My father is 74 years old. Even at this age, he still works every day. His job is to design and build steel frames for buildings; in Japanese, a worker like him is called a “shokunin.” I don’t know of a good translation for the word in English. I think, in its essence, it describes someone who (especially in the case of a steel company like my father’s), even in the hot and humid Japanese summer and freezing ice-cold winter, wears their long-sleeved uniform, working endlessly at their job, seven days a week, whether it be outdoors at the construction site or in the office. I think “workaholic” might be a word that describes my father, although even that description feels flat and non-specific. Shokunin were the people who built much of the postwar Japanese landscape we know today - its buildings, cities, homes, parks, offices - but their numbers have dwindled quickly in recent years. Many people don’t want to do hard labor jobs that are taxing on the body and don’t have a high income. Additionally, small labor businesses like the one my father helps to run have the image of being small, local, and grimy unlike the pristine and high-tech city factories. My father used to be much more involved in his business. His age means that he no longer works the long days on the job site and instead spends much of his time in the office, but nevertheless, he is well-respected in his small company as a veteran and expert welder.
I call home almost every day, whether it is about work (I am a part-time accountant for my parents’ steel business) or to just catch up. But any time my father picks up the phone, instead of recounting the day’s happenings, his phone calls are filled with long, endless anecdotes about the job, about the kind of work he has been doing. Thus, even when my father does answer the phone, I often end up asking him “Please, just give the phone to my mom!” But recently, I decided to call my dad when only he was at the house, and for the first time in a while, we got to talk, just the two of us, for a long time. As per usual, he talked only about work, yet this time, I noticed how much his anecdotes were filled with pride, not just for himself, but for his company and his workers. “This last job we did, that 8-floor staircase in that tiny enclosed lot… it was so difficult to design and put up, but it went so well… one of my workers is getting old and can be forgetful, but his talent and sensibility is unsurpassable! My workers really are some of the best in Japan! You won’t see stairs like that anywhere!” he said to me over the phone audio. I don’t know how true it is - if his workers or his company are the best in Japan - but that wasn’t the point. The way my father spoke about the work he does, the way he takes so much personal responsibility and pride for his workers and his office made a strong impression on me. My dad doesn’t do good work because other people are watching; in fact, what others think or judge hardly crosses his mind at all. He does his best because it means something to him, because he really genuinely cares.
And for a moment I thought: maybe I am a shokunin too? My father works with steel, but maybe I work with flour. Perhaps my younger self that grew up alongside a man who worked outside, whose job was his whole life, naturally bloomed into the same sort of person. Until I moved to America, all my time was spent at home with my father, the factory, and my mother in the kitchen, and I can’t help but think that environment had an immeasurable impact on my own trajectory. Of course, one of my great joys lies in getting to see all of your faces every week, but I think the drive inside of me comes from a place of doing things, working, and making for myself, to make myself proud.
This month, I will be making bread, as I always do, along with a winter quiche. In addition, I will be making one dessert: a chocolate tart that I have been making over and over again for the past ten years. I will also be making bagels and English muffins by request; if you are interested, please shoot me an email!