By Annie Sheng, Cornell University
In one baking school in Yokohama, I wait as my bread dough rises. The instructor serves me mochi (pounded rice cake) that she had placed atop an electric furnace and it had expanded, ballooning into a crispy, yet gooey warm snack. We sip tea. She talks to me about the baking instruction business until it is time to pound and shape the dough for Japanese curry bread again. We chat as we work. Then I’m startled – the door opens.
Her kids pop in, coming home from school.
This instructor’s school-home is one of many such establishments started by women entrepreneurs in the food industry. With a hyper-aged population and strict immigration laws, labor is a particularly critical and thorny issue in Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has pushed to increase productivity through the presence of more women in the workforce, using the catchphrase “Womenomics” to promote his policies. As these macroeconomic policies and issues inform, affect and transform the perception of employment in Japan, female agency in food entrepreneurship also operates under these concerns and pressures. These businesses provide ways in which women can traverse the (perhaps fuzzy but albeit socially existent) line between domestic and career endeavors and aspirations.
In my multi-year fieldwork in Japan, I interviewed various actors: wheat farmers, wheat marketers, bakers, bread consumers, and others throughout East Asia and the US as I conducted research touching on critical aspects of food and foodways, such as food safety, trade policies, global economics, gender, nationalism, identity, morality, commensality and social meaning.
In Japan, I traversed residential neighborhoods and walked up stairs to apartments to learn to bake as part of participant observation. These homes-turned-professional-kitchens are cultural spaces of gender reproduction, knowledge dissemination and social gathering. While some of the female baking instructors I’ve encountered teach also male clients, the students are predominantly female. I have met instructors who only cater to female students and do not accept male students into their business-home, creating a specialized women-space for tutelage and food knowledge reproduction. This practice offers a venue where grievances, dreams, goals and news can be voiced in relative ‘comfort’ and ‘openness’ without perceived ‘outside’ judgment—and deepens a sense of empowerment and ‘sisterhood’ across age lines.
The Forbes article, “Why Japanese Girls Want To Be Bread Makers Rather Than Breadwinners” from earlier this year emphasizes the hold that the food and baking business has on young female conceptions: “For Japanese girls, food services (tabemonoya-san/食べ物屋さん) such as bread-maker and baker remained at number one for the 21st year in a row.” Here the article stresses bread-making and baking—and although that does not encapsulate the whole of the food-purveying industry—it does capture the interest I see among women towards baking in Japan. While charismatic baking masters reaching celebrity status are often the likes of men (a disparity well documented in the chef/cook stereotype, for example see Druckman 2010), female baking enterprises take root regularly in overlooked spaces (—home spaces that remain somewhat hidden, unless one goes searching for them), in jūtakugai (residential) areas and out of foyers or repurposed living rooms. That’s not to say there are no female bakers employed in chain businesses or big bakeries, but rather, here I want to emphasize these smaller enterprises, run by women and too easily missed.
In my fieldwork, I have spoken with informants about how they converted their homes into bakeries and workshops, remodeling their kitchens and domestic spaces to accommodate for their entrepreneur aspirations and career goals. After this conversion, the labor for their profession isn’t over, but remains intensive— for instructors, they must lesson plan, prepare the ingredients, print and distribute recipes and not to mention the rigorousness of the actual class itself. They have to take into consideration mothers bringing their kids (as I saw one accompanying nine-month old tear off a remote-control holder from an electric fan at one bakery school-home)—or they must set up clear guidelines—for example, dictate policies that disallow children. They need to consider how to create clear access to the bathroom, while maintaining privacy for their own personal activities. The nature of their shared space requires them to consider the business and practical aspects of their culinary enterprise.
The first bakery class I mentioned above, the one on curry bread—the baking instructor told me that she has seen a big increase in these baking instruction “salons” operating out of homes. Baking as a pastime, in general, is becoming increasingly popular, and more women are capitalizing off this, contributing to this bakery home-school “boom,” as she calls it.
While I discuss female entrepreneurship in baking instruction and bread—there are many other small-scale food-related enterprises undertaken by female entrepreneurs. For example, I’ve participated in sushi decoration classes (rolling up sushi in a way that creates cartoon and/or designed cross-sections when cut). For these classes, the instructor rented out a part of a café to conduct her business activities. There are many enterprises like this, as these converted and rented spaces mean less initial capital and more flexibility for working women—“salons” where such savvy entrepreneurs can roll out their redolent delectables. For these women, salons provide a space for ‘safe’ and ‘open’ discourse while helping them achieve and bridge domestic and career-oriented ambitions. In Japan, home based entrepreneurship, especially with regard to salons and classes focused on food, an arena readily associated with female production, labor and knowledge, allows women to simultaneously fulfill domestic obligations and also to transcend them.
Adelstein, Jake. “Why Japanese Girls Want To Be Bread Makers Rather Than Breadwinners.” Forbes. January 11, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adelsteinjake/2018/01/11/why-japanese-girls-want-to-be-bread-makers-rather-than-breadwinners/.
Druckman, Charlotte. “Why Are There No Great Women Chefs?” Gastronomica 10, no. 1 (2010): 24–31. https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2010.10.1.24.
Sheng, Annie. “Forging Ahead with Bread: Nationalism, Networks and Narratives of Progress and Modernity in Japan.” In Feeding Japan – The Cultural and Political Issues, by Andreas Niehaus and Tine Walravens, 191–224. Cham, CH: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Tagawa, Miyu. Chīsana pan’yasan, hajimemashita. Tokyo: Raichosha. 2013.