In a profession dominated by men, an increasing number of women are training to be sushi chefs with a view to plying their trade overseas.
In the past, women were not allowed to prepare sushi in Japan, based on a belief that their hands were too warm for the task.
Toshio Ogiwara, 65, a chef at a restaurant affiliated with the Tokyo Sushi Academy, says that is a myth.
“The belief is groundless and was probably made up by chefs who didn’t want to accept female apprentices,” he said.
On a recent day, 28 students were making sushi rolls at the academy in Shinjuku Ward. Eight were women.
“Try not to squash the rice grains,” the instructor told them. “Don’t press the knife onto the fish to cut it, but move it back and forth.”
The academy, which offers a systematized curriculum and training program instead of the rigors of traditional apprenticeship, costs about ¥1.5 million for a year of classes three days a week. An eight-week course, with classes five days a week, costs ¥800,000.
Since opening in 2002, the school has taken on about 1,900 students, most in their 20s and 30s. Today, more than 500 of its graduates are working in more than 50 countries, and 20 percent of them are women. Some of the women have found great success in the catering business, the academy said.
One student who sees sushi as a ticket abroad is Miyabi Ikeura, 24, from Niigata Prefecture.
“I want to visit lots of countries,” the former travel agent said after joining the eight-week course.
The academy says many students expect sushi skills to help them get working visas, given overseas demand for sushi chefs.
A farm ministry estimate says there were around 55,000 Japanese restaurants overseas as of March. Under the Cool Japan strategy, the government is increasing exports of Japanese food, anime, music and other facets of popular culture.
Reflecting the fact that sushi has many fans around the world, about 100 foreigners have come to study at the sushi school, officials said.
“I love sushi and want to open my own restaurant one day,” said a 27-year-old woman from Colombia also on the eight-week course.
The Japanese women, however, see another attraction: They believe working conditions abroad will be better than at home, where long hours are taken for granted.