Japan Sushi Chefs Heading Overseas with Eye on Higher Incomes, New Lifestyles

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Students aiming to become sushi chefs learn how to clean and fillet fish at Insyokujin College’s Osaka school in Chuo Ward, Osaka.

More and more Japanese workers are seeking overseas employment that offers better remuneration and employment conditions than domestic jobs. Sushi chefs, in particular, are increasingly heading for airports as Japanese cuisine continues to win fans around the globe.

Japan-trained sushi chefs often jump to the head of the queue when overseas restaurants serving Japanese-style dishes recruit staff. Many of these experts enjoy considerably higher incomes than they did at home. Conversely, however, Japan is in the midst of a serious labor shortage and some sushi establishments are striving to create work environments that will better motivate apprentice chefs.

Living more freely

In Vancouver, on the Pacific coast of Canada, Osaka Prefecture native Maki Hirai creates sushi dishes using local salmon at a Japanese restaurant packed with local customers. “Sushi is popular in Canada, so I’m quite busy,” Hirai said.

After graduating from university, Hirai, 34, worked at a major shoe sales company. But after visiting Vancouver on a working holiday in 2016, she began to yearn for an overseas life. While in Canada, she worked at a Japanese restaurant where she learned to make sushi by watching other workers.

Traditionally, restaurants in Japan do not allow their employees many days off, whereas staff at the Vancouver restaurant work eight hours a day, five days a week. Upon realizing that she was earning twice as much as she earned in Japan (doubling her around ¥200,000 monthly income) Hirai became determined to build a career in the sushi realm.

During a temporary return to Japan, Hirai attended a sushi chef training school. She obtained permanent residency in Canada. “Now, I can take a vacation for a month or so and enjoy traveling,” Hirai said. “Here in Canada, I can live freely, which was difficult in Japan.”

The number of sushi chefs finding overseas jobs is reportedly on the rise. Since March 2020, Washoku Agent, a company supporting Japanese chefs looking for overseas jobs, has found work for a total of 52 Japanese cuisine chefs in 10 countries and regions in Asia and North America. Most saw a jump in their annual income.

A man in his 40s who worked as a manager at sushi chain restaurant in Japan doubled his monthly salary to ¥900,000 after moving to an upscale sushi restaurant in Malaysia.

“We have many requests for Japanese sushi chefs,” a Washoku Agent employee said. “In North America and Singapore, where prices are high, it’s not unusual [for such chefs] to earn more than ¥10 million annually.”

Intensive training

The global popularity of Japanese food is a major factor in the chef-relocation trend. There has been a sharp rise in the number of Japanese restaurants overseas since washoku Japanese cuisine was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2013. Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry data show that there were 159,000 such outlets as of 2021 — more than six times as many as in 2006.

Sushi is particularly popular overseas, where it is perceived as the “best-known healthy Japanese food.” Recently, an increasing number of Japanese are aiming to become sushi chefs as a way to live overseas.

Insyokujin College, a vocational training institute in Chuo Ward, Osaka, says it can train students to become sushi chefs in just three months. Currently, its Osaka school has 10 men and women in their 20s to 50s enrolled in its sushi chef course.

Masako Kawaguchi, 30, of Sakai, who entered the school in January after quitting her job at a confectionery store, said: “I thought becoming a sushi chef would be the quickest way to realize my dream of living overseas. Also, I was worried about continuing to live in Japan, where salaries aren’t increasing.”

Students of the institute increasingly aim to work abroad, with a combined total of about 80% of the Osaka and Tokyo schools’ learners striving to do so.

To meet demand, the institute aims to introduce a two-year overseas employment course this month. The course will help students obtain visas and find jobs overseas, in addition to teaching sushi-related skills and English.

“We want to develop human resources that can be immediately useful,” said 38-year-old Shinya Kobayashi, who heads the Osaka school.

Workforce shortage

In contrast to the popularity of overseas employment, restaurants in Japan are suffering from a shortage of employees.

A Teikoku Databank Ltd. survey conducted in January showed that 60.9% of respondent restaurants were suffering a lack of regular workers, while 80.4% reported a lack of non-regular workers.

Some sushi restaurants have been forced to cut the number of days they can open due to a lack of chefs.

In March, an Osaka company that operates two sushi restaurants began closing one of the restaurants one day each week. Previously, it had been open every day. The company says it needs more workers to continue operating the store, while allowing its 10 sushi chefs to take turns having a day off.

A 50-year-old executive of the operating company said: “Average spending per customer is ¥4,000 or so at our restaurants, so we can’t afford high salaries. It’s inevitable that we find it difficult to recruit sushi chefs.”

The executive added: “To survive in the future, sushi restaurants will be polarized into expensive restaurants and super-affordable conveyor belt restaurants; all the others will disappear.”

Overseas-employment researcher Tatsuo Moriyama opined: “Outside Japan, Japanese sushi chefs are highly valued for their specialized skills. If they also have experience managing a store, their salaries will be even higher. In Japan, becoming a full-fledged sushi chef entails many years of apprenticeship and less-than-stellar work conditions. As a result, the outflow of talented people from Japan will likely continue.”

Low wage growth

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Another factor in the workers-heading-overseas equation is that wages in Japan have been stagnant for many years.

According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data, the average wage in Japan in 2021 was $39,711 (about ¥4.4 million at the then exchange rate), ranking only 24th among 35 major countries.

For the past 20 years, the average wage in Japan has remained almost flat, while those in France and the United States have grown by about 20% and 30%, respectively. Wage-wise, Japan brings up the rear among the Group of Seven nations.

In the past two decades, the number of Japanese living abroad has increased by 60% to 1.3 million. This trend is believed to have been accelerated by both the advance of globalization and Japan’s low wages in comparison with other countries.

In this year’s shunto spring labor wage negotiations, many major companies offered to meet the full amount requested by their unions. The current momentum for wage increases, however, was triggered by high prices.

It is unclear whether this trend will continue. If not, the number of workers leaving Japan for overseas positions may continue to climb.