Twenty-year-old Reina Hashiguchi is studying at Tokyo Sushi Academy in Shinjuku because she dreams of opening her own sushi restaurant in Japan.
To do so, however, Hashiguchi must overcome the prejudice that sushi chefs should be men, a belief that stems from the assumption that women’s body temperatures fluctuate more than men’s and affects the quality of the dishes.
“I’ve heard that some sushi restaurants are run by women but the competition is tough,” Hashiguchi says. “When I’m at work, I get asked (by customers) why I’m trying to become a sushi chef two or three times a week. I don’t think anyone would ask me the same question if I were a man.”
Hashiguchi realizes she probably has more opportunity honing her craft abroad, using her nationality to her advantage.
“I could promote sushi culture overseas without any worries,” she says.
Her classmate, 23-year-old Tomoko Nakase, also sees more opportunities overseas.
“My goal is to work in Australia,” Nakase says. “I heard that becoming a sushi chef will help me get a job in Australia. I decided to attend this school to learn (about sushi) quickly.”
Hashiguchi and Nakase are enrolled in a class of 17 with two other female students at Tokyo Sushi Academy, which is a 10-minute walk from the hustle and bustle of Shinjuku Station.
Hiroko Taniguchi, marketing director of Tokyo Sushi Academy, says up to 90 percent of the students enrolled in the school plan to work in sushi restaurants overseas after graduation.
At present, about 30 percent of the more than 2,500 students who have graduated from the academy work in 50 countries and territories worldwide, including France, Canada, Hong Kong, Australia and Chile.
Tokyo Sushi Academy was founded by business consultant Makoto Fukue in 2002. Having worked closely with sushi restaurants throughout his career, Fukue felt the traditional master-pupil system of training chefs didn’t offer enough to attract young people to the job.
“Most young sushi chefs don’t like the way that veteran chefs train them,” Taniguchi says. “As a result, restaurants end up losing a lot of younger chefs to take over the roles of older men when they retire. The school was founded to ensure these restaurants have a steady supply of trainee chefs.”
This isn’t to say the academy’s teachers don’t know what they are doing.
Veteran sushi chef Mitsuo Hirai once worked at The Hump restaurant in Santa Monica, California. Not only does Hirai teach the students how to prepare sushi, he tells them about his experiences overseas and helps them with their English lessons, which are an essential component of their course.
Sachiko Goto, principal of Tokyo Sushi Academy, says the students’ horizons are further broadened by the inclusion of foreign students in the class.
Foreign students typically make up about 20 percent of each class, and around 80 percent of these students are either professional chefs or restaurant owners who are looking to add sushi to their repertoire.
“We have students from Europe, Asia, the United States, New Zealand and Australia,” Goto says. “Recently, there’s been a lot of interest in Spain, which suggests sushi is popular over there at the moment.”