The first sushi restaurant with women-only chefs opened at a time when the cuisine was beginning to gain global recognition. It coincided with Wall Street Journal revelations that the three Michelin-starred restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro—the subject of 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi—does not hire female chefs because they menstruate. "To be a professional means to have a steady taste in your food," said Yoshikazu Ono, who works alongside his father. "But because of the menstrual cycle women have an imbalance in their taste, and that's why women can't be sushi chefs."
In contrast to these high-end sushi restaurants, Nadeshico Sushi is located on a side street off the main road in Akihabara, Tokyo's 'electric city' district famously known for its anime fans, otaku subcultures and maid cafes. Located on the second floor of a narrow multi-storey block above a typically Japanese high-street games arcade, the restaurant advertises "sushi made by women."
I follow the signs to meet 28-year-old manager of the restaurant, Yuki Chidui. With staff taking breaks for the summer holiday, personnel is down from six to three—and with an unexpectedly high turnout of 15 customers filling up the counter, I am welcomed with a menu featuring an introduction from Chidui as she finishes up in the kitchen. It shamelessly embraces a culture-specific type of cuteness, with fonts that scream kawaii as you decide what you want to eat.
My first impressions inside Nadeshico Sushi are quite different from the many sushi restaurants I have set my foot into over the years. What is most noticeable is the presence of women behind the counter, rolling sushi; but also how every one of these women embrace their own individuality, as they engage in dialogue with their customers as they prepare dishes. In breaking with traditional convention where old men serve their customers in silence, the restaurant comes with a set of gender dynamics that would never exist elsewhere.
"You're working way too hard, and it's really not good for you," says Yuu, a tall 18-year-old with long brown hair dressed in a yukata, a cotton casual kimono printed with cherry blossoms. "Please be sure to take care of yourself, and learn to have some fun," she says to the customer in a high-pitched girly voice, Yuu gets super-excited over a song that's playing in the restaurant with another customer as she completes my starter—a series of sashimi unusually rolled into floral shaped designs.
Chidui finally comes out the kitchen, ready to tell me more about her unique job of breaking taboo to nurture a generation of women at a restaurant where a customer's plate will never be prepared by a man. "The myth that women aren't allowed to do the job because of their warm hands is nonsense," she laughs. "As soon as I heard that there is an opportunity for women to roll sushi here, I knew I wanted to be here doing it. If men who have colder hands than me aren't disqualified from doing the job through the use of ice packs to cool down their hands, I don't see how us women can't do the same."
I was not allowed to roll a single piece during the six years I worked in a sushi restaurant prior to this one because of my gender
Like many Japanese people, Chidui has loved sushi from a young age—but she never thought that there would ever be an opportunity to roll sushi as a chef. "I was not allowed to roll a single piece during the six years I worked in a sushi restaurant prior to this one because of my gender," she tells me. "My duties were restricted to ensure all the ingredients needed to roll them were delivered into the kitchen. Even in such a logistical role, I was the only female member of staff at the restaurant; I made sure to learn the tricks of the trade by the time I finished there during my student years."
As we talk, my sake—a small bottle of Japanese alcohol—gets served into a pink glass, which the newly arrived chef Kuro described as "Mount Fuji turned upside down". Wearing a black jinbei—a casual Japanese two-piece with a wrap-front top and a pair of trousers usually worn by men in the home—with badges of her favorite anime cartoons pinned down the side, the 18-year-old is clearly the tomboy chef. "It's been two months since I've joined, and I'm loving every moment of it," she says. "Not only is this an unusual job, it also gives me the opportunity to relate with customers about anime—Akihabara is a hothouse for fellow fanatics."
Talking about personal interests from the get-go is very unusual in a country where people keep to themselves, let alone calling each chef by their first name. But it is this kind of openness that Chidui wants to encourage as part of her mission, that goes beyond making women visible in the industry. "In an age where conveyer belt sushi restaurants—the kaiten sushi—have adopted touchscreen menus, customers don't even see their chefs visibly cooking behind the counter anymore," she laments. "I want women to be involved in the process of reviving a declining cultural tradition known as the ikitsuke, and for the word to be used by more customers who would consider this [Nadeshico Sushi] to be their go-to place."
Unlike the West, where we view successful chefs regardless of their gender, Chidui admits that many of the customers who come to Nadeshico sushi do take appearance of her staff into account. "There was a time when we wore T-shirts and keep our hair hidden just like the men did, but when we did that the customers suddenly disappeared in numbers," she says. "It is probably because seeing women behind the counter is quite unusual. As soon as I decided that we should bring our own personalities and allowed every one of us to wear what we want, the word got round and those who had disappeared returned."
It's tough labor—the majority of the girls who have come through during my time here have quit within the first three months.
Although there were couples at the start of the evening, there is a noticeable increase in the number of men who came to eat as the night wears on. "I have been a regular here for over a year now," says Mr Yamada, a businessman working at a logistics company. "Not only is this place round the corner from where I work, but the atmosphere is so different from the convention. The sushi here is beautiful, just like the women and the photographs you take of them."
As he makes these comments, the girls jokingly accuse him of sexually harassing me. It begs the question of the extent to which the women's efforts are targeted and appreciated by men in the way they should. The store was initially opened by Kazuya Nishikori, on the basis that he would only hire young women between the ages of 18-25; older women would be kept in the back of the kitchen. But a recent change in ownership has meant that women like Chidui, who invested in the job over a number of years from part-time worker to manager, appear to have more liberty to pursue their vision in ways they see fit. Even if it does mean putting up with customers who want female attention, as demonstrated by a customer who showed Chidui photos on his iPad to talk about what he has been up to, only to take it out of a case printed with the silhouettes of naked women.
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Despite these troubling gender dynamics, Chidui has faith in her sushi chefs and is determined to continue her journey in representing equality. "Japan's ongoing recession, population decline and millenials' exposure to a more relaxed educational system has sparked a crisis for women to find their feet," she says passionately. "Women traditionally have stayed in the home, but if they want to become sushi chefs here they have to come six times a week in order to learn on the job. It's tough labor—the majority of the girls who have come through during my time here have quit within the first three months, some don't even make it through the first week."
But the presence of teenagers like Kuro, who works as a tour guide alongside shifts at Nadeshico Sushi, gives Chidui some hope. "Despite these challenges, I am encouraged by the girls who have sustained their interest," she concludes. "I always knew I wanted to take charge in this so that we can foster a generation of sushi chefs who will follow in our footsteps. Ultimately, I want there to be a sushi that's done the Nadeshico way. I want our hard work to become a movement."