The Real Reason There Aren't Many Women Sushi Chefs

Sushi is arguably one of Japan's best-loved food exports. The small bites, consisting of seasoned rice and thin slivers of delicately sliced raw fish, have become a global favorite, and while sushi bars are everywhere, there is something that these sushi bars seem to be missing — that is, a female chef.

Traditional Japanese chefs can give many reasons why a woman cannot take her place behind the counter at a sushi restaurant, especially at notable restaurants like Sukiyabashi Jiro, the former three-Michelin star sushi restaurant which no longer accepts bookings. Jiro Ono's son Yoshikazu explains (via Business Insider), "The reason 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."

The famed sushi chef is not the only person that feels that way, and that outdated outlook really boils down to the traditional gender roles that men and women play in Japanese society. "In Japan, it is still strongly believed that it is women who take care of family," aspiring sushi chef Yuki Noguchi tells AFP (via Taipei Times). "But sushi chefs work in the evening so it's difficult for women. That's why I think the number of women who want to become a sushi chef is small in the first place."

Some male chefs are pushing back against the stereotype

A handful of senior sushi chefs are setting out to challenge this gender stereotype, including Onodera, an upscale restaurant in Tokyo's Ginza district. The restaurant recently hired a woman trainee, and that could be down to attitudes of its head chef, Akifumi Sakagami. "When I joined the industry, the working conditions in the washoku [Japanese cuisine] world were tough," Sakagami says. "It was long working hours with low pay. It was physically tough. But the work environment is changing along with other changes in society. I think it's getting better for both men and women." 

But not everyone feels the same way. Fumimasa Murakami, a teacher at the Tokyo Sushi Academy believes that women make up less than 10 percent of sushi chefs. He says there is still plenty of pushback against the idea that women can become chefs, particularly among older customers, who are more accustomed to seeing men behind the counter. But there are aspiring women chefs who are hoping to change the stereotypes, because as one chef simply puts it, being a sushi chef is "really a fun job."