Jonas Otsuji, a Utahn sushi chef, opted for a “brains over brawn” strategy on “Survivor: One World.” The 37-year-old Yonsei, who was raised on a farm in Honolulu and now runs a catering service, evokes the strategy of Judson “Fabio” Birza, the winner of “Survivor: Nicaragua.”
The CBS show, now in its 24th season, takes 18 Americans to a remote Polynesian island with host Jeff Probst. The cast of nine men and nine women will fight their way through eliminations, until only one remains to be crowned the sole survivor and take home $1 million.
While Otsuji wouldn’t reveal how he faired, he did say, during a phone interview with the Nichi Bei Weekly, that he went in expecting the worst.
What follows is an edited version of the interview.
Nichi Bei Weekly: So what inspired you to apply for “Survivor?”
Jonas Otsuji: I’ve watched every season. I’ve loved the show from the very first season, but what really inspired me to go on the show was when Fabio won (“Survivor Nicaragua”). When NaOnka and Kelly quit, something went off in my brain and I said, ‘I have to do this.’ So I applied, and that was it.
NBW: How did you prepare for the show once you knew you were going on?
JO: I purposely put on a little bit of weight and stopped lifting weights. I only ran. I wanted to work on my conditioning, as far as being fit, but I didn’t want to appear fit.
I’ve watched every show. It’s my assessment that the big buff and ripped guys always get perceived as the biggest threat.
I thought the name of the game was to be in shape but not appear in shape — so I did the exact opposite of what everyone else would do.
NBW: Would you consider yourself a ‘brains over brawn’ kind of guy?
JO: Absolutely. My whole strategy going into it was not to appear as a threat at all.
I studied every episode and took notes. The only person to ever win twice was Sandra (“Survivor: Pearl Islands” and “Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains”) and Sandra, as far as I know, didn’t win a single challenge.
NBW: What were your expectations before getting on the island?
JO: I was expecting the worst. I was expecting to be really hungry all the time, tired, mentally exhausted. I was preparing for the worst, really. I watched a lot of Navy Seal training to see how people would adapt and cope with really traumatic situations. I read up on the Navy Seals because that was the closest thing I could find that would prepare me for “Survivor.”
NBW: So I hear you are a fourth- generation Japanese American from Hawai‘i, and your family runs a farm?
JO: Yeah that’s right, I’m actually in Hawai‘i right now, helping my father. My grandfather came from Kagoshima when he was 19 years old and met my grandmother, who was second generation. They started the farm.
NBW: Has working on the farm helped you in participating on “Survivor?”
JO: In preparation, for sure — I grew up literally living off the land. I hoped that it would help me during the game.
NBW: Did you have other hobbies or skills that helped you on the show?
JO: Yes, spear fishing for one, and people skills. Both of my brothers went to these really prestigious private schools here in Hawai’i, but I went to a public school. I know book smarts is one thing, but street smarts are a little more important in “Survivor” — to be able to just read people and create relationships.
NBW: I also hear you got on the show for your kids too. Can you tell me a little more about them?
JO: They inspire me to create a better life. If it was just me, I would be living in some tent on a beach somewhere or something, just hanging out. Now that I have kids, I want to give them a better life — have them go to good schools and travel with them — you know?
I would have done the show for free; it’s not about the money. At the same time, taking care of my family is always at the back of my mind. My family was definitely a big motivator for me.
NBW: Are your kids fans of the show?
JO: Not really. When I told them I was going to be on “Survivor,” they didn’t really get it. They don’t know what “Survivor” is, really. And because they’ve seen me on TV before on the news and such for my sushi, when I told my kids they were like, ‘oh,’ and that was it. They weren’t like ‘what!?’ or anything (chuckles).
NBW: So about your work as a sushi chef, how did you get started with that?
JO: I basically talked my way into the position. The place I worked at was Sushi Roku in Caesars Palace, the number one sushi bar in Las Vegas at the time. I was a friend of a guy who knew the head chef and he got me a meeting to talk to him. Because I could speak Japanese, the guy kinda liked me. He didn’t need any help, but he just took me on as an apprentice.
Everybody who worked there had years of experience, they went to culinary school and all that, but I just sort of talked my way into it.
I was with them for about a year before I got a promotion at another restaurant and worked at four other restaurants before I broke off to go on my own to start my own catering company.
That’s what I do now, I cater private sushi parties and teach sushi classes in Utah.
NBW: You won the Utah Asian Commerce Association’s award in 2010. Are you fairly active in the Asian American or Japanese American community in Utah?
JO: Yeah, I used to be a lot more. Now, I’m a little busy. I still keep in touch with them and I love them. Great organization.
NBW: Has business for you picked up after people found out you will be on “Survivor?”
JO: A little bit. I’m not sure if it’s the result of being on “Survivor.” Definitely a little bit, though.
NBW: I also understand you went bankrupt before making your way back. What was that about?
JO: Yeah, I did. I made a ton of money in real estate back in the boom. I was living in Las Vegas where I bought and sold a lot of properties. Over the course of three years we accumulated just over two million dollars worth of properties and just under a quarter of a million dollars in cash. And I just lost it all — I just over extended myself and bought too many properties. When the market turned, I just lost everything.
That was a super, super dark time in my life. I literally had to reinvent myself as a sushi chef. It was really, really difficult. At the time, I had three kids, so I had no choice but to keep plowing ahead.
NBW: Finally, do you have a message to our readers, especially the Nikkei crowd in California?
JO: I say you should really embrace your heritage. For example, me choosing to be a sushi chef was probably the best decision I ever made. From day one, when I was a real novice at making sushi, everyone just assumed I was really good at making it because I fit the part. Sometimes it’s just easier to make a name for yourself when you jump into that mold everybody has created for you. Do you know what I mean?
Originally, I was going to be a photographer. Photography became really, really competitive and — even though I spent five years getting a degree — I just had to make a decision whether I would keep pursuing photography because that’s what I majored in and spent all that time doing, or was I going to become a sushi chef.
The way that I looked at it, how many Japanese sushi chefs are there in Utah? For me it was a no-brainer, it was going to be so much easier for me to accept the fact and have way more of a corner on the market if I just embrace the whole Japanese sushi chef thing and just forget the past.
It was hard for me because it felt like I was quitting, but I wasn’t quitting being a photographer. I just realized it would be way easier to be a Japanese sushi chef.
I guess what I would say is: If you’re trying to do something and make a name for yourself, being Asian, it’s just wise to pick an Asian-related career because it seems perception is reality for everybody.
From day one, I had the upper hand being a sushi chef just because I was Japanese. Even though the guy next to me, who was a Caucasian guy, had been doing this for eight years, the public would never perceive him to be as good as me, even though I’ve been doing it for only two years.
“Survivor: One World” airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on CBS. To learn more about Jonas Otsuji, visit www.sushisurfer.com.