Traditionally, restaurant kitchens are among the most male-dominated workplaces in Japan.
However, thanks to a lot of talent, hard work and perseverance, some women are managing to break through the glass ceiling and in turn have become an inspiration for younger aspirants.
Mika Yamasaki, 45, runs the restaurant Yamasaki in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo. It won a star in the 2009 and 2010 Michelin Guides, which rate the world’s premier eateries on a scale of one to three stars.
Yamasaki began her apprenticeship as a cook at a Tokyo restaurant in 1994. She said in those days she was just about the only female cook there. She worked as hard as her male colleagues and had little time left for her private life.
Once she struck out on her own and went into business in 2002, she realized that being a woman could be a serious handicap. She was immediately shown the door at a bank when she tried to take out a loan to open her restaurant. But she managed to raise funds from a public financial institution that had a lending plan dedicated to women.
Despite the various difficulties she has experienced, Yamasaki encourages aspiring female cooks to take the plunge and aim high. “There is always a way,” she says. “It’s up to you.”
“It seems like it’s always women who win prizes in cooking contests, but they never make their careers at Japanese restaurants,” says Kikuko Hirose, head of Tokyo Seishin Technical College for Cooking. “Now restaurateurs have become quite willing to hire women, maybe because of a shortage of talented cooks.”
Hiromitsu Nozaki, owner of Waketokuyama, a restaurant in central Tokyo, is happy more women are entering professional kitchens.
“Female cooks have high skills and their presence in a restaurant mellows the atmosphere, while men tend to use harsh words,” he says, but adds the system is still stacked heavily toward men.
Chisako Hori, 45, who used to be an apprentice cook, battled against the odds and is now in charge of the Tokyo operations for Kikunoi, a Kyoto-based establishment that runs two restaurants there and one in Tokyo. The flagship restaurant in Kyoto received three stars in the 2010 Michelin Guide.
When she worked in the kitchen, she proposed introducing modern culinary utensils and other changes to enhance efficiency, earning the wrath of her more tradition-bound male colleagues.
The experience prompted her to make the best of her talent outside the kitchen. Hori is now responsible for deciding the menu and as a close managerial aide to President Yoshihiro Murata she is one of the chief architects of the Kikunoi brand.
Cooking school chief Hirose says, “Women are suited for work in the Japanese food business, which requires a high level of finesse, because they have dexterous hands and see food as an object of love.”