Japanese Women Are Rolling into Careers as Sushi Chefs

For centuries, the path of a young Japanese boy or girl was understood. As a young boy, Ono went out into his community to find a willing teacher to take him in and allow him to learn an art or trade as an apprentice. He found a master metal worker whose products were legendary and convinced him to grant young Ono the honor of receiving an education from this master. The apprenticeship would last well into adulthood when the young man could then venture out on his own and establish himself in the community and begin to take apprentices of his own.

The path of young Etsuko was also quite clear. She would learn from her mother, grandmother, aunts, and older sisters. She would quietly observe and learn the ways of caring for a family. There would be lessons in cooking, cleaning, manners, caregiving, and the very important tea ceremonies. Practicing for years, these seemingly common tasks would be mastered as a form of art. Eventually, as a young woman, Etsuko would marry and use what she had learned to care for her own family and train children of her own to carry on the legacies of her ancestors.

Children knowing and seeking their established paths has been the way of their world for thousands of years. Japanese culture thrived; vibrant and significant traditions persisted for centuries. But how does a culture continue to grow and how do traditions persist when those who are expected to carry them on no longer have a desire to do so? A country that does not want to lose defining cultural attributes begins to change its mindset and look to those who are willing and able to not only help carry on those traditions but also bring new life and energy to a threatened art. The centuries-old culinary practices so deeply rooted in Japanese culture and tradition are now beginning to be threatened by the changing face of Japanese Society. The women of Japan are now attempting to break from the cultural norm and venture out into the culinary workforce to try to save many of the very traditions from which they were banned for over 2,000 years.

(Credit: Zen and the Art of Kitchen Fusion) Recreation of a sushi press, a Hako Box

(Credit: Zen and the Art of Kitchen Fusion)
Recreation of a sushi press, a Hako Box

Ancient in its origins, but less so as a form of art, sushi has persisted in many different fashions. As early as 710 BCE, the sushi chef was a revered figure in Japanese culture. The need to preserve raw fish by pressing it between vinegared rice has turned into what is now a worldwide art. Sushi, in its current, fresh and non-fermented, form has only been practiced for a few hundred years. For centuries education in Japan has been in the form of apprenticeship. A master of sushi, shokunin, would take one or several young male apprentices into his establishment. For at least the first year, if not longer, the young apprentices would not be allowed to even hold a knife. Apprentices might be allowed to only clean bathrooms or common areas for the first few months, then would move up to deliveries or shopping, following closely the idea of mastering one task before moving onto another.

When the chef, or itamae, was ready, he would allow the apprentices to observe his movements and practices. “Steal with your eyes” is part of the foundation of Japanese learning, as the one who is learning is expected to try to obtain as much information as possible without having to be actively taught. Once allowed to handle food, apprentices would have the task of cooking and forming rice every day for years. Often times it could be up to fifteen years before the chef considered the apprentice able to use the skills learned to begin practicing sushi on his own. Uncompromising as it may seem, this form of culinary training is what has made the Japanese art of sushi a global phenomenon.

Culinary Arts in Japan has been, and in many cases still is, formatted after the training of the samurai. Incredible amounts of discipline, education and study, as well as a spotless wardrobe are the traits that have been inherited by the samurai traditions. And much like the art of being a samurai, it has been meant only for men since its founding. Rare as it was for women to leave the home and caring for a family to find work, never would one be allowed to partake in the culinary arts. Women were expected to cook at home for their families and guests, but it has long been thought that the soft-spoken female could not handle the intense training that the chefs had to undergo. Also, many believed that their warmer body temperatures and hands would harm the flavors of the fish, along with their menstruation cycles altering their palettes, thus hindering their abilities to accurately create desired flavors. Taboos such as these have contributed to the gender separation in Japan.

(Photo: Sushi Yasuda) Traditional Male Sushi Chefs in the Edo, or macho, style.

(Photo: Sushi Yasuda) Traditional Male Sushi Chefs in the Edo, or macho, style.

Even though the intensity of sushi training is a fundamental part of the pride in Japanese culinary culture, awareness of other contributing factors also need to be considered. Modern social trends are beginning to show visible variations in society. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, new food customs were slowly introduced into Japanese culture, with the eating of meat becoming the most predominant change. Slowly did the established vegetarian norms become overshadowed by the westernized beef and pork dishes, many of which took on Japanese flairs and have now become considered staples of Japanese cuisine. Gradually the tradition of eating at home with family has shifted towards outside establishments. In larger cities, convenience stores, pizza, and fast food chain restaurants have become the food scene for the modern Japanese citizen. Mechanized sushi production, as shown below in conveyor belt style, has begun to overshadow the small, intimate setting of the privately owned sushi restaurant. Fast paced lifestyles demand quickness, while the traditional sushi experience consists of numerous courses, each prepared specifically for the guest by the sushi chef.

(Credit: Dave Schunning) Sushi Conveyor Belt

(Credit: Dave Schunning) Sushi Conveyor Belt

Changes in preferred or more convenient cuisine, while being a compelling aspect of the culinary transformation, are not the only justification for shifting culinary focuses. Significant to the progressive demise of the art of traditional sushi culture is the decline of professional sushi chefs. Japan’s aging work force is seeing a greater exodus of chefs than influx. Customarily, the eldest son follows in the father’s footsteps with the intention of superseding him. Fewer and fewer males have shown an interest in the sushi industry. Additionally, changing is the traditional mentality that a job is a lifetime commitment to a single company. This unfortunate compilation of circumstances has led many Japanese to feel as though they face the possibility of losing part of their heritage. As female sushi chef Yumi Chiba reflects, “Japan’s sushi culture is disappearing because many restaurants are going out of business. As a sushi chef, I want to do what I can to preserve this culture for future generations. I want the whole world to know what real sushi is like.”

The Japanese were unwavering in their regulation of the culinary industry; ironically, in an effort to try to hold so strictly to traditions, they actually ended up endangering the continuation of many of the original sushi practices. Male chefs tried so strongly to cling to the entire industry that now they have to decide whether to ask for help in order to persevere or to continue to follow rigid practices and face the threat of going out of business and losing their livelihoods. The part of the population, women, who were once denied participation in the culinary workforce are presently the ones leading the revival of old traditions as well as bringing new life to the art during a global reemergence of passion for the culinary arts. For the first time, women are being encouraged by their government and countrymen to pursue jobs, and some of them are looking to turn their affection for home cooking into a career.

Women in parts of Japan are beginning to consider the new opportunities that are opening to them. Smaller Japanese cities and towns are still somewhat rigid in their practices of gender separation. The exodus of women from the home into the workplace to follow their culinary passions is becoming increasingly popular in the larger cities like Tokyo. Even though there are numerous large hotels and resorts, it can be difficult for women to excel in these high volume locations because they are continuously viewed simply as women and not professionals, making it difficult for them to receive promotions or advance beyond entry level labor positions. Much of the culture of Japan’s culinary scene is that of small, privately owned eating establishments. These smaller, more intimate atmospheres allow women the comfort and ability to care for their guests as they would their own families, and therefore have become the heart of the female sushi chef movement. However, the fact that they are being allowed the opportunity to work and learn in an industry that has held the “male only” label for centuries is an extreme advancement for women in Japan.

The emergence of women in the restaurant scene began with male chefs allowing women to work sushi counters and interact with guests. It was thought that their calm demeanors would be welcoming, yet they were still not allowed to prepare or handle food. However, the ancient culture of Japan is now bending to adapt to a new culture, and young citizens are fighting to keep traditions alive in their own way. In 2002, the Tokyo Sushi Academy opened, revolutionizing the Japanese culinary scene. The school offers introduction courses to sushi and other culinary focuses that can be completed in several months, a drastic change from the decade long apprenticeships. Attendance by women has reached approximately 20%, more than double what it was when it opened, and giving women some background experience that will enormously benefit them when venturing out into the workforce. Alumni Chef Chiba observes, “The world is changing and, although late in the game, washoku and sushi restaurants are starting to catch up,” she says. “If they don’t welcome women, they will have trouble finding experienced chefs to take over their businesses when they retire.”

Approximately 35,000 sushi chefs currently work in Japan, but it is unknown how many of them are women, yet the number continues to grow as the movement for women chefs gains momentum. Granted, even with outlets for creativity and learning rising throughout Japan, dissention from male chefs is still rampant, nonetheless, women are stepping forward and attempting to energize the sushi world with new and exciting flair. Up and coming female chefs do not want to be viewed as revolutionaries that seek to destroy the gender separations in Japanese culture. Rather, they revere the foundation that their country has built over centuries and wish to contribute to its preservation.

(Photo: Yoskiaki Miura) Notable differences from traditional, male sushi chefs, Nadeshiko Sushi creates an identity centered around a new and fun atmosphere.

(Photo: Yoskiaki Miura) Nadeshiko Sushi creates an identity centered around a new and fun atmosphere.

Forging inroads into the male dominated field of sushi is one Japanese women who has become icons for working females. Yuki Chidui is a manager at Japan’s first all-female staffed sushi restaurant, Nadeshiko. While this alone breaks the norms of Japanese culture, Chidui and her staff didn’t stop there. Tolerating mockery and criticism, not just from men but also other women who still feel as though their place is in the home, the women of Nadeshiko decided to revitalize the face of modern sushi. They began with venturing away from the traditional white garb of the sushi chef and adopt a kimono style uniform, fashioned with flower blossoms and colorful patterns and sporting the motto “fresh and cute.” The women of Nadeshiko create a welcoming atmosphere for their guests, breaking the tradition of strict silence when preparing sushi by conversing with customers, smiling and laughing while working and casually calling one another by their first names. The relaxed demeanor and inviting ambiance has built a loving customer base that is continuing to grow as Nadeshiko continues to push the culinary envelope and shape a new and dynamic vision of Japanese sushi culture.

Japanese culinary traditions have made sushi the beautifully delicate art that has become a global phenomenon. With a uniqueness that is unrivaled, the art of sushi has persisted for millennia and has taken on new flair in other countries while adopting new ingredients and flavors. Women in Japan have now become integrated into sushi culture, becoming a staple in many communities. With the support and encouragement of the Japanese government behind them, women are expected to make up approximately 30% of the workforce by 2020, which is an incredible change for not only the Japanese economy but also the cultural norms. Japan culinary culture is breaking new ground, sushi traditions are still being preserved, but given new life and excitement. The Culinary Arts field is not the only area that is seeing and will continue to see modernization as gender separation is slowly addresses.  Women will be bringing new ideas to all areas of the Japanese world, creating a new culture for Japan, based on the old, in order to preserve their heritage and help their country thrive.


ruthieCurrently pursuing a Culinary Nutrition and Dietitian degree, Ruthie Poole holds a culinary degree and is working as a chef in Colorado Springs, CO. Originally from the East Coast, she has taught healthy cooking and natural food classes at hospitals and schools and hopes to continue to educate others on the importance of preventative health care through food.

Photo By: AP Photo/Koji Sasahara