NEW YORK - Although Alexis Sanborn was a self-professed Japanese-culture geek as a teenager, she never had much of an appetite for washoku (Japanese cuisine).
As she grew up reading anime in a California suburb in the early 1990s, before the Japanese restaurant boom in U.S. urban cities, Sanborn stuck to her native Italian and American diet. But while teaching abroad in Gotsu, Shimane Prefecture, on the Japanese Exchange and Teaching program from 2009 to 2011, while in her 20s, Sanborn began to love kyūshoku, Japan’s institutionalized school meals, which are prepared using fresh local ingredients in school kitchens.
Sanborn’s nutritious and well-balanced Japanese school-lunch experience differed so much from her school meals in the United States that it inspired her ongoing independent documentary “Nourishing Japan,” which is set for completion by autumn 2019.
“In Japan, I think people value nutrition more” says Sanborn. “But beyond nutrition, they look at food as something much more, as a tool to learn about other parts of society.”
To honor the workers who feed Japan’s next generation, the film looks into how school lunches are a key component of the 2005 Basic Law on Shokuiku (Food Education), which aims to promote the correlation between food and health to the public, including in elementary and junior high schools.
Last June, Sanborn self-funded the filming for the documentary, interviewing farmers who labor over crop fields in Seto to deliver fresh produce to awaiting cooks in school kitchens in Aichi Prefecture.
“People in the field taught me a lot about everyday realities the farmers have to face,” says Sanborn.
The film also focuses on the nationwide shokuiku dietary education program that promotes the intangible benefits children gain through the varying customs that accompany food from different prefectures, and the health benefits of authentic Japanese meals.
During Sanborn’s first round of filming last June in Tokyo, she interviewed nutritionists, including Yukio Hattori, who coined the term “shokuiku” and was a key facilitator to the implementation of the Basic Law on Shokuiku by the Japanese government.
Sanborn, 31, who followed her passion for Japanese culture and graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2008 with a double major in Japanese and East Asian Studies, later earned a graduate degree in East Asian studies from Harvard University. She is currently working toward a master’s in public administration, working full time at the U.S. Asia Law Institute, while pursuing documentary film making.
According to Sanborn, her love for Japanese cuisine started when the school where she taught served a meal with fried chikuwa (fish cake) and curry. She says that initially the dish did not look appetizing, but it was so delicious that she learned more about it and often made it at home.
The “Nourishing Japan” film crew launched a crowdfunding campaign on Jan. 5 to help further production of the documentary in the summer of 2018. They plan to interview farmers, teachers and cooks who helped feed local children in northeastern Japan after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.
“What is the story of shokuiku and kyūshoku after the disaster?” asks Sanborn. “Only after a month were they (the people) able to have a basic meal. They were able to work that hard even after something like a tsunami, that is inspirational.”