The sushi industry is one dominated by men and always has been, and there is nowhere where this is more apparent than the birthplace of modern sushi, Japan. In the past I published an article on “Washoku,” a culturally pure approach to sushi which respects nature and the resources required for sushi to continue. That being said, not all of the tradition associated with sushi are so positive. Women face discrimination and sexism in the sushi world, in a culture which holds very traditional (and old fashioned) ideas about who should be preparing dishes in a restaurant.
Nadeshiko Sushi is the only sushi restaurant in Japan where all of the sushi chef’s are women. The Wall Street Journal interviewed Jiro’s son Yoshikazu in response to the famous movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” where he explained why there were no female sushi chef’s in the documentary. He exposed a traditionalist opinion that a woman’s menstrual cycle changes their sense of taste, making them unfit for high end sushi making. Women in Japan also face the unfortunate urban legend of having an overall warmer body temperature (a half-truth and not different enough to merit discussion) which makes them “unfit for handling raw fish,” as well as the idea that the use of perfume and makeup over time can mask their sense of smell. Even if it were the case that potentially having a slightly higher body temperature could affect the ability to make sushi, younger men can have a slightly higher body temperature than older men, so shouldn’t the same logic apply to them?
I immediately viewed these claims as ridiculous, but decided I should do my due diligence before preparing this article. I wanted to take a look at some of the studies which are used to back up the sexist ideas that women make inferior chefs. A study from over 15 years ago found that food consumption and preferences can possibly change during one’s menstrual cycle (and pregnancy), but obviously I found absolutely nothing to suggest that women would be unable to be equal or even better sushi chef’s than their male counterparts In addition, one’s body temperature variance is typically very slight, and even occurs in men for many different reasons (minor illnesses, clothes, exercise, etc.). The study in question is “Variations in food preference and consumption across the menstrual cycle” which indicated that while some taste and smell preferences may change slightly, there didn’t seem to be any evidence as to whether it made any qualitative difference in preparation, particularly as we’re looking at a woman’s ability to handle food, not what she wants to eat at that moment. It is always sad when one-off studies are used to promote a sexist agenda.
The sushi chef’s at Nadeshiko Sushi don’t just have to deal with long hours and hard work which comes with any kitchen job. Apparently, on occasion random men will come into the restaurant not to actually eat anything, but just to insult the female chefs skills and work appropriateness. It is revolting and juvenile, but the sushi chefs take it in stride and continue to put out a quality product to this day. Critics of the restaurant call it gimmicky and tacky, appealing to those who enjoy fashionable women more than the sushi itself, but that is a situation we see the world over and not unique to Nadeshiko. Yet with employees who have graduated from the Tokyo Sushi Academy, these men could not be more wrong.
Japan is a country that often adheres to longstanding and deeply held traditions, so it is understandable that such beliefs regarding the production and handling of sushi may still be around. That being said, not everyone is as tradition-bound as everyone else, and Nadeshiko has remained open for a number of years, so hopefully we are seeing signs that the superstitions and urban legends are not held by all, and that there is some positive change in the industry and its customers.