A chef dressed in white stands behind the immaculate counter of a sushi restaurant with a vast array of raw seafood spread out in front of her. It sounds like a typical scene you might find at any sushi restaurant in Japan … except in this case the chef is female.
The sushi industry has long been dominated by men, but an increasing number of women are now working as chefs. Together, they’re challenging the misconception that women are unable to prepare sushi as well as men.
The Japan Times talks to three female sushi chefs who are working to break down the stereotype.
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.
“(Sushi) was once considered to be a man’s world,” Chiba says. “Women were simply not welcome. However, fewer male youths are showing an interest in becoming a sushi chef these days, forcing more establishments to hire women instead. I hope that an increasing number of women will be able to be involved in the world of sushi.”
Chiba has been involved in the sushi business for more than 16 years and, fortunately, says she has never felt unwelcome behind the counter. Although customers have been relatively supportive of her endeavors, she is aware of their scrutiny.
“I am a woman working in a world of men. In a way, I feel as if I’m non-Japanese,” Chiba says. “Naturally, my customers have a biased point of view at first and will check to see if I can really do the job.”
Sushi has been a part of Chiba’s life for as long as she can remember. However, she never imagined she would ever be able to become a sushi chef.
“I had no interest in the sushi business,” Chiba says. “I wanted to be a piano teacher or an elementary school teacher. Being the daughter of a sushi chef was something that I neither particularly liked nor disliked — it just meant I was able to eat sushi every day.”
Chiba left Shizuoka to attend college in Tokyo and ended up staying there to work for advertising and architecture companies before returning home.
She began helping out in her father’s restaurant part-time in 1999, but was dismayed to find that it attracted few customers.
“I didn’t know why we didn’t have any customers,” Chiba says. “It was during the gourmet boom and people were interested in good food and restaurants. I decided to do something about the dire situation because the future of our restaurant was at stake.”
Chiba began to study Edo-style sushi, learning about its history and culture as well as how to cut, cook and season the different types of fish. Training under the watchful eye of her father, she learned the basics of how to prepare and serve sushi, studying everything from filleting a fish to garnishing a plate.
She was fascinated by the traditional approach of Edo-style sushi, where fish were typically seasoned, not eaten raw. Delicate cutting techniques were also an integral part of the culture, Chiba says, and chefs would use knives to slice the fish in certain ways to help them mold together with the rice.
Chiba says sushi is more than simply eating raw fish with soy sauce. Some fish can be seasoned with salt or a citrus fruit, and others can be steamed or cooked.
“Being a sushi chef isn’t just about nigiri (molding the fish and the rice),” Chiba says. “When you stand behind a counter, it is up to you to show what you can do to entertain each customer with the diverse tastes of sushi.”
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.
She has proved she can definitely stand on her own in the male-dominated world of sushi. However, her love for sushi goes beyond that and she fears that original sushi culture is dying out as more and more fusion-style sushi servings become popular both at home and abroad.
“Japan’s sushi culture is disappearing because many restaurants are going out of business,” Chiba says. “As a sushi chef, I want to do what I can to preserve this culture for future generations. I want the whole world to know what real sushi is like.”
It used to be hard to break into the world of sushi. Even if a young chef found an experienced chef who was willing to take on an apprentice, he or she would be washing dishes and doing odd jobs around the restaurant for years before getting a chance to work behind the counter.
These days, several schools offer students a chance to be certified as a sushi chef within a few months. Tokyo Sushi Academy is one such example.
Sachiko Goto, principal of Tokyo Sushi Academy, acknowledges that some criticism has been directed at the school and its students for its unconventional approach toward sushi education. However, she says the school has made the world of sushi more accessible to a wide variety of people, including women.
“Sushi schools have attracted people from many different occupations or educational backgrounds,” Goto says. “These students may seem foreign to older generations, but (their diversity) has allowed restaurants to do things that were not done in the past — for example, designing informative websites or communicating with foreign customers.”
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.
“I wanted to introduce Japanese food culture to people both in Japan and overseas,” Goto says. “I felt sushi offered the greatest opportunity to do this.”
Goto says the number of female students at Tokyo Sushi Academy has almost doubled to 20 percent in recent years compared to the number that enrolled when the school opened in 2002. She notes that this reflects a general trend of women becoming commonplace in kitchens in the service industry.
“The world is changing and, although late in the game, washoku and sushi restaurants are starting to catch up,” she says. “If they don’t welcome women, they will have trouble finding experienced chefs to take over their businesses when they retire.”
People in general assume a number of reasons as to why women are considered to be unsuitable as chefs. Most point to fact that a woman’s core body temperature is higher than her male counterpart, which they believe causes the rice handled to become sticky. Some also argue that a woman’s sense of taste is affected by their menstruation cycle.
“However, I think men just wanted to protect their territory,” Goto says. “Skill-wise, the question is not about whether men are better than women. Some women may possess excellent filleting skills, while some men might struggle. It is about each individual.”
Regardless of whether the chef is a man or a woman, Goto says it is important for sushi chefs to have cool hands to prevent the rice from sticking to them. In most cases, the temperature of the hands adapts and can be controlled by using regularly rinsing the hands in cold water.
Goto says a chef’s ability to cut a fish is the single-most largest influence on how a piece of sushi tastes. Even the slightest difference between cuts can affect texture.
“The beauty of sushi is that wonderful dishes can be made by virtue of the cut alone,” Goto says. “In Western culture, cutting usually only takes place when preparing the food and how food tastes ultimately comes down to how it is cooked. This is what makes sushi unique.”
Customers entering Nadeshiko Sushi in Tokyo’s Akihabara district are greeted cheerfully by young, energetic women who are wearing bright yukata. Given its location, one may think it’s actually a girl’s bar or a cosplay shop. But it’s not.
Dressed in a pink yukata featuring colorful flowers, manager Yuki Chizui explains that Nadeshiko Sushi is a sushi restaurant with an all-female staff.
The young women behind the counter are talkative and playful — both with each other, and the customers. Once they receive an order, however, their expressions turn serious as they carefully turn their attention toward preparing each piece of sushi.
“Nadeshiko Sushi is my dream job,” Chizui says. “It takes a new approach to sushi by having an all-female lineup. It’s a place where I can just do what I want to do. I don’t want to do something that is straight out of a manual. I want to do something creative and make something new.”
However, that was easier said than done.
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.
The restaurant went through something of an identity crisis at first.
When it opened, the women tried wearing the plain white jackets traditionally worn by male sushi chefs. The results, however, were far from satisfactory.
“We realized we couldn’t just copy the way men ran sushi restaurants,” Chizui says. “No one came to the restaurant when we wore simple white coats because we looked the same as everyone else. We needed to create a feminine restaurant in order to establish a new style.”
The women experimented with AKB48 costumes and maid-style aprons before settling on Japanese-style clothing.
Employees have been given the freedom to wear anything, provided it represents wa (yukata, or summer kimono, and happi coats are popular). Chefs are allowed to show some of their bangs but must tie the rest of their hair back behind their head. They must also wear bandanas on their heads.
“Women love to dress up and women love fashion,” Chizui says. “I want our employees to have fun wearing traditional Japanese clothes.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing at first, however. While female employees ran the front of the house, Nadeshiko Sushi hired a man to do all the preparation work in the kitchen. These chefs would often overstep their mark and, at one point, Chizui even threw cooking boards at one of them. The restaurant had to replace the men three or four times.
Chizui realized the restaurant didn’t stand a chance if the female chefs didn’t improve their skills and so she stopped hiring men to do the preparation work. The women were forced to learn everything from scratch.
Many of her original employees quit and Chizui approached some women who had graduated from Tokyo Sushi Academy to help. To her delight, they agreed.
Now, Chizui heads a group of young women aged between 18 and 28. She goes to Tsukiji fish market most mornings to select the freshest items of the day.
No matter how hard they try, however, Chizui says Nadeshiko Sushi still has a few customers who misunderstand the concept.
“Some people still come to our restaurant and think we are a sushi shop that specializes in moe (a form of pseudo-love for certain types of cartoon characters) and make inappropriate comments,” Chizui says. ” When that happens, I just explain the truth — we might look different but we are here to serve good sushi.”
Read related story: Sushi students seek a foot in the door overseas