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Japan’s “Kodomoshokudou” Boom

Kids’ Cafeteria –
Japan’s “Kodomoshokudou” Boom

February 25, 2019

One trend currently booming in Japan is “kodomoshokudou.” "Kodomo" means children and "shokudo" means cafeteria, or restaurant.

And while “booming” may not be the most appropriate word, the kodomoshokudou movement has grown remarkably in recent years. According to a survey by the "Kodomoshokudou Security and Safety Improvement Committee," the number of locations nationwide grew from about 300 in 2016 to over 2200 in 2018.

The "children's cafeteria" is an event that children can safely visit by themselves, to enjoy free, or inexpensive (about 100 to 300 yen) meals. In some cases, the dinners are open to parents and the general community as well. Depending on the community, these events happen at least once a month, and sometimes more. The movement began in the 2010s, as voluntary private initiatives managed by local volunteers and NPOs.

In recent years, the number of Japanese children left to eat alone due to their parents' long working hours, plus the increase in those who cannot afford a decent meal, has drawn attention to the existence of kodomoshokudou.

Today, kodomoshokudou networks exchange information and distribute donated food. In some cases, companies offer up food products that would otherwise be disposed of, prior to their expiration dates, as a part of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities. There have been more and more companies donating foods through the network.

I personally participate as a staff member of the kodomoshokudou in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. Usually, kodomoshokudou is operated mainly by women of retirement age, but the situation here is unique, with men and women from age 20 to 70 gathering to help. The event takes place at a coffee shop, and was originally the store manager’s idea. We run the events with customers who visit the cafe – students, housewives, freelancers, people on leave from work, or retirees. About ten people from various walks of life, whose daytime hours are relatively free, gather once a month for the event day. When it’s busy, we serve meals to more than 80 people.

As for the menu, despite being free or cheap, most kodomoshokudou offer a fairly substantial meal. I often hear from overseas that Japan's school lunches are wonderful because of their nutritional balance and use of seasonal ingredients, but the kodomoshokudou menus are equally as good.

At the kodomoshokudou I am involved in, January’s menu was a dish made of rice, mixed with mackerel flakes, sesame seeds, and minced takuan (pickled radish); tonjiru, a miso soup with pork and lots of vegetables; tamagoyaki rolled omelet; carrot shirishiri, made of stir-fried shredded carrot and hijiki seaweed; and mandarin orange jelly for dessert.

When the place was full, we placed a charcoal brazier in front of the cafe and let people grill marshmallows on skewers while waiting.

This time, a customer of the coffee shop had donated the mackerel flakes, so we decided to build the menu around that. When there is a donation like this, we create the menu by working backwards from what we have received. After that, we consider the nutrition, seasonal ingredients and color balance, but the important thing is to "keep it quick and simple." For that reason, we can’t accommodate food allergies. It’s a volunteer-based activity, so pushing the staff to exhaustion means the program will not last long. We cherish being able to continue without quitting.

So, while we can’t afford to focus on small details, we do try to be creative in coming up with kid-friendly flavors. This time, we mixed mackerel with rice, plus sesame and takuwan to eliminate the fishy taste. Naga-negi (long onion) can taste too strong, so we used hakusai (Chinese cabbage) instead, to make it sweeter. Hijiki seaweed can be unpopular with kids, but we easily solved that problem by adding it into carrot shirishiri to make it sweeter. This carrot shirishiri is now one of our more popular menu items. The trick to making a fluffy tamagoyaki rolled omelet is to add water to the egg mixture. Other times, we have added dashi to a curry to reduce the need for roux, and to make it milder.

Thanks to such efforts, most children eat everything on their plate, and even have seconds. We also receive nice reactions from the parents, such as "the kids eat well here, even if the ingredients are something they don't normally eat at home," or "please give us the recipe."

Also, if a seasonal event falls near the date of the kodomoshokudou, we actively incorporate it as much as we can. In December, just before Christmas, a staff member who was good at baking made sweets, which we decorated with a small homemade flag. On “setsubun”, a Japanese festive day in February, we have a custom where we throw roasted soybeans to drive away demons. Last year, we roasted beans in front of the children and handed them out. We aren’t trying to force the importance of traditional culture on the kids at all, but when we were their age we simply looked forward to these seasonal events and enjoyed making good memories. In this way, perhaps the culture will naturally pass on to the next generation. At least that's what I believe, and that seems to be the vague feeling amongst the other staff members. We use an old-fashioned tool, such as a charcoal brazier, simply because we want the kids to remember the feeling of relief a warm charcoal fire can give.

Kodomoshokudou began as a countermeasure against "loneliness" and "poverty", but it has gone beyond that. These days, I believe it has started to become a meaningful "neighborhood base". In the kodomoshokudou I am involved in, there are many cases where pre-school children come with their mothers, and they seem to look forward to the monthly event*. So, initially, the question among the staff was, "Is this really reaching the right people?" However, when talking to the participants, some say that they are happy to be spared from preparing a meal, even for one day. A young mother who feels suffocated being home alone with the little one all day gets some relief, just by coming here.

A child who is so happy to eat with friends, a child who keeps talking about what happened that day to the staff, watching the children gathered around the charcoal fire and waiting with a serious look for the marshmallows to cook... all makes me realize the importance of eating together and having a place away from home and school. I have even heard of an unstable child becoming calm for a couple of days after visiting kodomoshokudou.

On the other hand, I also hear some of the staff members say, "I am doing this for myself." It is a place for retirees to contribute to society and a place to enjoy working together with friends, but the biggest thing is seeing the children smile. Volunteers run kodomoshokudo, but there is no sense of top-down "charity." I think that both the guests and the staff members gain something from one another, and we all need this place.

The reason for gathering at the kodomoshokudou is different for each person. It is impossible for anyone to decide who is "a person in need" and who is not. However, there are people still "in need” who haven’t been reached. In order to be able to serve those people someday, we think it is important to continue kodomoshokudou for a long time.

When the place is open as a regular café, some children peer into the shop as they walk by.
Nuclear families and people living alone have increased in number. Local communities are collapsing. When I consider these situations in today's Japan, I feel that the presence of a place like kodomoshokudou has the potential to become a new base for the community.

With the Heisei era (1989-2019) about to end, kodomoshokudou is experiencing a sudden boom. This shows that "eating" and "children" are symbols of human spirit and hope. After all, the children's smiles are the greatest nourishment, making us feel Japan’s future is bright.

* There are places where parents of pre-school children are asked to accompany them.

Text and photos: Yuri Nakamura