Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Japan may need quotas to get more women working

By Cai Hong (China Daily) Updated: 2015-08-31 08:10

Japan may need quotas to get more women working

Julia Broussard, Country Programme Manager of the UN Women China Office, speaks at the announcement of the first gender equality fundraising event in China. [Photo/Agencies]

During dinner in a sushi restaurant the other day, I asked the chef behind the counter why sushi is a man's world.

The chef gave me a haughty look and said, "If a female trainee chef worked together with me, I would be supportive. But if she were the head chef, I would quit."

Sushi chefs are called "stage performers", with customers as the audience. Every movement, from how the chef maneuvers his knife or rolls a warm rice ball by hand, is on show. To this chef, and many like him, the sushi counter is a stage exclusively for men.

While men are happy to have their wives make sushi at home, the denizens of the kitchen are rarely seen performing the task in sushi restaurants. Many Japanese people still believe women shouldn't be sushi chefs.

A sushi master's day begins before sunrise and ends well after the sun sets. And until 1999, Japan had a law prohibiting women from working later than 10 pm, which made their employment at most sushi bars impossible.

Despite the law no longer being in force, male chefs use all manner of excuses to defend their sushi status against women. Women can't be sushi chefs, they say, because they use makeup, body lotions and perfume, which destroy the flavor of the fish and rice. Some male chefs claim that the area behind the sushi counter is a sacred space and would be defiled by the presence of a woman. Others say women don't have the reflexes necessary for the knife work.

For those women who persist with their ambition, the path to reaching the stage is still set with obstacles. It takes diligence and patience. First there's a long apprenticeship, a humbling, busboy existence spent cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors and sharpening knives. The next step, after a few years, is to move up to do food preparation, a meticulous job that is vital to sushi-making.

Those women who do persevere to take their place behind a sushi counter usually have to open their own sushi bars rather than work shoulder to shoulder with men.

Sushi bars are an epitome of the social mindset that discriminates against women in Japan. Gender roles are still traditionally defined in the country, with woman typically doing the lion's share of the housework and cooking, while the men earn the household income. When women work, they are assigned to serve tea and sit at reception desks.

However, a bill made into law on Friday is expected to increase Japanese women's participation in the workforce.

The law requires large companies in the public and private sectors to set targets for female employees to be hired or promoted to leadership positions. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set the goal of making 30 percent of the managers in Japan women by 2020, up from 11.3 percent in 2014.

Women in leadership positions are supposed to be role models for young Japanese women who often quit working after their first child partly because of the gender imbalance in the workplace and the paucity of day-care centers in the country.

Japan has a labor shortage because of a decline in its population and, at the same time, some 3 million jobless women who want to work.

But quotas may be necessary to accelerate progress towards a fairer gender balance in the workplace given the attitude expressed by the sushi chef is so ingrained in many Japanese men.

The author is China Daily's Tokyo bureau chief.

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