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Tuesday, November 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sushi in the raw: Restaurant's displays get women's group steamed

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday night at Bonzai in Pioneer Square, a nearly naked woman is laid out on a table. A chef slices sushi behind her, to be arrayed on her torso, bare except for a sheath of plastic wrap and some decorative flower petals.

Chopsticks at the ready, patrons line up.

Hours earlier, across town on the campus of the University of Washington, eight activists, mostly Asian-American women, express outrage at what they call the prostitution of sushi and the exploitation of women. They plot their strategy.

Welcome to a clash of values — Seattle style.

While the promoter and the sushi model say this melding of prandial and sexual is performance art, Bonzai's patrons — men and women of various ethnicities — say it merely adds to the restaurant's sensual vibe.

Opponents say treating women like a serving platter reinforces attitudes that make domestic and sexual violence so prevalent.

"It's dehumanizing, the manner in which people are buying and selling sushi to be eaten off a woman's body. It's dehumanizing to be treated as a plate," said Cherry Cayabyab, president of the Seattle chapter of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.

The restaurant, which has featured naked sushi monthly since May and every Saturday night this fall, could be called a capital of the Seattle lounge kingdom.

Japanese animation art hangs from exposed brick walls. Bottles of high-end scotch are prominently displayed, awash in dusky light. Candles flicker. When the model arrives about midnight, wearing a thong, plastic wrap for sanitary safety and carefully placed flower petals, patrons line up, having paid a $5 cover charge and bought a drink.

Using chopsticks, they pick among salmon and ahi tuna, eel and California rolls. The model, one of a rotating group of seven, breathes softly, her eyes closed while she does her 30 minutes of work.

Bonzai chef and owner Jun Hong, who also owns Wasabi Bistro in Belltown, looks on with the promoter, Cheresa Nemitz. They enforce the rules: Respect the model; no hooting or hollering; no tips; and no talking to her.

By the looks of it, they don't need to be there — most of the 40 or 50 patrons are regulars.

Yet the spectacle carries harmful consequences, according to the women who gathered at the University of Washington's Women's Center.

"It provides a forum to see a human being as an object. And when women are viewed as objects, they are more likely to be violated," said Norma Timbang, executive director of the Asian and Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center.

The activists say they want to meet Nemitz and ask her to stop, and will be calling and e-mailing Hong, the owner. If they don't get the results they want, they say, they will launch a media campaign against the restaurant.

They appear to be the first organized opposition to naked sushi, which has its roots in Japan but has arrived more recently in Los Angeles and New York.

Nemitz said she's eager to meet with the women. She said she considers naked sushi performance art, using the nude human body — an ancient artistic subject — to form an aesthetic tableau altered as every piece of raw and lightly cooked fish is taken for consumption.

"As a woman, I can't ignore what other women are saying, but I think there are bigger fish to fry than performance art," Nemitz said.

The night's model, an Asian-American woman who won't say how much she is paid and asked not to be named, said the experience is relaxing, sensual and meditative.

"It's ridiculous to comment on it without experiencing it. It's hearsay," she said of her critics, who contend the model has "internalized her oppression."

Bonzai's patrons think otherwise.

"It's a visual art. It sounds worse than when you actually come here," said Shelly Eldredge, who did not partake Saturday night because she'd already eaten.

Naked sushi carries no connotation of exploitation in its native Japan, said Bonzai regular Danielle Kim of Newcastle.

Some men in the room were slightly more flip in their endorsement.

"It appeals to puerile interests, I suppose, but what the hell?" said Keith Ancker, 28, of Seattle. He said he'd never tried sushi until now.

That's part of the point, says Hong, the owner, to bring sushi to non-sushi-eaters. Sushi is a sensitive and artistic food, and he means no disrespect to women, he said.

Luké Janich, 26, said the last thing he wanted to do was disrespect women. Nevertheless, he said, "Seattle needs to relax."

J. Patrick Coolican: 206-464-3315 or jcoolican@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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