It’s not racist to tell a Japanese person you like sushi, says judge

Sushi - Yulia Naumenko/Moment RF

Telling a Japanese person that you like sushi is not racist, an employment tribunal has found.

In a ruling, a judge has dismissed claims by a Japanese professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London that she suffered race discrimination when a fellow academic recommended her a sushi restaurant.

Prof Nana Sato-Rossberg, an insect specialist, had accused Provost Claire Ozanne of being prejudiced, claiming she would not have said to a German “I like sausage”.

But an employment tribunal found the senior academic was just making “small talk” and trying to be friendly and that no reasonable person would have taken offence.

Prof Sato-Rossberg was found by a judge to have been “predisposed” to finding fault with Prof Ozanne, who she had previously accused of being “unconsciously biased” against her.

As a result, her claims of race discrimination and harassment against the SOAS were thrown out.

The hearing was told Prof Sato-Rossberg started teaching at the university in 2014 and five years later was appointed as Head of Department for the School of Languages, Culture and Linguistics.

In 2020, Prof Ozanne, who has appeared on BBC Radio 4, was appointed both Deputy Director and Provost and became her manager.

The central London tribunal heard that in September 2021 Prof Ozanne told her about a Japanese sushi restaurant near her home that her family enjoyed.

”[Prof Sato-Rossberg] took exception to this,” the hearing was told. “She told the tribunal, ‘She would not have said to a German person, I like sausage’.

“If Prof Claire Ozanne wished to make conversation, we had many commonalities through our work and professional academic endeavour,” she added.

“But [she] chose to speak only about topics directly relevant to my race: the liking of Japanese food and that her family like it and eat sushi.”

After SOAS dismissed her claims following an internal investigation, Prof Sato-Rossberg took the university to the employment tribunal claiming race discrimination, race harassment, victimisation and unfair treatment for whistleblowing.

Rejecting her case, Employment Judge Jillian Brown said: “On one occasion in 18 months, [Prof] Ozanne spoke to [Prof Sato-Rossberg] warmly about her local Japanese restaurant and her family’s love of sushi.

“She did so, knowing that [Prof Sato-Rossberg] was Japanese and believing that [she] would receive this positively. She was making small talk and trying to establish a point of shared interest. Ms Ozanne said nothing detrimental about Japan.

“This was one conversation of many, about many different subjects, which [Prof] Ozanne had with [her] over the course of 18 months.

“The Tribunal concluded that, even if [Prof] Ozanne’s comments in this regard were partly because of [Prof Sato-Rossberg’s] race … they were not a detriment, nor harassment.

“The Tribunal decided that [Prof] Ozanne mentioning a sushi restaurant and her family’s love of sushi was not a detriment because a reasonable person would not consider themselves at a disadvantage when a manager, trying to be friendly and find common ground, was enthusiastic about food from the person’s country of origin.

“A reasonable person would not take offence at such complimentary and friendly words.

“In this case, [Prof] Ozanne’s words were not even ‘unfortunate’. They were not reasonably seen as hurtful or misjudged. On the contrary, [Prof Sato-Rossberg’s] objection reflected [her] own hypersensitivity and predisposition to find fault with Ms Ozanne.”