Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sexism and sushi: how women are challenging gender stereotypes in a male-dominated field

Every year, International Women's Day is celebrated on March 8. The day honors women worldwide for their contributions to a better society and future, and strives to highlight social issues including the fight for gender equality. In light of celebrations and rallies around the world today--and maybe because I'm hungry--I thought I'd take a look at how women are challenging the overwhelmingly patriarchal Japanese institution of sushi.

This gigantic nigiri was made by a female sushi chef:
read on for more about Nina's tasty creations
Anyone remotely familiar with Japanese culture knows that in all aspects of life, tradition is held in high regard. Shrines are respected and preserved amidst modern skyscrapers; shoes are removed in houses and schools, and even in certain restaurants and historic places; and Shinto priests are called in for a ground-breaking ceremony at construction sites to appease the local 神 (かみ - kami), or deity. "Tradition," then, is an oft-cited reason that women typically don't become 板前 (いたまえ - itamae), or as we commonly say in America, sushi chefs. Even American writer Dave Lowry exclusively uses male pronouns when referring to sushi chefs in his exhaustive sushi bible, "The Connoisseur's Guide to Sushi." But why?

As the Wall Street Journal explains in this article, there are a handful of reasons why Japanese traditionally view women as unfit for the job, ranging from biological (women menstruate, and the hormonal fluctuation is said to interfere with the sense of taste) to physical factors (women are too weak to take on the long hours and hard work). Of course, it's easy for me, an outsider and observer, to debunk these myths: men may not have a monthly cycle, but their hormones fluctuate throughout the day; women are just as capable as men at working long hours and gutting fish. (Speaking of women and seafood, how about those famous female ama divers in Japan?) Don't get me started about women having "warmer hands" that would spoil the fish; at any given time, my hands are at least 15 degrees colder than my husband's! But don't just take my word for it: Nadeshiko, a sushi restaurant in Tokyo's Akihabara district that only employs women, has broken barriers and overcome challenges by proving that women can be successful sushi chefs.

Asaka's Instagram account features Nina's work and more
Even in my current city of Indianapolis--the capital of Indiana, a conservative and traditional midwestern state where the struggle for women's rights continues--Japanese gender stereotypes are being challenged. Nina Takamure is the sushi chef at Asaka Japanese Restaurant, Indianapolis' only authentic Japanese restaurant featuring a full menu of appetizers, entrees, sushi, and libations that's locally owned and operated by Japanese people.

In June 2009, the Takamures assumed ownership of Asaka from another Japanese family. Since then, they have built a loyal customer following based on word-of-mouth. (Go during sushi happy hour to see just how effective this is.) Although Nina started working at Asaka as a server, she expressed an interest in making sushi, and proved to be a quick study. She has now spent years working alongside her father behind the sushi bar, and exudes professionalism and poise as she crafts a dizzying array of rolls. Nina has also taken it upon herself to represent Asaka on social media, where she has some 2,000 followers on Facebook and Instagram.

Japanese customs dictate that the art of sushi be passed down from father to son. Knowing the history behind the traditionally male occupation, I'm thankful that Takamure-san broke with tradition and chose to mentor his daughter.

Nina is skilled at creating new and original rolls on the fly--like this heart-shaped "Chip and Mary" roll
While the organizers behind the Women's March on Washington called for today to be a #DayWithoutAWoman in recognition of women's contributions to our economy and society in the form of strikes from both paid and unpaid work (whoops--I'm breaking that rule!), they also encouraged Americans to make a point to shop at "small, women- and minority-owned businesses" today. I think it's a good reminder for any day of the year: are you, as a consumer, aware of the source behind the goods and services you purchase? Can you say whether you actively support women- or minority-owned businesses in fields that are largely dominated by white males? (Or, as seen in traditional, authentic Japanese sushi restaurants, Japanese males?)

Being cognizant of places like Nadeshiko and Asaka--and seeking out such places in your corner of the world--can help combat stereotypes and work to promote gender equality. As Nadeshiko Chef Yuki Chidui said in a sentiment that echoes across the working world, "I hope that some day it’s not 'male sushi chef' or 'female sushi chef,' just 'sushi chef.'"

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