Sushi show­down: Women chal­lenge one of Ja­pan’s male bas­tions

The China Post - - LIFE GUIDE POST -

Some jobs in Ja­pan, a na­tion known for its poor record on gen­der equal­ity, have been off lim­its to women for ages. The sushi counter, for one.

Sushi is em­blem­atic of Ja­pan’s pro­found cul­tural in­flu­ence glob­ally. It has crossed borders, ac­quir­ing non-Ja­panese in­gre­di­ents such as av­o­cado in the process. That, how­ever, is the limit of the cul­tural in­ter­change.

Deeply rooted stereo­types such as the so-called “Edo-style” macho de­meanor of sushi chefs and belief women’s warmer body tem­per­a­ture leads to in­fe­rior taste have kept sushi prepa­ra­tion an al­most ex­clu­sively male do­main in Ja­pan.

But some women are out to chal­lenge tra­di­tion. They’re learn­ing the art of sushi at a time when the gov­ern­ment is em­pha­siz­ing a greater role for women to off­set Ja­pan’s shrink­ing work­force.

“I think women are bet­ter at com­mu­ni­cat­ing with cus­tomers, and they’re kind and gen­tle,” said Yuki Chidui, 28, sushi chef and man­ager at the all-women Nadeshico sushi res­tau­rant in Tokyo.

Un­like the usual “ita­mae,” as sushi chefs are called, with their closely cropped hair and crisp cocky lan­guage, Chidui is soft-spo­ken and al­most child-like, wear­ing a white sum­mer ki­mono splashed with pink blos­soms.

She has pur­posely avoided try­ing to look the part. Her store’s motto is “fresh and kawaii,” or “cute.” Fly­ers de­pict her as a doe-eyed manga char­ac­ter. Chidui’s as­sis­tant, who switched from work­ing as a tour bus guide two months ago, wears “manga” but­tons on her out­fit.

Chidui had been in a rut and felt con­fined work­ing at a depart­ment store when she de­cided to gam­ble on start­ing her own busi­ness. It hasn’t been easy.

She has en­dured in­sults and and bla­tant ques­tion­ing of her abil­i­ties since open­ing Nadeshico five years ago. She said peo­ple have ridiculed her res­tau­rant when they walk in. Some­times male cus­tomers taunt her and ask: “Can you re­ally do it?”

There are no of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics on the num­ber of fe­male sushi chefs in Ja­pan but they are rare, ac­cord­ing to the All Ja­pan Sushi As­so­ci­a­tion, which groups 5,000 sushi res­tau­rant own­ers na­tion­wide and es­ti­mates Ja­pan has 35,000 sushi chefs in to­tal.

For­bid­ding women in cer­tain spots dates back cen­turies in Ja­pan, where cul­ture viewed men­stru­a­tion as tainted, a pri­mor­dial fear Western fem­i­nists have also his­tor­i­cally had to de­bunk.

The sumo ring is another place billed as too sa­cred for women. These days women rou­tinely take part in am­a­teur sumo, but the num­ber of fe­male pro­fes­sional sumo wrestlers still re­mains zero.

In re­cent years, the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment has made en­cour­ag­ing women in the work­force its mis­sion, see­ing that an al­ready stag­nant econ­omy would only get worse un­less women are freed from their sta­tus of home­maker and child-bearer to con­trib­ute more to pro­duc­tion and growth.

The gov­ern­ment wants women to fill 30 per­cent of lead­er­ship po­si­tions by 2020, an am­bi­tious goal given that women now make up only 8 per­cent of such po­si­tions in com­pa­nies hir­ing 100 peo­ple or more.

Even within that ef­fort, there is no crack­down on spe­cific in­dus­tries bar­ring women, said Takaaki Kak­inuma, an of­fi­cial at the gov­ern­ment Gen­der Equal­ity Bureau Cab­i­net Of­fice.

“The ini­tia­tive is about get­ting women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions,” he said.

Be­com­ing a sushi chef is an ar- du­ous process, re­quir­ing sev­eral years to learn how to ball up a de­cent “ni­giri” sushi, and at least a decade to prop­erly run a res­tau­rant. Chefs-in-train­ing usu­ally aren’t per­mit­ted to hold a knife for the first year, get­ting al­lo­cated to de­liv­er­ies and dish-wash­ing.

Masayuki Tsukada, 34, who started train­ing to be­come a sushi chef at 18, shrugs off how there are so few fe­male col­leagues.

“It’s just prej­u­dice,” he said, stress­ing that what counts is ex­pe­ri­ence, such as be­ing able to talk and keep straight all the or­ders and names of fish at the same time as well as pre­par­ing the sushi in front of the cus­tomer.

Es­tab­lish­ments where Tsukada and other pro­fes­sion­als work charge 10,000 yen (US$100) or more for din­ner, about three times what Nadeshico charges. Their menus tend to be fancier, with ex­otic fish, such as mar­bled tuna or rare types of baby fish.

But the pro­fes­sion is grad­u­ally open­ing up. Tokyo Sushi Academy of­fers two-month crash cour­ses in sushi-dom, with about a fifth of the Ja­panese stu­dents be­ing fe­male. A third of the stu­dents from abroad are women.

“More women are ac­cepted as sushi chefs at ca­sual restau­rants, and more so abroad than they are in Ja­pan. The tra­di­tional sushi places are still male-dom­i­nated,” said Sachiko Goto, the academy’s prin­ci­pal.

AP

In this Aug. 3 photo, Yuki Chidui, sushi chef and man­ager at Nadeshico sushi res­tau­rant, holds rice to make sushi at her all-women res­tau­rant in Tokyo. Deeply rooted stereo­types such as the so-called Edo-style macho de­meanor of sushi chefs and belief that the warmer body tem­per­a­ture of women leads to in­fe­rior taste have kept sushi prepa­ra­tion an al­most ex­clu­sively male do­main in Ja­pan. But some women are out to chal­lenge tra­di­tion and are learn­ing the art of sushi at a time when the gov­ern­ment is em­pha­siz­ing a greater role for women to off­set Ja­pan’s shrink­ing work­force.

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