not mess things up is considerable.

Leaving the business, like Jiro’s younger son did, alleviates these pressures for next-gen successors but also raises concerns that one is not part of the family legacy, which can challenge an individual’s identity and worth. What if? Am I good enough? Am I as good as my sibling? In a competitive family (and most of us are competitive with our siblings), there is an undercurrent of comparison and one-upmanship that can magnify other unhealthy attitudes or neuroses.

It is impossible to draw too many hard conclusions from a short documentary, but it would appear that Jiro and his sons have defied the odds in how they have maintained family unity and are positioned to further the family legacy in the future. Granted, Jiro’s restaurant and family structure lack the complexity of many large family businesses that are facing ownership and leadership transition. Still, the relational and psychological issues present in Jiro Dreams of Sushi are tensions that exist between every founder and the next generation that will succeed them. When should the founding generation give up the reins and allow the next generation to exert some influence? What will the founder do if he retires?  Is the next generation willing to be patient and wait for their opportunity? How do siblings cope with their roles and expectations both within the family and from the outside? How do you handle it when the next generation wants to leave and start their own thing in the same industry? How does one handle the pressure of living up to their father’s example?

These are the questions that must be explored as part of transition planning. Culture and family systems play a significant role in how communications occur and in how decisions are made. Maximizing the chances of success in family business transition demands an intentional, collaborative, and ongoing conversation between generations.

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