National / Social Issues | Regional voices: Chubu

Schools urged to modify lunches for religious needs as foreign population grows

Chunichi Shimbun

With foreign residents on the rise in Japan, schools and day care facilities are being called on to give more consideration to the dietary restrictions faced by people with different religious backgrounds.

While such restrictions are increasingly being recognized, few schools and day care facilities are offering alternatives such as halal food in lunches served to children.

Though government guidelines exist for removing foods that trigger allergies, many schools are having difficulty coping as no such rules exist for religious restrictions.

In Yokkaichi, Mie Prefecture, a Bangladeshi couple pulled their 5-year-old daughter from day care as it did not respond to their special lunch requests. The girl joined the private facility in April 2017. Since day cares in Yokkaichi do not let kids bring their own lunches, the girl’s father repeatedly asked it to remove pork from her lunch because the family is Muslim. But the parents found their daughter had been served fried noodles with pork since January. The principal told them it is better for a child to eat various things and thought the parents agreed, as they “listened with a smile,” the facility said.

“I had always been asking that pork be removed. There is no way we agreed to that,” the father said.

After he complained, the facility began offering the girl half a banana and soup instead of fried noodles. But the father then complained the amount was insufficient for a child her age.

“Considering that children with pork allergies are treated appropriately, it is discriminatory that children with different religious backgrounds cannot lead a normal life,” the father said.

The head of the nursery said: “It is difficult to give consideration to one child’s lunch. We don’t know how to deal with the issue specifically unless the municipal government comes up with a policy.”

An official from the Yokkaichi Municipal Government said the problem was caused by the facility’s poor understanding of religious customs and its failure to communicate properly with the parents.

“Since the number of Islamic children is likely to increase in the future, we should consider taking measures,” the official said.

Muslim residents from such countries as Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey are growing in the Chubu region and their number is expected to rise thanks to a change in the immigration law in April that opened Japan’s doors wider to foreign labor.

According to a 2017 survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s Administrative Evaluation Bureau, of the 20 cities in Chubu with sizable Indonesian and Pakistani populations, the boards of education in 14 of them let elementary and junior high school students bring their own lunches for religious reasons. Only eight take steps to avoid serving religiously prohibited items such as pork in their lunches.

Nagoya, which had the largest Turkish and Indonesian populations in Japan as of 2016, has no guidelines on halal-compliant school lunches but lets students bring their own.

At Minato-Nishi Nursery School, which is 16 percent Muslim, fish is used instead of meat for such children. The lunches are also cooked in separate pots.

Miyuki Enari, a professor at Mie University’s Faculty of Humanities, Law and Economics who is well-versed in foreign labor issues, called for nursery staff and state officials to be educated on religious diversity.

“It is better if they have a place to consult or obtain information when they face difficulties coping with such issues,” Enari said.

“As Japan becomes more multinational, food choices become more diverse,” said Maryam Ryoko Totani, 51, head of the Children and Women Islamic Association in Nagoya who converted to Islam 23 years ago. “Foreign people will not choose to come to Japan unless the nation has a proper understanding (of diverse customs).”

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published on June 6.