Opening the kitchen to foreign chefs

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

As a foreigner aspiring to become a “washoku” (Japanese food) chef, South Korean student Seo Dong-young faces a dilemma. The 23-year-old student at a Tokyo culinary school wants to stay here and work after graduation, but unfortunately that isn’t an option.

Legally speaking, he must return to South Korea as soon as his exchange student visa expires next March.

“There is a huge difference between just learning basic skills in school and actually going out there to work with real pros,” said Seo, a student at Hattori Nutrition College in Tokyo. “It’s only after you’ve had real working experience that you’ll be able to understand the certain way (Japanese people) act and think.”

As visa rules now stand, foreigners can’t be employed as cooks unless they specialize in foreign cuisines, such as Italian or Chinese, and have more than 10 years of practical experience in their home countries. Consequently, foreigners like Seo, who are studying how to prepare Japanese food and have no work experience, are doubly out of luck.

But that situation might change.

The Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau is now “eagerly considering” easing visa requirements for young hopefuls like Seo so they can be hired as full-time paid assistants at washoku restaurants after graduation, said official Nobuko Fukuhara. If this comes about, they could learn the nitty-gritty of their art working with accomplished Japanese cooks. And, best of all, they would get paid for it.

Originally proposed to a governmental deregulation panel by the Japan Association of Training Colleges for Cooks, the planned visa relaxation is in line with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to raise the international profile of Japan’s food culture.

The administration laid out a batch of growth strategies in June to “resurrect” Japan from years of malaise, pledging in part to make the agriculture and fishery businesses a central part of the revitalization drive. In particular, the government has vowed to boost agriculture and fishery exports to the tune of ¥1 trillion by 2020 from the current ¥450 billion. What’s more, washoku looks set to be added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list as early as this week.

The association likewise advocates raising awareness around the world of washoku. Noting the increasing number of foreign students with culinary degrees here who are hoping for paid apprenticeships in Japanese restaurants, it says they’re “the most suited” to undertake the role of promoting washoku abroad.

“Generally speaking, exchange students are very studious and highly motivated,” said Hirofumi Sugaya, senior director of the association.

“We’ve heard many cases where foreign students, as part-timers in local eateries, work so hard that the entire morale of their workplace has improved accordingly.”

Such tireless diligence and voracious entrepreneurship appear to be personified by 25-year-old Lee Jung-noh, another washoku student from South Korea, who says his dream is to “make people healthier” by promoting Japanese fare worldwide.

Lee said exchange students, unlike Japanese who want to start out overseas, have no language barriers to overcome when they return to their home country. Experts also point out their familiarity with the local culture makes it easier for them to figure out what sort of Japanese cuisine is most marketable.

“After everything I’ve learned here in this school, I (would) find it such a waste if I just graduated and went back to Korea (without any practical experience),” Lee said.

As he also said, dispatching foreign students with insufficient expertise risks further aggravating what some culinary experts here have called the “unforgivable” rampancy of inauthentic washoku around the world. Experts point to sushi overseas, such as pieces soaked in cream sauce and capped with strawberries, as bearing little resemblance to the Japanese originals.

“In some cases, those bogus washoku meals are being served by somebody who hasn’t even been to Japan,” said Yasuhiro Fujino, a veteran chef at Yonemura, a traditional restaurant in the upscale Ginza district of Tokyo. Fujino said some take the well-known washoku concept of stylishness to an extreme and concoct something too unconventional and quirky.

Such misrepresentations of washoku, though to a lesser extent, exist in South Korea, too, said Yoo Woo-sang, 28. “In South Korea, it’s typical to wrap raw fish in layers of vegetables and eat it with a spicy condiment called ‘gochujang,’ and that’s what we call sashimi over there,” said Yoo, pointing out that the pungent sauce nearly overwhelms the succulence of the raw fish.

“The Korean version of washoku is not completely faithful to the original. So if you want to learn the real washoku, the best way to do it is to work in an authentic environment,” Yoo said.

Fukuhara of the Justice Ministry meanwhile emphasized that the visa rules would be relaxed with the understanding that foreign students will eventually leave Japan and do their utmost to campaign for washoku back home. In other words, the change won’t allow them to stay in Japan indefinitely; students will be expected to leave after two to three years, though no specifics have been decided.

If allowed to stay too long, chances are they’d develop such a strong emotional attachment to Japan that they might feel reluctant to leave, oblivious to their original mission, she said. Their lengthy apprenticeship might rob Japanese of employment opportunities, too. It could also make them a target for employers who want to exploit them as cheap labor for as long as they’re allowed to stay, she explained.

But perhaps the biggest challenge surrounding the visa deregulation is to convince as many Japanese employers as possible to get on board with this, said Sugaya of the Japan Association of Training Colleges for Cooks. It is unclear how many of them will want to hire foreign students knowing they are expected to leave after a couple of years.

Also, “just hiring” won’t be enough, Fukuhara of the Immigration Bureau cautioned. Given the original purpose of the visa relaxation, employers need to actually teach them the quintessence of washoku every step of the way, instead of simply assigning them odd jobs or giving them cursory training.

Fujino of Yonemura, for one, has no qualms about accepting exchange students.

“We’re willing to hire anyone with great potential regardless of their nationality,” Yonemura said. “Now that washoku’s UNESCO registration looms large, we’re concerned more than ever about the importance of promoting the correct knowledge of Japanese food culture. So I’m all for giving them opportunities to learn about the real washoku.”

The Immigration Bureau is expected to announce broad guidelines on the visa relaxation by the end of the month, including how many years students will be allowed to stay as paid trainees, and what Japanese cuisine they can specialize in.