The 2011 hit documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi profoundly and artfully illuminates how a hard-working master sushi chef catapulted his tiny 10-seat restaurant in a Tokyo subway station into a mecca for coveted $300 tasting menus. Diners across the globe making pilgrimages to Sukiyabashi Jiro might take note of the flowing green tea and 45-minute massaged octopus, but not the females painstakingly working behind the counter. There are none — and save for a poignant transformation in thinking about gender roles, there never will be.
Earlier this year a Business Insider article brought to light a four-year-old quote by Jiro Ono’s son in a Wall Street Journal feature. When asked why there were neither female chefs nor apprentices at the famed restaurant, he matter-of-factly responded that it is “because women menstruate. To be a professional means to have a steady taste in your food, but because of the menstrual cycle, women have an imbalance in their taste, and that’s why women can’t be sushi chefs." This rationale, along with an equally ridiculous stigma about females' slightly warmer body temperature, shows how sushi is woefully behind the rest of the kitchen world when it comes to gender equality.
Oona Tempest, who works at Tanoshi Sushi in New York, is one of the few females making her mark on the U.S. sushi sphere. She attributes this dearth to history and politics. Sushi, Edomae in particular — “simplistic, clean and now frequently omakase-style” — first surfaced as street food in Tokyo in the mid to late 1800s. It had a significant chance to blossom in restaurant settings when post-1923 earthquake revitalizations across the city led to low rents and venues for chefs to hone their skills. “The timeframe of the birth of sushi coincides with the fall of the samurai,” she explains. “However, the disciplined mentality and uncompromising spirit of these warriors found further life in the mindset of individuals — sushi chefs in particular. Our knives are made by the same technique that once created samurai swords.” Zen discipline, Tempest adds, helped to form a craft that reflects physical, mental and spiritual precision and perfection.
While Tempest acknowledges that sushi has undergone tremendous change post-globalization, it still strives to maintain “its original state. It’s old. Unfortunately, by-products of that preservation are some outdated beliefs about the ‘second sex.’ Master chefs willing to take on a female apprentice are just as, if not more so, scarce than females willing to learn.”
Tempest is lucky, then, because her master at Tanoshi — who abides by magokoro, the concept of having a strong, genuine core spirit — promised early on to train her just as he would a man. “It isn’t about gender here. Work environments like we have are extremely rare,” she explains. Yet that doesn’t stop the occasional skeptical customer from asking her if the temperature of her purportedly warmer hands will harm the fish she touches.
Such old-fashioned thoughts propelling a sushi boys’ club has inevitably led to frustration, particularly in Japan, where females are largely dismissed and even deemed inferior in this male-entrenched industry. Stereotypes like these spawned Nadeshico five years ago, a Tokyo sushi joint with an all-female staff looking for a fair and capable shot in a field that’s been off-limits to them simply because they are women. “I wish it had become well-known due to the quality of the food, not because of gender. But to do so would also dismiss the advances of female rights in Japan. Ultimately, I hope this conversation will not be about men or women and just the cuisine and art,” Tempest says.
Niki Nakayama, the celebrated Los Angeles chef behind n/Naka, hopes Nadeshico’s future is “a genuine and authentic endeavor and not something that is gimmicky.”
Before opening n/Naka, where sashimi preparations grace the kaiseki-style menus, Nakayama (pictured above), who was featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, ran Azami Sushi Café. A mélange of talent, focus and commitment is what led her to such impressive heights. “It was challenging for me in that I was only taught certain things, but I also attribute this to Japanese kitchens, which I understood to be conservative in passing on any knowledge,” she says. “Japanese society as a whole is not very supportive of women in the workplace or of women having a career. Perhaps there are not many females making sushi because it's something that is not imaginable in people's minds.”
By exercising impressive discipline, Nakaba Miyazaki has also made a name for herself by helping lead the charge of one of New York’s most hallowed kitchens, Sushi Yasuda. The Osaka-bred chef knows firsthand that the dominance of males at sushi restaurants in Japan “is intended to protect and observe the presence of tradition.” This knowledge did not intimidate her from pursuing her dream. “I have never been conscious of my gender when I work. As a professional sushi chef, what I need is knowledge of my craft, ambition to perfect techniques, interaction with the spirit of hospitality and to pay thoughtful attention to others who are around me.”
While particularly pervasive in the sushi realm, sexism, of course, still runs rampant throughout restaurants. Women like Tempest, Nakayama and Miyazaki are slowly sparking different, more balanced conversations.
“When I started working as a professional, the phrase ‘freedom of job selection’ was so popular in Japan,” Miyazaki remembers. “I think it will be an old story, the idea that men are superior to women.” Perhaps the new one will feature a woman tirelessly working at Sukiyabashi Jiro.