The Sushi Chef was a woman

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

Last month’s election of Tokyo’s first female mayor highlighted just how far women in Japan have come - but also how far they still have to go. One career that has been strangely resistant to women has been the art and practice of sushi making. Although women joined the ranks of other culinary arts years ago, Sushi is still an almost-entirely male dominated art form. 


That is changing, however. At her restaurant "Nadeshico Sushi," Yuki Chizui employs an all-female staff of sushi chefs. This video from Great Big Story and this video from Mode detail the challenges the women of Nadeshico face. "We were trained by male sushi chefs," Chizui says in the video. "Most of them regarded the female staff as merely window dressing. We were expected to just stand there and shape the rice. They didn't expect us to understand how to do more difficult tasks. Our only value to them was in our physical appearance.” 


Nadeshiko Sushi was founded by a temp agency in 2010. Chizui says the company decided to open a restaurant staffed by women to provide jobs to women after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. A large number of women who were working in temp positions lost their jobs in the wake of the financial crisis that followed.


No official statistics are kept on the number of female sushi chefs in Japan, but they are a rarity among the 35,000 listed by the All Japan Sushi Association. In recent years, the Japanese government has made encouraging women in the workforce its mission, seeing that an already stagnant economy would only get worse unless women are freed from their status of homemaker and child-bearer to contribute more to production and growth. The government wants women to fill 30 percent of leadership positions by 2020, an ambitious goal given that women now make up only 8 percent of such positions in companies hiring 100 people or more.


Yumi Chiba is a sushi chef and president of Anago no Uotake Sushi in Shizuoka Prefecture. She has followed in the footsteps of her father and uncle before her, and now works behind a sushi counter in a position typically reserved for men. Chiba has also been entering sushi contests for the past six years, winning silver medals in the bamboo leaf carving and rolled sushi categories in the Chubu regional tournament last year. In November, she will take part in a national competition for the first time.



Women like Chizui are pioneers, said Sachiko Goto, principal of the Tokyo Sushi Academy, where prospective sushi chefs can learn the trade. About one-fifth of the trainees at the academy are women trying to break into the field. The very fact that the school exists is proof of changing times: Sushi skills have traditionally been handed down from father to son, and apprentices often spend years doing dishes and taking out the trash before being allowed to hold a knife. But the aging population and the difficulty of the work have led to a shortage of highly skilled sushi chefs. Goto herself started out as a student at Tokyo Sushi Academy at the age of 40 after spending a couple of decades as a washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) chef.


Still, many of the academy’s female graduates see learning how to make sushi as a ticket to finding work overseas. “Generally speaking, kitchens abroad welcome women compared to Japan,” Goto said. “Japanese sushi chefs think their jobs will be taken by women. That’s part of the reason they don’t want to accept women into their workforce.” Oona Tempest, who works at Tanoshi Sushi in New York, is one of the few females making her mark on the U.S. sushi sphere. Tempest is lucky, then, because her master at Tanoshi — who abides by magokoro, the concept of having a strong, genuine core spirit — promised early on to train her just as he would a man. “It isn’t about gender here. Work environments like we have are extremely rare,” she explains. Yet that doesn’t stop the occasional skeptical customer from asking her if the temperature of her purportedly warmer hands will harm the fish she touches. 


Niki Nakayama, the celebrated Los Angeles chef behind n/Naka, hopes Nadeshico’s future is “a genuine and authentic endeavor and not something that is gimmicky.” Chizui explains "most people" in Japan believe women are ill-suited to be sushi chefs for ridiculous reasons such as the idea that their hands are too warm. She, however, believes women not only are just as capable as men, but they have their own advantageous qualities. “I hope that someday it’s not ‘male sushi chef’ or ‘female sushi chef,’ just ‘sushi chef,’ ”




The Washington Post

The Guardian


The Japan Times