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Sushi U.

If you have $15,000, who needs an apprenticeship?


TOKYO — The young man runs a knife down the length of a still-quivering eel as his fingers struggle to cut the tiny fins from the soft flesh. Halfway through the delicate operation, his hand slips, resulting in a jagged, unsightly slice.

"No, no," sushi master Katsuji Konakai, 81, says as he grabs the knife and makes a perfect cut with a practiced motion, "your angle is no good."

Working the angles is just one of the many challenges 31-year-old Takenori Hanada and his fellow students face here at Sushi University as they struggle to absorb a lifetime of experience in a matter of months.

In exchange for $15,000 in tuition and up to a year of their time, enrollees in the world's only institution of higher sushi studies gain a certificate of merit, the benefit of Konakai's 66 years of experience and all the sushi they can eat. Those really in a hurry can take a one-month, nine-hour-a day crash course for $17,500.

For Japan's old guard, however, this is heresy. To really master your art, they say, you need to hone your skills over years and years--decades, even--as an apprentice.

"A great deal is lost in a world of instant results," says Shigeo Mori, a fifth-generation master at Hatsune restaurant whose family traces its sushi roots back to 1872.

How, you might ask, can it possibly take two decades to master the art of slapping some raw fish over a vinegar-infused rice ball when surgeons qualify to operate on the human brain in less than half that time? The answer says a lot about Japan's traditional search for perfection, its deep-seated respect for humility and hierarchy and the inevitable erosion of these standards in the modern world.

In fact, behind the debate over training is a growing split among sushi lovers. For connoisseurs, the tradition of the master craftsman preparing the finest delicacies--for meals that can cost more than $300 per person--in elite Ginza and Kyoto establishments lives on. For more and more Japanese hit by years of recession, however, sushi is increasingly nothing more than a form of fast food.

"More and more people realize this [traditional] system of training sushi chefs is a little strange and outdated," says Jun Yokokawa, a culinary lecturer at Bunkyo University.

But those at the top ranks of Japan's most famous culinary discipline insist that real mastery goes far beyond the act of marrying rice and fish.

Not only does it involve years of experience buying and handling seafood, preparing seasonal specialties and knowing how to keep it fresh, it also requires mastering a thousand subtleties. Such as which dishes call for new rice (shinmai) and which demand old rice (komai). Or how the treatment of surf clams differs from that of horse-neck clams. Or whether the top or bottom of the scallop is sweeter.

Beyond the technical details, the best sushi chefs are masters of their universe. They know how to read and entertain their customers, deal with suppliers, anticipate shortfalls and nurture apprentices to foster the next generation of masters.

That said, despite all the mystique, standards can get a bit wobbly. And when really pushed, many masters eventually fall back on some variation of "You know it when you see it."

Traditional sushi masters face no requisite licensing exam or doctoral dissertation. While there is an unevenly applied ranking system, industry stature is generally the product of peer and customer recognition.

For most students at 20-year-old Sushi University, however, pursuing a traditional apprenticeship is simply not an option. Many are in mid-career or retired. And in a world of increased social mobility, delayed gratification has become far less appealing. While most say they respect traditional Japanese craftsmanship, in the end, life's just too short.

Yoichi Mine, 60, dressed in jeans and sneakers, says he first became interested in sushi several decades ago and decided to enter Sushi U. after retiring from his corporate job. His dream is to open a small sushi restaurant in a resort town some day.

"I'm quite old," he says, "but I want to do this for the rest of my life."

Others, like Hanada, see the training as paving the way to live abroad, where sushi standards are lower anyway. Foreigners with unique skills can apply for special visa categories in the U.S. and other countries, and a Japanese sushi certificate is a plus.

He's got his sights set on Las Vegas. "I love to gamble," he says. "And I hear Americans tip a lot, especially after they've won."

Despite its grand-sounding name, Sushi University's "campus" consists of two rooms jammed with several refrigerators and sinks, an industrial-size rice maker, some lockers and dozens of knives. The school is relatively well known in the sushi world, but more for its unique status than as a producer of industry greats.

"Sushi is the soul of Japan," reads a wooden board overhead, while a clock on the wall marks the time with sushi pieces for numbers and chopsticks for hands.

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