Japanese women fight to become sushi chefs

AFP
Women have warm hands, their periods alter their sense of taste, they can't work long hours – just some of the claims from those in Japan who believe women can't be sushi chefs.
AFP

Women have warm hands, their periods alter their sense of taste, they can’t work long hours — just some of the claims from those in Japan who believe women can’t be sushi chefs.

But a growing number of women in the country determined to shatter those myths are training and working as sushi chefs in some of Japan’s most revered restaurants.

Mizuho Iwai is a trainee at the upscale Onodera restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza, a neighborhood home to some of the world’s top-ranked sushi restaurants.

In an industry where women are still rarely seen, she knew she would be an anomaly.

“I think there are a few female chefs but it’s rare. But I wanted to challenge things because of that,” the 33-year-old apprentice said.

And at Onodera, she’s not totally alone, there was one other woman among the 10 apprentices training at the restaurant before it closed temporarily in April over the coronavirus outbreak. All 10 of the restaurant’s chefs are men.

The work can be gruelling and requires years to master. Apprentices must learn everything from the names of different types of fish to removing scales and slicing properly.

They are even instructed on how to correctly enter through the traditional drapes inside Onodera, by lifting and parting them with an elbow.

The world of washoku, or Japanese cuisine, has long been dominated by men, more so than Italian or French cuisine, according to Fumimasa Murakami, a 54-year-old teacher at Tokyo Sushi Academy.

There is no official data on the gender breakdown of sushi chefs in Japan, but Murakami estimates women make up “less than 10 percent.”

“Resistance against female chefs remains strong in Japanese cuisine, including sushi. Customers who don’t want a female chef at the counter do exist,” he added, “Older customers in particular have difficulty accepting it.”

Even sushi chefs have been known to repeat claims that women’s hands are too warm to keep raw fish fresh, or that their periods alter their sense of taste. Others say the job is unsuitable for women because of the long and late hours.

“In Japan, it is still commonly agreed that women’s main role is in family, but sushi chefs need to work in the evening, which is difficult for women,” said Yuki Noguchi, a 32-year-old former teacher who finished her eight-month sushi chef training at the Academy in December.

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