Sushi and Sexism

Challenging Traditions In Japan

Sushi dates back to the 1860s and the last days of the samurai. When the demand for fine swords began to diminish, Bladesmiths turned their attention to the crafting of sushi knives. Today, those same techniques are still used to create polished blades that slice fish, in an art-form that calls upon the mental, physical and spiritual aspects of Zen.

Originally sold on the street by vendors, Sushi is more than just quick food; it’s culture, heritage, and tradition cultivated in a country that honors all three. Change is not always easy or welcome. And that’s where the challenge for women, who aspire to become sushi master chefs, lies.

It’s a centuries-old thought, but one still wildly held, that believes women cannot successfully become master sushi chefs. Yoshikazu Ono, son of famed Jiro (from the documentary, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” by David Gelb) voiced to the Wall Street Journal what many male Japanese master sushi chefs think, in private. “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.”

It’s that very same old-boys-school mentality that has led some female sushi hopefuls, dismissed or deemed inferior by existing restaurants, to open their own.

Such is the case for the wildly popular Nadeshico Sushi, launched in December 2011. Located in Akihabara, a densely frequented area that’s a favorite of tourists to Japan and a mecca for anime fans worldwide, they decided to capitalize on what made them different. The women who work at Nadeshico Sushi are also knowledgeable about anime and can often be found chatting with customers about the latest industry trend. They’ve even created anime-themed ‘dekomaki’ (decorated maki).

The kawaii Dekomaki at Nadeshico Sushi

Female chefs are changing the global face of sushi

The shift in attitude is spreading as women are taking the helm at some of the world’s most demanding markets.

Oona Tempest, of Tanoshi, is widely regarded as New York’s preeminent sushi chefs. She is carving out a respected space in the male-dominated industry by creating some of the city’s most desirable omakase (chef’s choice menu). The restaurant’s philosophy of preserving the ‘magokoro’ (authentic heart) of each item, combines Tempest’s background in Japanese art with her superior knife skills.

Niki Nakayama celebrated chef at n/Naka (Los Angeles), offered another point of view on the issue. “Japanese society as a whole is not very supportive of women in the workplace or of women having a career,” she told Alia Akkam, of Zagat last month. “Perhaps there are not many females making sushi because it’s something that is not imaginable in people’s minds.”

While the overall landscape remains heavily dominated by men, change appears to be on the horizon, in particular among the next generation of sushi patrons.

Sushi is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach

“I make sushi. I am a woman. No problem!” university student Ayumi Sato says, considering a plump mackerel, “I want to work at Nadeshico Sushi this summer.” Her boyfriend, Hideyo Inoue smiles wide giving two thumbs up.“Oiishi!”(Yummy!) he says.

IMAGE CREDIT: M. HAYATA
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