Is one of the great institutions of Japanese cul- ture succumbing to a slow, gnawing attack? It may be. I tell you, if this icon is lost, all we’ll have left of the culture will be a few cartoons and some rusting karaoke machines.

The Asahi Shinbun newspaper reported on March 17 that some schools in the Osaka-Kobe area are methodically cutting costs on students’ lunches, leaving them with just two little dumplings and some boiled veggies to sustain them.

For those readers who have not brought up children in the Japanese school system, this may not loom as so large an issue. But having sent my four children to Japanese schools, from kindergarten to high school, I can tell you that there is nothing more important in the educational system than kyushoku (school lunch). Ask any Japanese kid, and I’m sure they’d say the same. In their later years, kyushoku may be the thing they remember with most fondness from their school days.

The Japanese adopted their school-lunch system from Europe, where it has traditionally been the belief that the central government has a duty to look after the welfare of all children equally. The Germans and the French instituted the school lunch in the 18th century, followed by the British in the 19th. What could be more important to your modernizing nation, thought the Japanese of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), whose social models came from Europe, than raising well-nourished, healthy children?

The first school lunch in Japan was served in 1889, in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture. It consisted of two rice balls, salted fish and pickled greens. Tokyo followed in 1914, when the Japanese government began subsidizing school lunches. In 1919, bread was introduced to the menu.

But the real history of the school lunch began after World War II, when, in December 1946, Tokyo, as well as Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures, started serving them. By the next year, the entire country had joined in. The typical fare then was stewed tomatoes and skim milk. By 1952, primary schools in all prefectures were offering school lunches, and by 1954 all middle schools had followed suit.

Manners on the menu

So, what makes this imported institution so “Japanese”?

First of all, school meals in Japan are generally consumed in the classroom, except in schools where there is a large dining hall. The food is served by the children themselves, who also clean up afterward. These monitors, appointed in rotation, wear distinguishing hats and smocks.

The teacher eats with the children, and manners, such as the proper use of chopsticks, are emphasized. Talking is frowned upon, and every child is supposed to finish all the food on their tray. There are no mid-morning snack breaks in Japanese schools, nor — perish the thought — are there anything like the food fights many foreigners may recall from their own schooldays. Some schools serve milk in bottles, which are recycled. In those schools where little cartons are used, the children are taught to flatten them out properly, and again these containers are recycled.

Second, there is an emphasis on local produce, so that children can learn the culinary culture of their region — and its farmers can benefit. Even the occasional treat is local. Osaka schools introduced such specialties as naniwa udon (Osaka-style wheat noodles) in 2005, and, in 2004, deep-fried takoyaki (octopus dumplings; please don’t call them “octopus balls”). The Kansai region often features Korean dishes in their school lunches, too, thanks to the large population there with family roots on the peninsula. In 1999, Aichi Prefecture went over to using locally grown rice rather than getting its school-lunch staple from the central government. For some holidays, festive food is included, such as chirashizushi (sushi served loose in a bowl) on March 3, which is Girls’ Day.

Third — and this is a wonderful aspect of Japanese culture — menus for the month are printed in advance and sent home with the children. These include a daily breakdown of the ingredients, the calories and how the food will benefit children. All aspects of nourishment are considered carefully. Some schools in Japan, for instance, have gone over to serving French bread. This requires more chewing and counterbalances the essentially soft textures of traditional Japanese food.

Generally speaking, children are not permitted to bring their own food or drink to school. If, however, your child has special needs, such as those caused by allergies, you may give them something to take along on those days when the school lunch may not be suitable. This is another advantage of printing and distributing the menus beforehand.

The culture of today’s kyushoku can be understood basically as a postwar phenomenon. Immediately after the war, millions of children all over Japan were seriously undernourished. Protein deficiency was rampant. In many cases, the little bit of fish or meat they were given at school was the only animal protein they received all day. That was when whale meat was brought into the schools, as a cheap source of protein.

An ethos drawn from Europe

Japanese modeled their education ethos on Europe’s, where it was a commonly held notion that the welfare of children should not be left entirely in the hands of their parents. In Japan, for example, teachers still visit the homes of their pupils to see that their conditions of care are up to standard.

There are some in the West who decry this sort of thing as the actions of a control-freak state. We have the pejorative “nanny state,” a term that reveals a bias against the policies of the welfare state. Even in Britain, home of the welfare state, there has been a gradual pullback on welfare since the days of the Thatcher regime (1979-90), when the Iron Lady was the first prime minister to withdraw government support for school lunches. (These are called “school dinners” in Britain, and they are served by “dinner ladies.”). School lunches in Britain were privatized in 1992, and the result was a daily fare of greasy, fatty, salty foods that, naturally, the children took a liking to. Large food-manufacturing firms also took a liking to this turn of events, as it meant they could churn out tasty morsels of what was essentially mock-food for a very healthy profit.

But then, thanks to the television chef Jamie Oliver and his campaign to change British policy, the school lunch became an election issue in 2005. The government has recently spent heavily to reform the school lunch. Early reports are that children are not only happier, but actually brighter: They are scoring higher than before on tests.

It is vital that the whole culture of kyushoku in Japan is not undercut for short-term economic gain.

We are always talking about things Japan has adopted from the West, or should do. Conversely, I would love to see the Japanese school lunch, with its carefully planned meals, considerate manners at the table, attention to local detail and printed monthly menus adopted around the world.

If the culture of the Japanese school lunch, like manga, sushi and karaoke, were adopted overseas and kyushoku became a word used worldwide, a few scores on those intelligence tests taken in the West might be raised. But let’s spell it “Q-shoku,” where the “Q” stands for “quality.” The culture of the Japanese school lunch is high, quality culture.

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