School Lunch

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Akemi Nakanishi

    Main guest

    Akemi Nakanishi, who teaches at a nutrition university, explores the educational significance of the school lunch system, as well as of the meals themselves. She spent over a decade working as an elementary school nutritionist, and continues to visit various schools in order to gather new information about school lunches.

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June 6, 2017

School Lunch

*You will leave the NHK website.

What we eat as children helps to shape our food preferences for life.

If you were to ask a relatively elderly Japanese man or woman what they remember fondly about school lunch, would you be surprised to be told bread and milk? The show this time reveals why that answer is entirely possible. You may wonder why they didn’t eat rice. But in fact, it is actually the generation after them that remembers having white rice with lunch.

The lunch that is cooked up at school—kyushoku—has been a feature of life in Japan for well over a century. This period included the chaos after the Second World War, when food shortages led to large quantities of skimmed milk and wheat being supplied to Japan by the United States.

Later, surplus stocks of rice resulted in widespread use of rice in school lunches, but the die was cast: dairy foods and items made from wheat had put down deep roots throughout Japan.

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A typical school lunch from the 1950s, with bread instead of rice, shows its American influence.

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Lunches in the 1960s often featured curry, another Japanese phenomenon we’ve explored recently on the program.

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In the 1970s, lunches finally added rice and other more distinctly Japanese elements.

For the foreign visitor, the welcome legacy of this history is ready access to a kaleidoscope of food options, traditional and modern, Japanese and foreign. But even within the vast culinary ecosystem of Japanese restaurant culture, the eatery that Matt Alt visits on this occasion must rank as a rare and exotic species: a restaurant serving up traditional school lunches to customers with an appetite for nostalgia and a hankering for a bread roll covered in kinako (roast soybean powder).

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Japan’s nutritious and delicious milk supplements have a new fan in Matt Alt.

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Strict regulations in preparation ensure a safe lunch for all.

To make the experience truly authentic, perhaps the restaurant ought to put out carts and ask customers to serve lunch to one another, because this too is one of the striking features of school lunch in Japan: the children take turns to serve the class, and to clean up afterwards.

Far more than just an opportunity to learn practical lessons about civic duty, school lunch also offers a chance to study the ingredients themselves, and these are key factors in having children eat lunch in the classroom under the watchful guidance of their teacher. One “skill” the young boys and girls acquire that may strike many foreign viewers especially forcefully is their willingness to wait patiently until everyone in the class has been served before they tuck into their own food. That follows a chorus of “itadakimasu,” the word used in Japanese before eating which means “to humbly receive,” and is used to express thanks for the food and all the preparation that went into it.

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School lunch offers children the opportunity to learn about and engage with a variety of foods.

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Many lunch responsibilities, including serving and clean-up, lie with the children themselves.

If you’re thinking of visiting Japan, you might want to bear in mind that lunchtime typically starts at midday: not just at school, but for everyone. To avoid the crowds, aim to have lunch at around 11:30 or after 1.

Noon is when the people in a place like Tokyo pour out of offices and stream into the dozens of restaurants that are likely to be available within walking distance. Many of those diners will choose teishoku—a reasonably priced set meal usually featuring rice, miso soup and a selection of other ingredients that doesn’t feel too far removed from school lunch in either content or presentation. These teishoku set meals may be more evidence that the healthy influence of Japanese school lunch stretches well into adulthood.

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School principals taste the daily lunch before the children, serving as a tester for any potential problems.

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Guest Akemi Nakanishi takes Peter Barakan on a time-traveling tour through school lunches over the decades.

*You will leave the NHK website.