Food by VICE

Women Still Struggle to Be Taken Seriously as Sushi Chefs in Japan

Female chefs don’t just suffer a lack of professional recognition in Japan—they exist in far smaller numbers.

by Phylisa Wisdom
Sep 19 2016, 9:15pm

Any food lover worth their weight in tempura knows that Tokyo is a food paradise. You'd have to try hard to eat a bad meal there, and there are very few parts of the city where you could happen upon anything other than an exceptional one.

Food lovers also know that even in the world's most progressive cities, there are fewer celebrated female chefs than males. This is true for both professional kitchens and the awards heaped upon them: The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, for example, has consistently featured a disproportionate share of male chefs to female ones.

With Japan being a culinary destination, that disparity is only further amplified in its restaurant industry. Female chefs don't just suffer a lack of professional recognition—they exist in far smaller numbers. Food journalist Michael Booth noted this in his book on Japanese cuisine Sushi & Beyond in 2009.

It's even difficult for women to cook Japanese food in the rest of the world, as Japanese-American chef Niki Nakayama explained in her Chef's Table episode. "Having been in a kitchen where it was all men," she said of her early career, "I had to prove myself in order to be considered equal to their work." In her LA kaiseki restaurant, she used to shut the doors to the formerly open kitchen so diners wouldn't know the chef was a woman.

Sushi, arguably Japan's most recognizable food export, is the most difficult itamae (chef) job for women to break into abroad, and this is particularly true at home in Japan. But why?

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Niki Nakayama (right) feared judgment from customers about her gender even in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

In 2011, the Wall Street Journal sat down with famed sushi itamae Yoshikazu Ono, son of Jiro, who was profiled in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. When asked why there were no women featured in the film, Ono said, "The reason is because women menstruate. To be a professional means to have a steady taste in your food, but because of the menstrual cycle women have an imbalance in their taste, and that's why women can't be sushi chefs."

Wait—what? What if the chef takes birth control, or is post-menopausal? And what about the change in taste that occurs in all of us when we have a cold or flu? Is that less significant?

Sadly, Ono is hardly alone in his belief. Many of Japan's sushi chefs buy into the fictions that women don't have the physical constitution to keep up with their male colleagues in the kitchen, or that their hands are too warm to handle fish—which are, of course, woefully stupid.

Before heading to Tokyo for six weeks, I made up my mind to find out where the city's female chefs were working, and if the old kitchen customs were crumbling as more and more women began to enter the industry. Over and over, the sushi restaurant Nadeschico kept coming up as the female-run sushi restaurant of Tokyo. As a food writer, feminist, and sushi lover, I had to go. It was the only sensible first port of call.

When I arrived, I expected to meet passionate masters of their craft, and see customers either a) excited to support these powerful chefs and restaurants or b) detached from the whole gender question because the sushi was so damn good.

What I found, however, was odd.

On a Saturday night, there were three guests, all of whom were male solo diners. There was a young woman in a kimono outside, smiling and enticing passersby into the restaurant. When I asked if I was in the right place, she seemed puzzled by my desire to go inside. That puzzlement continued when I entered. The women asked how I'd heard about the restaurant, which seemed unusual given how much international press it's received. The chef working in front of me complimented my red lipstick, which was especially surprising in Tokyo, where service is excellent but is rarely that familiar.

Oh my god, I thought. I'm in glorified maid cafe. (I later came across a Broadly article on Nadeschico, in which the writer had a similar thought.) Maid cafes are common throughout Japan, but are easily found in Tokyo. Essentially, they are cosplay, fetish-influenced restaurants where the female service staff dress and act like maids/mistresses to their customers/masters.

When I entered Nadeschico and saw that there was a list of rules that read just like those of a maid cafe, I was only momentarily shocked before I connected the dots. The English translation of the kanji included items like prohibiting customers from touching the staff, asking overly personal questions about the staff, and waiting for them to exit. Diners can pay 500 yen for one picture with the staff, but otherwise only food photos are allowed. This is not typical of sushi experiences in Tokyo, to be sure.

Nadeschico is an all-female sushi restaurant, that much is true. But aside from being fodder for articles on a dearth of female sushi chefs, I'm not sure it's doing much to change local hearts and minds. The chef wasn't particularly interested in talking to me about sushi cheffing, but she did compliment me on my lipstick. If nothing else, however, the presence of female bodies—albeit dangerously warmer female bodies—may get diners used to the sight of women behind the counter and even imperceptibly break the sushi glass ceiling in more traditional venues in Tokyo.

There are other female sushi chefs in Japan, but they get far less press. Chie Imamoto manages the Isomaru chain seafood restaurant in the spa town of Atami. "I hope that it will no longer be considered unusual that women make sushi," she told the Japan Times in 2014. But even the author of that article fell back on traditional beliefs about women's roles, writing that the then-47-year-old's "motherly air has also attracted customers with children."

A female sushi chef, it would seem, can't simply be just "chef"—her femaleness is always taken note of in Japan.

It's common for sushi chefs to train for about ten years, often as sons apprenticing under their sushi chef fathers. On this road to becoming a sushi itamae, or shokunin (expert craftsmen), there is no classroom but the kitchen. The Tokyo Sushi Academy, however, has attempted to modernize and expedite this process. They offer eight-week training courses in for sushi chef hopefuls. In addition to significantly shrinking the training time, they also happily train female sushi chefs.

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It's a typical Asian man's opinion,' says Naomichi Yasuda.'They don't want to be defeated by a woman!'

I spoke with the school's principal, Sachiko Goto, by email about her (yes, her!) philosophy. When I asked her what she thought of the idea that women can't be sushi chefs, she said she believes that body temperature does affect the quality of sushi. "However," she said, "I believe that there are some men who have a high body temperature and some women who have low body temperature. Sushi chefs sometimes use cold water to make their hands' temperature lower. So, of course, men and women sushi chefs who have high body temperature use this method to cool down their hands when they need."

As part of Goto's passion for improving sushi chef training by creating an affordable, uniform, and comprehensive program, she wants to help more women break into the field. One of the hurdles to this is that many sushi restaurants won't hire anyone of any gender who hasn't received enough training. If the old-school sushi chefs won't train women, how will they find work? "This is what our school can do to help to increase the numbers of women sushi chefs," Goto said. "Our school accepts women and we can give them a great training to be a skilled sushi chefs. So women sushi chefs who graduated from our school have more opportunities to work in a high-grade sushi restaurants."

Female sushi chefs have a number of men on their side, too. Naomichi Yasuda is one of several older male sushi chefs who've gone on the record to reject misconceptions about women's abilities in the kitchen. The chef spent decades living and working in New York, where he gained quite a reputation, as well as friends like Anthony Bourdain. I visited him at his Sushi Bar Yasuda in Tokyo, and we chatted about the world of sushi in Japan while I binged on his exceptional omakase sushi menu. While he has long employed female trainees at his restaurant in New York, he is the sole chef at his new venue.

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Naomichi Yasuda in Tokyo. Photo by the author.

When I asked if he had any thoughts on differences between male and female sushi chefs, he told me, deadpan, that they were all equally terrible. According to Yasuda, the idea that a half-degree difference in body temperature impacts quality is lazy and outdated. "It's a typical Asian man's opinion. They don't want to be defeated by a woman!" With his New Yorker side coming out, he stated loudly and proudly (as I attempted to speak in hushed tones, no less) that he had no friends in the Tokyo sushi world. My jaw nearly dropped when he called Jiro and his son "reptiles."

The self-styled "Sushi Meshuganah" of New York is certainly unorthodox, and his hiring and training of women is only part of what makes him so different from his peers. Japan will need more chefs with attitudes like Yasuda's in order to enact a sea change in the industry for women.

Of course, there are certain things about being a woman that does make the life of a chef difficult. Parental leave is rare to nonexistent, and even some female chefs have admitted that they don't have bodies built for heavy lifting like their burly male colleagues. But how can such a colossal industry still explicitly exclude women due to myths about their menstrual cycles in 2016?

Thankfully, there are women breaking into sushi in Japan, but the progress is slow and the process long. The Japanese government is continuing to encourage women to join the workforce, and this is producing a slow trickle of women into sushi restaurants. The efforts of current female sushi chefs, open-minded existing sushi experts, and tradition-breaking training options like Tokyo Sushi Academy are on the front lines of this fight. And yes, even a venue like Nadeschico plays a role, even if that role is to draw a stark contrast between male- and female-run sushi venues.

At this point, every single woman matters—and we need even more to level the playing field.