THE HISTORY OF JAPANESE SCHOOL LUNCH

The Early Years (1889-1918)

For centuries, Japan was governed in relative isolation with its ports limiting foreign trade. This changed in 1854 when American Commodore Matthew Perry forced open Japan to the West through the Convention of Kanagawa. Western dress, food, concepts of science, mathematics, philosophy and technology began to trickle into the country. Roughly ten years later in 1868 the Emperor of Japan, which since the Middle Ages had been a political figurehead, was reinstated through revolution. Following this, Western concepts of modernity were readily adopted.  Among these was the concept of compulsory education. 

Historically most citizens were literate thanks to the meritocratic rule under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Now under the Emperor's reign, all school-age children were expected to attend schooling of some sort. A new national system emerged and by the 1870s elementary school enrollments climbed from about 30% of the school-age population in the 1870s to more than 90% by 1900. Still, education had its drawbacks for the working class. It meant one less hand contributing to the family's livelihood. The 1880s and 1890s were a particularly tumultuous time--the country suffered from a labor surplus, catastrophic tsunamis and earthquakes rattled the Northeast, and in many parts of the country rice crops, the national staple, failed. Children were malnourished and attending school was not a priority. Under these circumstances, school lunch originated from local efforts to provide lunch for impoverished children.

School lunch services can be traced to precisely 1889, where lunches were provided by a Buddhist confederation in an elementary school in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture. Other regions also participated voluntarily in the early years--which included Akita and Iwate Prefectures (both found in the Northeast) as well as Shizuoka. Originally funds were provided by the school, district budgets as well as private donations to provide plain fair: a rice ball and miso (soy bean paste), with occasional pickled vegetables, or hot soups.

Developing Nutrition (1918-1940)

The early 20th century was a time of nutritional and scientific breakthroughs; vitamins were discovered and isolated in the early 20th century, and the concept of improving health through good nutrition began to be the norm. These ideas also gave rise to meals focused on nutritional value--rather than just caloric--and the government started to collect data on the implementation of school lunches throughout the country. Tokyo conducted pilot experiments, developing “nutritious bread,” while some schools in Gifu Prefecture provided side dishes and gave nutritional instruction to parents. In 1926, the ministry officially encouraged the spread of school lunches at the School Health Specialist Conference, and since then, school lunch services have been under the administration of the Ministry of Education's School Health and Physical Education Division.

During the economic depression following World War I, the Japanese government began to fund school meals. At that time there were over 100,000 malnourished children throughout the country, and a more comprehensive solution was needed. The Ministry of Education began a national subsidy for school lunch in 1932. These efforts were acknowledged when positive effects on children’s health and physique as relating to attendance and achievements were confirmed from the survey in 1934. By 1940, school lunch recipients were expanded  to include children with delicate health, undernourishment, and unbalanced diets.

Meals in Wartime (1940-1945)

Even during World War II school lunches remained a top priority for the government as a way to nourish a strong young generation to confront wartime. The government also supported the set-up of school cooking facilities for night-time middle schools. However, by 1944 the war effort had taken a turn for the worse and funding was only provided for continued lunch service in  Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, and Kobe--areas with limited arable land and access to food. There, 100g of rice (approx. 127 calories)  and 15g of miso  (approx. 30 calories)  were given to each child per day. Yet, by the beginning of autumn even these humble lunches were canceled as cities were bombed, children evaluated, and food facilities destroyed.  

Redefining the Lunch Plate (1945-1978)

In 1947, school lunch was re-instituted in large cities. It consisted mainly of canned meats from the remaining stockpiles from the Japanese Imperial Navy. By 1951, domestic food distribution networks had stabilized and school meal programs were reinstated nationally. For better or worse, many cultural elements were being re-written in the postwar years. For school lunch, this was a relatively positive development: processes and guidelines were systematized, and thereafter meals provided 600 kilocalories and 25 grams of protein. More controversial, however, was their inclusion of bread and milk. 

Bread and wheat consumption was instituted by the Agriculture Division of SCAP (Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers) as a way to guarantee for adequate nutrition for school-age children while offsetting Japan’s low agricultural self-sufficiency. Japan was coerced/convinced by America to join the International Wheat Agreement (IWA), which allowed wheat to be  purchased at a stable price for an extended period of time. As Japan had suffered a poor rice harvest in 1944 and was also in the midst of agricultural reforms, a stable source of staple carbohydrates for children had its appeal.

As far as school lunch was concerned, cooks and dietitians were trained to produce bread, noodles and other items that were to become the  “carbohydrate staple” of meals until 1978. SCAP also encouraged milk consumption. Historically the Japanese only consumed milk for medicinal purposes, if at all. In the Meiji Period (1868-1912) milk consumption, like beef, had been promoted as a way to encourage longevity. Yet, lactose intolerance, high prices and fundamental differences in dietary culture meant that milk never gained widespread popularity during its introduction. This did not deter SCAP: milk was considered an excellent source of nutrition that could aid the malnourished population. Beginning in 1958 milk consumption in school meals became mandatory.

A steady milk supply was problematic, and for the first several decades powdered Alumi milk was the norm. The benefit of powdered milk was that even if all schools could not immediately establish a full-blown lunch program, at the very least milk could be provided. For example in 1955, eight million schools had enacted school lunch, of which 85% had full-fledged kyūshoku and 18.4% milk kyūshoku. However, of those who received full-fledged kyūshoku 81.1% were city schools and a mere 18.9% were schools located in the countryside. Conversely, those schools that only received milk kyūshoku were comprised of 71.9% country schools and 28.1% city schools. In short, providing full meals in the countryside was initially more difficult—but milk, especially powdered, eased systematization while providing a simple and adaptable substance with high nutritional benefits.  (It should be noted that today powdered milk is nearly absence from kyūshoku, having been replaced by regular milk. The shift from powdered to regular is but one of the changes that highlight the increased level of professionalism, stability and freshness gained as the system evolved.)

Systematic improvements appeared from the 1960s into the 1970s. School lunch became more varied, incorporating seasonal motifs (festival days), academic events (Culture Day, graduation) and the inclusion of new types of food (fry-bread, dessert, cheese).  With the passage of time, dieticians learned to make familiar menus with occasional surprises, rather than the exhausting task of thinking up entirely new menu lineups each month. Improving guidelines, preparation, distribution and clean-up methods were a reflection of the times; as Japan’s economy and standard of living improved, so too school lunch.

Turning Japanese (1978-2007)

Beginning in the late seventies, there was a shift on the lunch tray. Rice began to be regularly included as part of the meal. This was due to a rekindling of interest in Japanese traditions, coupled with a decline in national rice consumption.  In the 1970s, postwar generations were experiencing nostalgia born from a sense of loss. Notions of vanishing sights, sounds and flavors to their country sparked the reexamination of tradition, including food. In tandem, many politicians, educators and citizens began voicing that ‘Japan was a land of rice, and Japanese people eat rice.’ Rice was a symbol of tradition. Rice also represented an important political lobbying group--the farmers. Support from the rice farmers was key for the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) that had been in power since 1955.  Since the post-war rice production had been subsidized to ensure Japan’s staple self-sufficiency and political support. Yet, by the 1970s domestic markets were in surplus. This was primarily due to the altered eating patterns and the increased consumption of wheat-based products. A new market was needed.  Not only did the 1978 Rice Mandate in School Lunch ease a surplus, it ensured that future generations would be raised on a proper indigenous diet.