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A brief history of the evolution of Japanese school lunches

By Krista Rogers, RocketNews24

In the 22nd year of the Meiji era (aka 1889), the very first Japanese "kyushoku" (school lunch) was served up at an elementary school in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture. Although the first menu was very simply prepared, it provided the growing children with an important source of nourishment that not all of them could receive at home.

Fast-forward to 2015 – Japanese schoolchildren (and their teachers) continue to eat school lunches every day, as opposed to children in many other countries who bring their lunches from home. If you’re working in a Japanese school, you should already be familiar with the daily feeling of either excitement or disappointment when you see the lunch menu for the day. But just consider this – would you rather eat the types of lunches served today, or those that were served 100 years ago?

Love ’em or hate ’em, school lunches at Japanese schools are here to stay. Everyone, including the teachers and even the principal, sit down to eat the same lunch every day. Children are encouraged to be thankful for the food and finish every last bite, including any foods that they’re not particularly fond of.

The Gakko Kyushoku website has provided a concise history of the lunches, including pictures of sample meals from different time periods. The following pieces of information and images were taken from their website.

The first school lunch in Japan was started by a Buddhist monk who oversaw a school in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture. The idea to provide lunch at school came about when he noticed that many of the disadvantaged children weren’t coming to school with packed lunches from home. These first simple lunches consisted of "onigiri" (rice balls), grilled fish, and pickled vegetables called "tsukemono," as seen in the photo.

Word spread about the success of the monk’s school lunch program. Before long, schools around the country had embraced the idea and were beginning to offer lunches to their students as well. Rice mixed with meat and/or vegetables, fish, and varieties of miso soup became typical food items found on the menus.

During these early years, schools usually served the food in porcelain bowls and other dishware, making it feel more like a home-cooked meal than a school-provided lunch.

After the outbreak of WWII, school lunches were either cut or reduced in many parts of the country due to local wartime food shortages.

In 1944, approximately two million elementary school-aged children received school lunch in six major cities throughout Japan. Although the war ended in 1945, food shortages continued, and many children were left malnourished. It is estimated that elementary school sixth grade students at the time had bodies equivalent to those of fourth grade students of today due to stunted growth.

In 1946, the vice-minister of three governmental ministries released a decree to encourage the widespread implementation of school lunches throughout the country. Consequently, a school lunch system was implemented on Dec 24 of that year at all schools in Tokyo, Kanagawa, and Chiba prefectures. Today, some schools in those regions offer a special menu during the week of Jan 24-30 in commemoration (since holidays typically interfere with the final week of December and no school lunch is served then anyway).

In 1947, approximately three million children around the country began receiving school lunch, including powdered non-fat milk donated from America. Two years later, UNICEF also donated free shipments of the powdered milk.

In 1950, elementary school-aged children in eight major Japanese cities received complete school lunches with the addition of bread made using wheat flour from America. A bread roll coupled with potato stew, croquette, sliced cabbage, and milk is an example of what a typical lunch served during this year would look like.

The year 1951 saw a movement unfold throughout the country for school lunches to be partially funded by government subsidies. By the following year, the government funded half the cost of the wheat flour used in school lunch bread. Starting in April, elementary school-aged children in all schools throughout the country received complete school lunches. Lunches over the following years tended to include a number of fried menu items.

In 1954, the School Lunch Act was implemented. School lunch was recognized as a legitimate part of children’s education as a way to teach knowledge about how food is produced and important dining customs. It also encouraged healthy social interaction between classmates and within the school, a tenet which is still promoted to this day.

In 1958, the administrative director of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) promoted an outline for the inclusion of milk in school lunches. Fresh cow’s milk gradually replaced powdered milk over the next several years.

In addition, although bread rolls had been the norm for a long time, fried bread and other forms of cooked bread were being introduced into school lunches by the end of the 1950s. Soft noodles also began to appear in some school lunches in the central Kanto region of Japan.

In 1971, the contents of school lunches were more or less standardized by governmental decree.

Meals with warm, freshly cooked rice began to be served in 1976. There was also an increase in the variety of foods served compared to the selection from just two decades before. Previously bottled milk was finally replaced by milk cartons.

1993 and 1994 were bad years for rice crops, so school districts were singularly allowed to supplement their school lunches with rice not subject to governmental controls. By 2000, this type of rice became allowed for general usage.

Japanese school lunches sure have come a long way over the past century. Menus are now more varied and nutritionally balanced to ensure the development of healthy school-aged children.

It’s worth noting that school lunches have also come under fire for issues regarding cleanliness and proper food preparation. In particular, a tragic incident in 1996 in Okayama Prefecture led to the deaths of two children caused by improper food preparation; an additional 468 showed symptoms of food poisoning. A subsequent investigation revealed the presence of E. coli bacteria in their school lunches.

I myself had the privilege to work for two years at a junior high school in Yamagata Prefecture, the original birthplace of Japanese school lunches. While the quality of the meals wasn’t always the greatest, I look back at them fondly for their convenience, low cost (less than 300 yen per meal), and the opportunity to try a variety of foods that I wouldn’t normally have packed for myself. Plus, nothing beats a bowl of ready-to-eat, steaming rice in the middle of winter!

My school and other schools in the city operated on a rotating menu schedule, which always included a soup, some type of carb, a vegetable side dish, and milk. Bread was usually served on Mondays, noodles on Wednesdays (during cold months only), and rice on the rest of the days. I always looked forward to special holiday meals, which often included an extra special treat or a culturally relevant food.

Sources: Gakko Kyushoku, Unilab Tsuruoka

Read more stories from RocketNews24. -- Our Japanese reporter’s encounter with American school lunch -- “Let them eat furikake!” says Mayor Hashimoto as Osaka school lunch saga rumbles on -- Concern As Contractor Refuses To Provide School Lunches When Faced With Radiation Checks

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Excellent article, but what's there to hate about Japanese school lunches?

3 ( +6 / -3 )

My kid, who will eat most anything, hates his school lunches. They are usually cold, and often not very tasty. I believe that depends on the school though.

2 ( +4 / -2 )

That picture does not look particularly appetising.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

If they used brown rice instead of polished, nutrition-deplete white rice, they would be better.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

That picture does not look particularly appetising.

It's actually a reconstruction of a school lunch from 1889, so perhaps not too bad, considering.

My kid, who will eat most anything, hates his school lunches.

I'm convinced that one major point of kyushoku is to train children to eat anything, no matter now cold, bland and nasty. Have you noticed how remarkably free of pickiness most Japanese adults are, when it comes to food? They eat pretty much whatever everybody else is eating. Not a bad thing, really.

9 ( +11 / -2 )

My childrens' daycare had a full time nutritionist on staff, and the children even grew vegetables in the facility's garden which were used in their meals several times a year. In Japanese elementary school they even integrated the school lunches into the nutrition curriculum to build awareness about healthy eating.

Later, when my children went to an elementary school in the U.S. we were shocked by how unhealthy the lunches invariably were, and barely edible on some days.

There's always room for improvement, but overall I am very impressed with Japan's school lunch program.

15 ( +17 / -2 )

School lunches everywhere are pretty disgusting. Japan's are at the more inedible end, though perhaps not nutritionally that awful. There is no way mine will touch them no matter what, they would rather go hungry. Eating for eating's sake, Tessa is not a great thing to promote...

-3 ( +8 / -11 )

Well, whenever you talk about food there will be someone to disagree, if it is healthy or not, tasty or not etc. School lunch is no different.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Being forced to drink a big thing of warm milk is disgusting. And cold curry and rice is horrible.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

Most of the lunches I had in my time teaching public school tended towards the bland and nasty. The biggest problem was the timing of them. By the time the food leaves the lunch center, gets shipped to schools, gets distributed to classes, and finally gets served, it is generally all room temperature.

The worst was the lunch in the staff rooms. The office ladies would divvie up the food at sometime around 1130am, even though lunch wasn't until past 1200. No reason to do so at all, it made everything congeal. After that, everyone had to wait until the school principal at his desk finally deigned to start eating before having their own food. Until then , everyone studiously ignored the tray of lunch sitting on their desk since of course they were "too busy" to start eating.....

Personally, I dont think force feeding kids food they don't like, and shaming/bullying them into finishing it, is a really good way to instill values and broaden their taste buds.

2 ( +7 / -6 )

ebisenJAN. 13, 2015 - 07:05AM JST

Excellent article, but what's there to hate about Japanese school lunches?

Um, the possibility of food poisoning? Japan has a problem with food hygiene for school meals, if you hadn't noticed.

1 ( +6 / -5 )

Oh yes, and school lunches were a good way to get rid of stocks of frozen whale.

3 ( +7 / -4 )

Ugh, I remember having to put up with this when I was teaching. The worst part was that I couldn't drink milk, so opted out of the milk portion of the lunch (much to the amazement of the students: "He's not drinking his milk!!") - the school seemed OK with this idea, but a few weeks later some old oyaji comes bounding into the Board of Education office where I was normally situated and comes right up to me and goes "omae ha gyuunyuu kirai!". I was like "...uhh.....yes?". Then he goes on to explain how the milk is part of the 'set lunch' and "Setto dakara, gyuunyuu mo nomanai to" (The milk is part of the set, so you have to drink it"). Jesus Christ they can get uptight about some of the smallest things in Japan...

5 ( +7 / -2 )

I'm convinced that one major point of kyushoku is to train children to eat anything, no matter now cold, bland and nasty

I think this is changing. If the kids don't like something they don't eat it and back into the bucket it goes. The teachers barely raise an eyebrow now.

But overall apart from a few dodgy ones, school lunch is pretty decent. I certainly couldn't make or buy something for that price that was equally as good......admittedly depends on your city i guess.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

Well obviously, the price was "slightly" different but the menus at the French school are/were literally mouth watering...

1 ( +1 / -0 )

At my sons Hoikuen and school they also had nutritionists and I was shocked who supplied their ingredients, Fresh bread from a french bakery, meat from a German butcher.

Food was great and as was said I couldn't cook it at home for 240yen per serving.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

Fresh bread from a french bakery, meat from a German butcher.

That sounds good, and kudos to you for getting into a good school zone, your kids are very lucky. As others have mentioned, however, it's pretty much a crap shoot depending on the area. In one cash-strapped school district, students receive nothing but a hunk of bread and a bowl of soup for lunch.http://www.japanprobe.com/2012/02/01/tokushima-school-lunch-vs-japanese-prison-food/

Speaking of bread in general, I suspect the quality of most kyshoku pan. One day I took home a bread roll from my school lunch, put it somewhere, and forgot about it for some time. When I finally found it again, it had not deteriorated at all in terms of appearance. It still looked exactly the same as the day that I received it .... four weeks on. In other words, it wasn't bread, it was just chemicals masquerading as bread.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

They are usually cold, and often not very tasty. I believe that depends on the school though.

This is certainly a factor in winter, and students usually have to wait until everyone has been served and seated before they can begin their lunch. Teachers have the option of using a microwave and can start their lunch whenever they want - kids don't have that option

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

the usual maoaners apart from vagabond36.It mightnt be cordon blue but nowadays it is nutritional and cheap.The kids learn not to be picky.From trips to the english speaking parts of europe and also Australia it seems like a battle for parents to get their kids to eat any vegetables whereas kids brought up in Japan appreciate the food given to them and eat it.Lot ff bad things in japan but the school lunch aint one if them in my opinion...Plus you dont see so many fattys around.Most kids back home just eat take outs, convenience store sweets and chocolate, washed down with a nice healthy fizzy drink.Dont really see many balanced packed lunches in the anglo saxon world doo you??

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Well obviously, the price was "slightly" different but the menus at the French school are/were literally mouth watering...

I watch a "wide show" about school lunches around the world. The French ones are just amazing! Especially when you consider that they are all municipally managed (there seems to be no official national school lunch system). For example, the main dish menus for the poorest town might be mushroom crepes, roast pork, or omelette with herbs, all served with fresh green salad, cheese and a fresh fruit dessert. All for about US$3.00 a meal. the Japanese audience was justifiably impressed!

1 ( +3 / -2 )

I've only had Japanese school lunches a few times so far, and it was excellent every time. The article fails to mention that usually kids are asked to do small tasks (such as serving other kids, supervised, of course by an adult). There was also special care given to the menu of the allergic (no eggs, no nuts, etc)... the experience was not at all bad, and I'm quite fussy about food myself...

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I ate JHS school lunches in Japan for a couple of years and was impressed - by and large hot, tasty and filling and all for less that 300 yen. The only day I did not like was "bread day" where some sikly sweet bread was servced up to accompany some white stew or something. The Japanese dishes tended to be excellent. One school seemed to have access to vast quantities of quails eggs and would fill up big bowls of udon with them.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I myself grew up eating Japanese kyushoku and remember most kids couldn't wait for their lunch time going over the daily menu on the wall again and again, and were always fighting over extra dessert and milk. Food was fresh, served warm, inexpensive, nutritional, and tasty. Our elementary school had a large cafeteria where 600 plus kids of all grades would sit and eat together. Each class took turns to prep the table and serve food, one or two out of the entire school would be chosen to the lunch greeting before we eat...something like, "Be grateful for the food we can eat, honor and appreciate the nature and precious animals and vegetables that have given up their lives for us, and be thankful for kyushoku ladies for work hard and provide us tasty meals...now enjoy and itadakimasu." All: "Itadakimasu!" It was nice. It roots back to Japanese sense of animism, the celebration and appreciation of every and any nature god and all livingthings are equally devine and precious. Every meal is a sacrifice and we should appreciate and honor.

When a picky eater at a deli or a cafe in NY ordering "add this and that, hold this and that, just a dub of this and that, half this and half that, oh, and give me extra this and that—on the side," causing a long line, I do miss Japanese adults who just orders this and that and eat as this and that.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

They are doing a great job with the school lunches. They well balanced nutritionally and affordable. My little boy loves them.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Nice article! I've often wondered about public school lunches here.

Working at a private school, our system is a little different. Teachers can sign up for daily bento delivery at the start of each month, or go to the school cafeteria where the choices include the day's set (displayed in a glass case at the entrance, just like in a restaurant!) and then a table covered with a variety of entrée, dessert and side choices. I usually eat the chicken wrap because it's tasty and add a sweet treat to finish things off. We always have ramen as a choice, too.

The junior high kids eat in their classrooms but the senior high students pack the cafeteria around noon each day. Sometimes at the end of the rush there's nothing left but cups of fried chicken chunks and some melon pan or anpan.

For drinks, there are coolers full of all kinds of juices, waters and teas. No sodas. We also have some vending machines with the same selections.

Oh, and yogurt. If you can't find anything else, you can at least grab a yogurt.

The quality is generally pretty good, especially on the desserts. The only thing our lunch staff really falls down on is French fries. They can't seem to get the oil temperature right so we end up with soggy fries. Luckily, they don't make fries very often.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Buddhist monk who oversaw a school in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture

Although I do not know who he was, I paid tribute to him as founding father of school lunches. Without his action, many impoverished kids did not come to school with hunger.

His simple lunch looks yummy although it is not very spectacular.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Strange to see a lot of mentions of JHS school lunches, I'm under the impression the school lunches are an elementary school thing. I work at a JHS myself and all the students bring their own lunches although they do have little milk cartons from the school, the teachers order lunches that are brought in daily but this is an optional service for the teachers I don't think there is the option for kids.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

You work at a private junior high then. Perhaps. In general all public schools have the kyushoku system

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I'm much happier with my sons eating Japanese school lunch at kindergarten and elementary school than what they would probably be getting in my home country. Primary school wasn't so bad, but the buffet style at secondary school meant that students (including me) would just eat what they wanted rather than something healthy. A lot of the choices weren't really nutritious anyway-we could just have a plate of chips (fries) if we wanted, or pizza or a burger. Taking lunch from home wasn't much better either as the idea of a packed lunch back then was a sandwich, some crisps (potato chips) and a chocolate bar! Obviously it varied from family to family but that was pretty standard. I don't know how people can complain about Japanese school lunches really. They are usually pretty healthy and balanced.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

They are usually pretty healthy and balanced.

Perhaps, unless they serve dolphin or whale meat to the kids, then they become less so. Oh and there's the occasional outbreak of food poisoning to consider http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/17/world/asia/japan-food-poisoning/

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

The History is interesting, especially as some regions for offer a lot of local food. So the meals can vary a lot between regions.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

DanielJPJan. 14, 2015 - 10:07AM JST

Strange to see a lot of mentions of JHS school lunches, I'm under the impression the school lunches are an elementary school thing.

Here is a link to a survey by the Ministry of Education and Science. http://www.e-stat.go.jp/SG1/estat/List.do?bid=000001052057&cycode=0 Table 2.

Elementary Schools;

National, Full lunch: 97.7%, Partial lunch: 0.0%, Milk only: 1.5%, No provision: 0.9%

Municipal, Full lunch: 99.5%, Partial lunch: 0.2%, Milk only: 0.1%, No provision: 0.2%

Private, Full lunch: 40.8%, Partial lunch: 0.4%, Milk only: 7.6%, No provision: 51.2%

Total, Full lunch: 98.8%, Partial lunch: 0.2%, Milk only: 0.2%, No provision: 0.8%

Junior High Schools;

National, Full lunch: 19.5%, Partial lunch: 0.0%, Milk only: 39.8%, No provision: 40.7%

Municipal, Full lunch: 77.1%, Partial lunch: 0.3%, Milk only: 7.2%, No provision: 15.3%

Private, Full lunch: 6.3%, Partial lunch: 0.0%, Milk only: 3.5%, No provision: 90.2%

Total, Full lunch: 71.5%, Partial lunch: 0.3%, Milk only: 7.2%, No provision: 20.9%

About 30% of JHSs fall into Milk only or No provision category.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I had "skim milk" all through my school years (1959-1968), but at home my parents gave us unprocessed milk every morning. Nobody liked skim milk, and the English "skim" was rendered into "suki-mu" (like-none), so the kyushoku milk was called "suki-mu miruku" or "milk loved by nobody." We knew that skim milk was something for cattle and swine in the U.S.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

When a picky eater at a deli or a cafe in NY ordering "add this and that, hold this and that, just a dub of this and that, half this and half that, oh, and give me extra this and that—on the side," causing a long line, I do miss Japanese adults who just orders this and that and eat as this and that.

Preach it! I am just so tired of taking my foreign friends out to eat in Japan, because they all have really weird and complicated demands that they expect me to translate into Japanese for them, as though it's some god-given right that they get their dressing on the side, or non-fat milk for their coffee, or exactly two ice cubes in their soda, etc.

And then there are the allergies. Dear god, the allergies.

2 ( +3 / -1 )


Of course, it is nice to be able to pick and choose what you pay to eat, however, some takes it to extreme. It's hard to draw a fine line between our common sense and theirs, I guess. Back in college, I was working at a sushi restaurant and I had so many guests ordering omakase sushi (chef's choice=most economical/value price) and telling me "I am allergic to all fish but tuna, yellowtail, and salmon!" or "Can I have extra eel?" or "I don't like squid, octopus, and shrimp" and I was like, "It is chef's omakase, not yours!" Hahahaha.

In Japan, I am glad to see more and more people pay attention to and take special care for religious diets like Kosher and Halal. It is important to pay respect for other cultures and religious beliefs. The bigger issue is, unfortunately for some of my friends, the vegitarianism. If you discuss vegitarian diet (for both ethical and health reasons) with Japanese people, many would say, "Oh, so you are telling me those plants don't feel the pain when they are consumed?" or "We all sacrifice and we eat their precious lives with sense of great guilt and greater appreciation." Such ideas show Japan's unique animistic perspective that could go back as far as Jyomon period and the term "Itadakimasu" and the attitude towards food reflect it. It takes more time for tempe and veggie meatloaf to be a hit in the Japanese market.

Seriously soda with exactly two ice cubes hasn't been the craziest order in east coast. Half caff half decaff, anyone?

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Good school lunches at the junior college where I used to teach. Of course, they actually had cooks who actually cooked all the food in a huge kitchen and served lunch hot. Maybe that's the difference....

0 ( +0 / -0 )

In Japan, I am glad to see more and more people pay attention to and take special care for religious diets like Kosher and Halal. It is important to pay respect for other cultures and religious beliefs.

I agree, but in my experience, the religious types (for example, no pork/shellfish, no beef, no alcohol, no caffeine, etc) are the least annoying of all! They certainly don't make a big huge song and dance about their food restrictions. Was at a work barbeque last year, and several of the attendants had quietly brought their own food along because their religions forbid the consumption of most of the foods that are usually served at BBQs. No muss, no fuss, no lectures or lengthy explanations.

The born-again vegetarians, on the other hand ...!

Anyway, Japanese in general are quite accepting of religious food restrictions (perhaps because of shojin-ryori?), and they just need to work a bit more at putting it into practice. I'm optimistic that they'll catch on quickly.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Japan lets local influence decide school lunches , not wife of leader of country who is large as house and has no technical degree in dietary needs. My niece in USA throws lunches forced upon her in garbage.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

This article was excellent and very interesting. I decided to commemorate my last Japanese school lunch today by researching Japanese school lunches while I ate. No more bait fish, cold rice, and seaweed miso soup for me, thanks. Instead, I'll have a ham sandwich and some grapes or something. I will probably never eat soup again in my life. I loathe soup after eating it every day. Nope, no more hot water posing as food for me. Plus, I never drank the milk. First off, I'm not 7 years old. Second, after drinking milk I feel like complete garbage.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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