The Fields We Work

I had only known work to be a curse. It’s described in a number of ways, ranging from the simple but illustrative “Hell” to the euphemistic “putting in my time.” Sure, I’ve heard people say they love their jobs, that what they do makes them feel fulfilled, but I never understood that feeling until I got here. I never understood that, while work may be something we can never escape, it can — and should — be something that we take pride in and struggle everyday to make ourselves better through.

The idea of choosing your path and committing yourself to it each and every day is a novel, privileged concept. Not everyone has the choice to chase the dream; if you have the choice, though, why not make it? The popular documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi focuses on the eponymous Jiro Ono. The culinary master’s Tokyo-based foodie mecca Sukibayashi Jiro has been described as the best — and the most expensive — dining experience on the planet.

For Ono, ostensibly, that means nothing. He continues to chase perfection, even if imperfection is inexorable. When he speaks of his motivation, of his drive, it isn’t some wordy, heady exploration of what work means and finding what makes you happy and all the other stuff that has by now become cliché. To paraphrase, once you know your path, you need to work everyday to be the best. That’s it.

Once you know your path, you need to work everyday to be the best. That’s it.

The idea isn’t uniquely Japanese, but it’s here — while I run, while I teach, while I drink and belt karaoke at the top of my lungs — that I see the platitude made reality. It’s here that I was infected with the ethic to do more. Every morning, a local farmer I’ve yet to introduce myself to is in the rice paddy outside my window wading through his growing crops. Often, he’s covered in the stinking silt that feeds his young grains. While his shift starts before the sun climbs high enough to be dangerous, he’ll need to move to his other plots throughout the day. The days spent tending to the staple of Japanese cuisine gradually reform his back into a permanent bend. His skin slowly caramelizes into a deep mahogany.

People work hard all the time, whether they are Japanese farmers or American fry cooks. The difference? So far as my experience can tell, hard work here is its own reward. Going to work and being the best you can be is simply what you do. Sure, you expect a paycheck so you can awkwardly scurry off to the snack bar to be hit on by older women as you drink away the stress of the day. Naturally, you want what you do to mean something after your 40-hour week is through. It just seems to go a bit beyond that here as a rule, instead of the rarest of exceptions.

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6 Comments

  1. Interesting post. Reminds me a bit of how in “Malcom Gladwell – Outliers” he talks about how rice farming could have potentially formed the different work ethic in Asain countries. As opposed to European farming methods which are less labour intensive. If I remember correctly rice crops improve based on the work you put in to cultivating them where as other regular crops in Europe won’t improve with more work. On top of this in European climates there was essentially no farming in the winter.

    Reply

    1. I have to confess that I haven’t read that work, but doing a little digging, it seems like I should.

      It’s an interesting theory, anyway; if you were faced with something where you just had to get out there and do it to produce something that was — and remains — the backbone of so many cultures, I could see how it would eventually ingrain itself in the cultural mentality. Thanks for the really cool thought

      Reply

      1. Yeah, its a very much do or die kind of scenario when you think about it. Outliers is definitely a must read if you get the chance 🙂

  2. Well put Charles. This was something that I definitely needed to read today, it helped inspire me to be a little more grateful for the opportunities that I have in front of me, and maybe complain a bit less about the harder parts. Was jumping right into a new culture and a new place a big challenge for you? Especially one as different from ours as Japanese culture seems to be?

    Reply

    1. I’m glad to hear it inspired you! Thanks for letting me know 🙂

      I think the cultural aspects were okay for me; at least, looking back I feel like they were. I’d spent a good amount of time here during college, so that was okay. The new place, or to put it another way, the lack of the old place with its old comforts, old, wonderful friends, etc. was really a terrible but necessary growing experience. I’ve never been so lonely or afraid as in the first 6 weeks of transition. That said, if you can get over that hump, you’re pretty well on your way, I think.

      Reply

      1. That makes a lot of sense I suppose, I mean, everything takes a good bit of getting used to right? I’ve never been away from home for longer than 2 months, and I haven’t done that since I was 13 and went on a government Leadership trip all around the UK and Ireland haha. I’m a bit inexperienced these days with long travels, but I hope to jump into it soon! It’s nice reading about all the things you’re experiencing and all of your revelations. 🙂

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