School Lunch in Japan

school bags

While we struggle community by community to figure out how feed our school children an enjoyable healthy school lunch we might look to Japan for some ideas.  I understand that the scale is completely different, after all the total number of students at every elementary school in the country might be barely equal to the New York City or LA school district.  Also feeding America’s children who come from 150+ different culinary backgrounds rather than one poses it’s own challenges, but nevertheless the experience I had eating lunch with a class of 5th graders in a Tokyo suburb was illuminating, inspiring and quite moving.

First some background.  Imagine the US congress passing a bill mandating food education for every citizen and supporting local initiatives with an eye to creating a national movement – not tied to brands or industries. In 2005 the Basic Act on Food Education was put on the books in Japan, a first for any country in the world. This education is called Shokuiku and includes information on how diet and proper nutrition relate to health and well being, the role of farms and food producers in feeding Japan’s citizens as well as a focus on the cultural touchstone of Washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine.  By 2009 an Amended School Lunch Act was enacted which set out to promote food education in schools using school lunch as the centerpiece. Pretty ambitious goals sometimes bear fruit.  Since last year (2014) a curriculum for SSS or Super Shokuiku Schools was put into place. School’s have an opportunity to choose this focus through the MEXT program. Driven by individual principals, partnerships between universities, communities, businesses and schools are formed to create relevant curriculum.

The day before my group’s school lunch experience we got the low down on the 2009 School Lunch Act from Dr. Yukio Hattori. Hattori (who you might recognize from Iron Chef) also runs the oldest cooking school in the country and is a member of a cabinet level food education promotion committee.  Here’s what he had to say about how the idea for the law started:

“Listening through food to what is happening around us, including health, human relations, culture and environment, will lead to the growth of our bodies and minds, and may even protect the lives of the people of the world. The promotion of food education in schools” was positioned as an objective of school lunches in the 2009 Amended School Lunch Act as well, and it touts the enrichment of food guidance through nutritional lessons that use school lunches. I hope that if we specifically indicate results, food education in schools can spread to the home and region.

Japanese Regional Food Map

Finally we were ready to go to school.  It was an assault of adorableness and sanity.  The halls of the school featured regional food maps of Japan.  One hallway was lined with photo after photo of miso prepared at students’ homes accompanied by recipes.

Home Miso Recipes from Sanya Elementary School Children

Home Miso Recipes from Sanya Elementary School Children

In the US school lunch is a hot potato issue, and certainly it took political will to create the framework and collaborative atmosphere for the Japanese experiment to happen.  But the actual lunch?  An island of manners, sharing and chatting to break up the day.  The children started and ended the meal in unison with the traditional Japanese phrases itadakimasu (I gratefully receive) and gochisōsama deshita (thank you for the feast),which includes gratitude not only towards the cook but also for the ingredients consumed). During the meal upper classmen went around to the classrooms to explain what was on the menu and where the ingredients came from. And despite the language barrier each table kept up a patter of questions which kept translators busy.

We felt privileged to be there. Thank you to everyone at Super Sokuiku School Sanya Elementary in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. gochisōsama deshita!

Each class goes to in-house kitchen to collect lunch
School Children

Lunch is set out

Sanya Elementary Tokyo Classroom Buffet ready for service

Classroom Buffet ready for service

Students serve students

Students at Sanyo Elementary in Tokyo serve lunch

Students at Sanyo Elementary in Tokyo serve lunch

Tables are set and ready

Japanese School Lunch

All students at the school get identical meals

Empty (!) dished are collected and ready for pickup

Japanese School Lunch

Empty plates ready to go back to kitchen


3 thoughts on “School Lunch in Japan

  1. Amazing. Everyone eats the same healthy-looking
    lunch and all of the plates are empty. And for our American kids – food preferences, allergies and lots of questionably nutritious items.

    • Exactly. And even more striking, children are made to understand about waste by either being encouraged to put on their plate what they know they are able to eat. The teacher goes around with the protein, in this case fish, for those who want seconds.

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.