I was chatting with some friends the other day about silly, gender biased rules that really have no merit, and we got talking about why you rarely (if ever) see female sushi chefs. I had always heard it explained (but never bought into the explanation) that this was because women's hands are warmer than mens and not suitable for handling fish. In doing research for this blog, I came across a number of other unfounded explanations such as women wear perfumes or use lotions that will interfere with the flavor of the fish, women cannot use a knife or their hands as adeptly as men and that women cannot handle the rigor of being on their feet all day (that last one makes me laugh aloud each time I read it– particularly after a 10 hour day in the kitchen!)
Not surprisingly, none of those theories are true. What is true is that Japanese culture is often misogynistic (as well as xenophobic) and that, until recently, preparing sushi was considered work suited only for Japanese men. According to a New York Times article written in 2002, however, the tide has begun to turn. In 1999, an Equal Employment Opportunity Law was passed in Japan and this, in addition to lifting restrictions on how late at night a woman is allowed to work, has helped to clear the path for more women to pursue a career in sushi making. The recent rise, and universal acceptance, of professional women chefs in general has certainly helped to open doors as well. According to the article, the number of female sushi chefs in Japan at the time hovered around 200, but surely in the 8 years since the article was written, those numbers have increased.
In the United States, many women are gaining recognition as respectable sushi chefs as with Niki Nakayama at Inaka in Arcadia, CA, Miki Izumisawa at 242 Sushi Fusion in Laguna Beach, CA and Tracy Griffith at Rika in Hollywood.
For further details about women, and non-Japanese men, as sushi chefs, check out the book The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson. In it, Corson follows a number of students through the challenging curriculum at the California Sushi Academy as well as providing interesting details regarding the history and science of sushi making. Another sweet read is Hiromi’s Hands by Lynne Barasch. This beautifully illustrated children’s book tells the true story of Hiromi Suzuki, one of the first female, and most highly acclaimed, sushi chefs in New York City. The story is inspirational and a confidence builder for little girls, as well as anybody who has ever felt discriminated against because of their gender.