Can Japan solve America’s food identity crisis? Japan’s relatively low rates of obesity have caught the eye of the American news media, particularly in light of our own new government controls on junk food and measures intended to prevent childhood obesity. In January, The Washington Post ran the article “On Japan’s school lunch menu: A healthy meal, made from scratch” by Chico Harlan; NPR followed up article/radio segment on bento called “In Japan, Food Can Be Almost Too Cute To Eat” by Audrey Carlsen and Daniel N.M. Turner, featuring a radio interview for All Things Considered with host Audie Cornish and author Debra Samuels.
While it is true that the content and presentation of Japanese school lunches (kyûshoku, 給食) and boxed lunches (bento) are quite different from their stereotypical American counterparts, both articles oversimplified the topics. I’d like to focus on each article separately as my criticism for each deals with distinct rather than overlapping issues. First, I’d like to discuss The Washington Post piece’s failure to address some of the negative aspects of the Japanese diet, and, in a separate post, how the NPR piece misses the mark on the “cute” issue and ignores the gendered social issues behind the bento.
Not All Kyûshoku Are Created Equal
It’s true that the Japanese school lunch system in elementary and middle schools is quite different from those in the US: each school has a nutritionist on staff; school lunches mostly are made from scratch and mostly made on site (exceptions: bread; yogurt, some desserts if applicable); all students eat the same foods; students help distribute the food and clean up; and, though this isn’t mentioned, all students eat lunch at the same time, though where they eat (classrooms, cafeteria) varies on the school and the size of the student body.*
One thing these articles neglect is the variety in the quality of the food between schools/districts. In his article, Harlan profiles Umejima Elementary in Adachi ward, Tokyo, a school that seems to have an exceptional lunch program, even publishing its own cookbook.
Unfortunately, this seems like an exception, even when the home-cooking, made-from-scratch style of said school lunches is the norm. Another thing that’s constantly neglected in the news media is that Tokyo might as well be on another planet when it comes to how the rest of Japan lives. As much as I hate the term “the real Japan,” imagine if we wrote articles about New York City as if that were the way the rest of America lived. A wider net should have been cast for the research, both for the sake of comparison to other schools but also for regional variation.
Makiko Itoh has a great response on Just Bento about her experiences in the Japanese school system and critiques of the articles, and she is much more an expert on Japanese food than I could ever hope to be. To add my own experiences to the conversation, if you’ll indulge me: I used to live in a rural area, and the quality of meals varied greatly between the towns of the region. The district where I did school visits seemed to be an exception to the otherwise well-rated school lunches, and the town and I had very different ideas about nutritional needs. I did not participate in school lunches because of my food allergies and dietary preferences, namely my avoidance of white rice and red meat. In my district, white bread and white rice constituted the bulk of the meal; the minuscule amounts of vegetables were nearly always doused in mayonnaise (oh, Japan); the amount of fried foods was nothing short of impressive; fruit was limited to just a few slices of apple or mikan; and I swear the spaghetti sauce was ketchup-based.**
Of course, not all school lunches are so dismal. Many of my friends had nothing but praise for their nutritionists and generally liked the foods they were served, yet the menus were nowhere near as impressive as Umejima’s seem to be. Furthermore, although the menus were published ahead of time and distributed to the students and staff, the thought of being able to check them online is new to me. Japan may be one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, but the web design is by and large still stuck in the Netscape era. Again, Umejima (and perhaps Tokyo) proves an exception to the rule.
The Japanese Diet in Theory and in Practice
I did like that Harlan included this statement in his article:
Japanese food, contrary to the common perception, isn’t automatically healthy; it includes crispy chicken, rich bowls of salty ramen with pork belly and battered and deep-fried tempura. But, like most cuisines, it can be healthy.
However, he focuses on problem-foods and ignores the problem with portions and ratios in the Japanese diet. “Traditional” Japanese food is served with plenty of white rice, the staple food, followed by meat; although recently the amount of meat consumed is beginning to overtake the amount of rice (Yoshiike, 2012). Vegetable side dishes, which can be very healthy and delicious if not covered in mayonnaise, are generally afterthoughts at restaurants and seem to be served in very small portions in home cooking.
On top of this, Japan has a serious problem with not getting enough dietary fiber (Nakaji et al., 2002). Fortunately for the home cook, the solution is simple: eat brown rice and significantly increase the amount of vegetable side- or main dishes. Yet, in the world of school lunches, restaurants, and in the average home, the prejudice against brown rice remains. In the 1640s, the Shogunate issued edicts restricting polished rice to tribute payment, allowing the peasants who grew said rice only brown (unpolished) rice, millet, and barley for their grain consumption (Rath, 2010, p. 115). In more contemporary terms, brown rice has the same image problem as whole-grain breads in the US over the last 50 years: they are for hippies, health-food nuts, and dieters, have a “strange texture,” and are harder to cook and find at the store (see Bobrow-Strain, 2012).*** In short, while the the kyûshoku system does offer new ideas and benefits, what is thought of as the standard Japanese diet has its failings, too.
Speaking of Japan’s food traditions, what article about Japan isn’t complete without a jab at Japan’s “wacky” culture, especially its “weird” food? Itoh called out The Washington Post article on this point, writing
The menus are both traditional Japanese and western or yohshoku (western-style Japanese). (The comparison chart of typical school lunch menus that accompanies the Washington Post article does show the diversity somewhat – they have “Indian style curry” as well as pasta, in addition the stereotypical rice-and-miso-soup, but it seem to emphasize the menus that have the “weird Japanese food” like squid and konnyaku (devil’s tongue, OMG!) Incidentally, the American menu on the left doesn’t look that unhealthy to me either.)
I understand that many Americans (and many Japanese, for that matter), are ignorant of the daily foodways of other cultures, but one of the passages that struck me as odd follows.
[The nutritionist has] realized, over the years, that kids will eat almost anything if you serve it to them right. They’ll eat hijiki, an earthy black seaweed, if you mix it with rice. They’ll eat small whole fish, heads and all, if they are lightly fried. Tofu is an easier bet, but just to be sure, it sometimes comes with minced pork. (Harlan, 2013.)
Children in Japan grow up eating hijiki, whole fish, and tofu. Although some children are not huge fans of fish, they grow up in a culture in which eating seaweed, fish, and tofu is completely normal. The Honkawa Data Tribune (2011)’s “Food Preferences of Children and Students” contain a decade’s worth of surveys about children’s favorite and least favorite foods published by the Japan Sports Council in regard to school lunches. The top 10 least favorites? Gôya (bitter melon), liver and other animal by-products/organs, eggplants, celery, tomato, meat fat, green peas, green pepper, umeboshi (pickled plums), and asparagus. Fish was on both sides of the charts: sushi ranked #1 and sashimi #12 of favorite meals, while aemono (vinegared fish and/or vegetables) was #2, eel #3, and boiled fish (nizakana) #6 of least favorite meals. In short, you don’t have to bribe most kids to eat tofu and fish if tofu and fish are as prominent as milk and chicken in the national diet; foods that are staples of the Japanese diet should not be treated as weird in an article about Japanese food in Japan.
As a side note, speaking of “weird food,” when I talked about American foods at cooking classes and school visits, I was informed by the children that the following foods were weird: turkey, peanut butter and jelly, and pumpkin pie. Turkeys are not raised here to the level they are in the US; savory peanut butter was a foreign concept to them since Japanese “peanut cream” is sweet and reminiscent of frosting; Japanese kabocha squash is a different consistency than orange pumpkins; and “pie” is more like a puff pastry. Incidentally, What Japan Thinks has an interesting survey of what Japanese foods foreigners might find strange here, if you want to explore some of the foods that are actually considered odd by the Japanese themselves.
A Model School Lunch
Is kyûshoku the answer to American nutritional issues? I’m inclined to say that while the execution is good, the content is imperfect. Having school facilities and staff that can produce meals made with fresh ingredients, more vegetables, fewer preservatives and additives, and that can be cooked mostly on site would be a huge step in the right direction for American school lunches. Hiring nutritionists who work with the students to create meals kids want to eat but are good for them, too, would be a boon to the system, as would be reintroducing “home ec” as a nongendered “life skills” course. However, those kind of changes require money and time, and if measures were to be put into place on a nationwide or even statewide level, the money will have to come from somewhere. Having experienced budget cuts in my own district as a young child, I always vote for school levies, but I’m not sure a school levy alone could adequately provide for these changes.
While focusing on teaching children about nutrition while providing better school lunches may help, the Japanese-style diet, with its lack of fiber and whole grains and its caloric density due to white rice and meat, is not a cure in and of itself for obesity or poor nutrition. With a few simple changes to more traditional Japanese fare and Japanized Western fare, though, it can be. So can “American” food, that great hybrid of cultures, whose standards now encompass everything from mac ‘n’ cheese to spaghetti to hummus and pita. Likewise, Japanese food is more of a hybrid than Harlan–or the Japanese, for that matter–give it credit for. I want to see a school lunch system that incorporates a nutritionist and food from scratch with the relative visibility (compared to Japan) of food allergies and restrictions in the US. I want to see more articles that more fully explore the advantages and disadvantages to other countries’ school food and how we can use their advantages to our advantage.
Also on my wishlist: stop treating tofu as weird.
Stay tuned for part two: Betty Friedan and bentos.
*For the record: I went to a large public school, and my elementary- and junior/senior high schools had several lunch periods, based on grade level in elementary and course schedule in JHS/SHS. Our high school was also closed-campus and we had 23 minutes for lunch. I bought lunch once a week in elementary but packed mine every day in high school (in the early 00’s), though it was mostly peanut-butter-and-jelly or salami sandwiches and lemonade, plus snacks since I had a 7:30 am start and a 1 pm lunch one year. Our school district served pizza, hamburgers, and fries every day with a meal-of-the-day as well (turkey and stuffing, lasagna, spaghetti); milk or chocolate milk were available. The high school also had Caesar salad (with iceberg) a la carte and bagels and cream cheese.
** At an average of 700 calories per meal, according to the daily nutritional information posted, this bulky, carb-laden diet might have been good for student athletes, those with high metabolism, and children, especially those not getting enough to eat at home (a real concern in some parts of that community), but not for me.
*** Although purchasing an appropriate amount of brown rice for one’s home may require the individual shopper to go to a co-op (JAS, etc.), health-food store, farmers’ market, or a rice store with an on-site polisher if what the local supermarket has is insufficient, these are common enough in both the city and country in Japan. Of course, brown rice is also available from online grocery delivery systems, which are very popular in Japan. For more on rice culture, particularly the generational changes and who eats brown rice and grains vs. white rice, see this 2010 poll on rice consumption on What Japan Thinks.
Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. (2012.) White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf. Boston: Beacon Press. Kindle edition.
Honkawa Data Tribune. (2006 ). “Food Preferences of Children and Students.” 社会実情データ図書録. 児童・生徒の食べ物・料理の好き嫌い .
Itoh, Makiko. (2013.) “School lunch in Japan: is it so different?” Just Bento.
Nakaji Shigeyuki et al. (2002.) “Trends in dietary fiber intake in Japan over the last century.” European Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 41, Number 5 (2002). Accessible here.
Rath, Eric C. (2010.) Food and Fantasy in Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Yoshiike Takeshi. (2012.) “Will Meat Become Japan’s Staple Food?” The Wall Street Journal: Japan Real Time. (吉池威. 「日本人の主食は肉になる？」『日本レアルタイム ウォールストリートジャーナル』2012年8月31日.)