Kyushoku – Japanese School Lunch
On October 13, Gohan Society paid a Midtown visit to the Nichibei Exchange group to listen to a presentation by Ms. Alexis Agliano Sanborn, one of The Gohan Society’s fantastic volunteers, about the Japanese school lunch system. Wait, school lunch? You mean that nasty stuff kids are forced to eat in school? Actually, Japan’s school lunch is quite the national treasure – and it tastes good to boot!
Even those well-versed in Japanese food and culture often overlook the charm and insight to the country’s institutional meal system. For those Americans among us, school lunch does not usually yield positive memories or connotations. Many of Japan’s baby boomer generation would agree! They associate their lunch time with memories of powdered milk and flavorless bread. However, most Japanese kids today are blessed with healthy, fresh, flavorful and well-balanced daily meals.
Currently, school lunch, or (gakkou) kyushoku, is a public system in place at 92% of elementary and middle schools around the country. It is maintained locally but governed nationally, influential in the regional economy and society.
As Ms. Sanborn noted, school lunch has had a long history in Japan. The country boasts one of the oldest school lunch systems in the world, beginning in response to a poor economy, stressors of modernization and natural disasters of the late 1880s and 1890s. School lunch’s early advent is thanks to Japan’s communal spirit and modernization efforts, spurring a movement for youth to be reared healthy and capable.
In the postwar, the piecemeal system was transformed by the influence of America – and the lunch-lineup heavily adopted Western flavors. While the flavors and taste may have suffered throughout the 1950s and ‘60s as Japanese chefs grappled with a clash of cultures, strong systemic foundations were erected.
Systemic foundations? What does that mean? Well, simply put, the local and national government helped to establish the operational rules and guidelines that over the years have contributed to school lunch’s resounding success. Sounds confusing, but really it’s quite simple. Beginning in the 1950s, the Japanese government decided to structure the system in a uniquely Japanese way. It took elements from its own culture – the ideas of group labor, perseverance, endurance, cleanliness, humility, gratitude and comradery – and encapsulated them into a daily ritual. This ritual was to become the school lunch system, one that heavily relies on student participation as its key to success.
Students are expected to participate and engage in practically every aspect of the meal – that is, besides making the food themselves (although, from time to time they do that too!). Every day right before the lunch hour, students dutifully don masks and aprons, clean the classroom floors, rearrange the desks, transport food from the kitchen, judiciously measure and serve, and then carefully clean. Over the years these daily formalities instill all manner of manners! For example, children learn to extend and appreciate the efforts of the meal’s benefactors (i.e., the lunch ladies). Other lessons include understanding the importance of cleanliness, sense of community and society, strength, justice, and morality. Heavy stuff for lunch time.
During a brief video which followed the school lunch process from start to finish, many of the Americans were amazed by the diligence, care and manners instilled in these children through the daily process. As one commentator put it, “Everything about Japanese society you can see through lunch.” It’s true!
What about the food then? Well, despite the blips and burps of the 1950s and 1960s, the food scene really began to take off in the seventies and has had a recent renaissance in the 2000s. Gone away are the processed and canned foods. Today, most schools have their meals prepared fresh daily– even down to chopping the vegetables. As for the menu, although bread used to be the principle staple in the days of yesteryear, today rice is definitively served at least three times a week. For the Japanese school lunch has become a vehicle through which to experience elements of the world around them – from the global to the local. Children learn about the principles of washoku as well as the various types of yoshoku, and international foods from across Asia. By utilizing local sourced ingredients and specialties, children also learn about the local food economy, as well as the seasonal ebbs and flows which have defined the Japanese culture for millennia.
All in all, the presentation showed us that there is a lot more to Japanese school lunch that meets the eye.
Alexis Agliano Sanborn researched the Japanese school lunch as her Master’s thesis at Harvard University (2013), and currently is developing a school lunch cook book proposal to submit to publishers. Meanwhile, she is also developing her school lunch webpage.