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Kyushoku Confidential: The Secret of Japan’s Incredible School Lunch

November 19, 2018

To be honest, the title above is a bit misleading. The only real secret may be that, wherever in the world you live, the lunch at your local elementary school is quite likely nowhere near as good as it is here in Japan.

Believe me, this is not the gushing of some starry-eyed Japanophile. As a cranky expat, I find plenty to whine about over here – overcrowding, overworking, over-packaging, and so on – but one thing Japan unarguably gets right is its kyushoku, or school lunch.

Growing up in Canada, I brought lunch to school in a brown paper bag. My parents, more health-conscious than many, always sent me off with a decent spread, though they never quite seemed to understand that bananas did not travel well. Since then, cafeteria meals have become more widespread in North American schools, but by many accounts these lunches tend to fall short of the nutrition young bodies need. “Healthy” options rarely extend far beyond a packaged salad, with chicken nuggets, burgers, and pizza competing for the attention of hungry kids.

But while far too many Western school lunch menus read like something an 8-year-old boy would come up with if he were put in charge, lunches in Japanese schools are expertly planned, nutritionally balanced, prepared on-site from scratch, and cheap (around $2.50 US). Here, kids don’t just eat the food, either. They regularly learn about the origin of the ingredients, practice good table manners, and actually serve the lunches themselves! Make no mistake, kyushoku is far more than lunch – it’s an essential part of Japanese kids’ education in health, etiquette, socialization, and mindfulness.

Old school… lunch

To understand how simple food on a tray has come to permeate so many facets of the Japanese psyche, it’s worth taking a look at kyushoku’s history. The roots of today’s school lunch can be traced back to the late 19th century, when some regions began charitable meal programs in elementary schools as a way to alleviate child poverty. These lunches were usually nothing more than an onigiri (rice ball) with miso paste, and were funded by Buddhist organizations, local government, or private donations. While providing support to the neediest kids, this basic sustenance also gave them a very practical reason for staying in school.

The Japanese government came on board in the 1920s, and after exhaustive nutritional research, the Ministry of Education officially endorsed, and later provided funding for, school lunch services. Once the program was in full swing, the correlation between nutrition and education became clear: children’s physical health, school attendance and academic performance all began to show measurable improvement. In the years since, though, there have been no shortage of setbacks – economic depression, war, occupation and food shortages have all threatened to put an end to a program so essential to the well-being of Japan’s youngsters. But, in the wake of post-war hardships and a spate of particularly harsh natural disasters, a rare confluence of public opinion and political will led to the School Lunch Law being passed in 1954.

Once enshrined in the country’s legal framework, kyushoku became part of the education process as well. While nourishing the bodies of the nation’s young, the official program also aimed to feed hearts and minds, and ever since, school lunch has been an essential part of elementary schoolchildren’s education, both explicitly and implicitly.

All hail the nutritionist!

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You may be surprised to learn that most schools have their own nutritionist. I am lucky enough to number one of these invaluable faculty members among my friends, and she was kind enough to shed a little light on how things work behind the scenes. In central Tokyo, where my friend works, nutritionists from around the school district collaborate on the daily lunch menus, based on dietary guidelines and caloric/nutritional targets set out by the Ministry of Health. They do their best to source the main ingredients seasonally, and from as nearby as possible. While this may prove easier in more rural school districts than in, let’s say, downtown Tokyo, it’s impressive how much locally-raised food manages to turn up on the menu, even in urban centers.

Nutritionists then oversee daily preparation of the lunches in the school’s onsite kitchen, customizing the menu for their school’s particular needs, and often using their own culinary talents to liven up standard dishes.

In the past decade, many school nutritionists have obtained formal teaching credentials, in order to help facilitate the government’s ambitious “shokuiku” life-long food education program. Shokuiku aims to promote healthy, sustainable dietary practices and knowledge throughout Japanese society, with school lunch at the center of elementary students’ learning. My friend added that, perhaps above all else, she likes to teach the importance of gratitude. The expression “itadakimasu” (literally “I will receive”), spoken at the start of most Japanese meals, is a reminder of the animal or plant life feeding us, plus the farmers, fishermen, transporters, and cooks who make it all possible.

Not only does shokuiku teach kids to be mindful of nutrition and the source of their daily meals, it also promotes the value of “washoku” – traditional Japanese food culture. While standard lunch menus usually feature versions of international dishes like curry, pasta, or sandwiches, schools often have designated “washoku days” in which traditional food is served with a side-order of cultural and historical background.

Hands-on learning

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The education is not all theoretical, though. Most surprising to me on my first visit to an elementary school was the sight of a crew of youngsters, clad head-to-knee in white “kyushokugi” caps and smocks, spooning out carefully measured portions for their classmates and teachers. Kids all take a turn on serving duty, and in doing so they learn something about hygiene, responsibility, and teamwork. Once everyone is served, the children all eat together in their classroom, trays resting on colorful lunch mats brought from home, which they are expected to keep clean. The kids chat, giggle, and fool around as you’d imagine, but general table manners are still expected, and picky eating is discouraged. A classroom at lunchtime tends to be a warm, relaxed, happy place, where basic standards of behavior provide a soft yet consistent framework for kids to unwind and enjoy eating as a communal experience.

As the end of lunch is signaled by a chorus of “gochi so sama deshita!” (I’m done!), something truly miraculous occurs – the children clean up after themselves! They line up to return their empty dishes to the lunch trolleys, stack everything neatly, then wheel it all away to the kitchens, where staff wait to do the washing up. Even in the most chaotic of classrooms, witnessing this operation play out is mildly awe-inspiring.

But is it any good?

Two typically delicious kyushokus:

Marinated fried squid; sesame rice; miso/vegetable soup; milk

White rice; seaweed, pork, and vegetable soup; grilled fish with toasted sesame seeds; gomae salad

With so much to discuss about the phenomenon of kyushoku, one could almost forget to talk about the food itself. Simply, it’s good. Hearty soups full of seasonal vegetables, rice sprinkled with sesame seeds, savory stews, grilled fish, and fried noodles are just a few of the items that typically make their way onto the tray. People grow up so nostalgic for the simple food of a simpler time in their lives, that restaurants have opened, promising to recreate the kyushoku dining experience.

Having spent time working in the Japanese public school system, I’ve seen (and tasted) firsthand what all the fuss is about. Sure, in the name of child welfare, your kyushoku may not dazzle the palate with hot spice and reckless salting. But a fresh, meticulously balanced meal, portion-controlled to be satisfying but not bloat-inducing, and for less than you’d typically spend on a café latté, is hard to argue with. And, as a parent of an elementary schooler who comes home properly fed, instead of stuffed full of French fries and dodgy pizza, I have no qualms about declaring my fandom.

For a true sense of what kyushoku is like, though, it’s best to ask the real experts: the kids. Seeing as it’s the central event in an elementary student’s day, they’re all too keen to talk about it. After surveying several elementary school classes, plus my own daughter and her friends, the following dishes have been proclaimed the most “oishii”, or yummy. They are (in no particular order):

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    – a kind of deep-fried fritter, dusted with sweet soybean powder.

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    – the school lunch version of Hokkaido’s favorite noodles.

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    – Korean-style fried rice with mild kimchi.

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    – the mild, slightly sweet take on curry, beloved by Japanese of all ages.

Pragmatic, forward-thinking, nutritious, and delicious; it seems the real secret of Japan’s kyushoku is why everyone else isn’t doing it.

Text: Marcus Hutchings