Gender Politics of School Lunches

In addition to neoliberal restructuring, another critical dynamic of school lunches in Japan is how it has been reconstituted as part of shokuiku (food education) since the 1990s.[1] Japanese school lunches are, in principle, mandatory to all students as they are considered part of education, and such views have been strengthened under shokuiku policies. This made it difficult for concerned parents to pull their children out of school lunch programmes.

Originally, the Japanese school lunch programme started as one of the government’s anti-poverty and malnutrition campaigns that grew out of post-World War II food aid from the USA under the Licensed Agencies for Relief in Asia and Government Appropriation for Relief in Occupied Areas programme. Similar to the American school lunch programme, which has played an important role in absorbing surplus commodities,

US food aid to Japan was tied to the USA’s need to increase agricultural exports, and therefore played a geopolitical role also in the context of the Cold War.[2] [3] With Japanese economic development, the school lunch programme’s mandate shifted over time from anti-hunger to education, which was formalized in the shokuiku programmes in the 2000s. In 2004, the government established the Food Education Law, firmly positioning school lunches as part of shokuiku and the educational curriculum. According to this law, the objectives of the school lunch programme are to ‘teach the contributions of various people to the production of food, to deepen understanding of traditional food, and

to foster the spirit of cooperation, in addition to the intake of appro-


priate nutrition’.

As school lunches had now become a formal part of children’s educational experience, it was difficult for them to opt out of school lunches even when contamination had become a concern after the nuclear accident. Some parents did ask for special permission for their children to bring homemade lunches or to refuse food items that they deemed risky. The Japanese school lunch programme usually serves milk on a daily basis, and because of the experience of the Chernobyl accident, many parents did not want their children to drink milk. There are no comprehensive statistics on the prevalence of such solutions, but newspaper reports show that some, but not many, students were able to gain permission from the school authorities to opt out of all or part of the school lunch programme. In Iwaki city in Fukushima, for instance, 1,800 elementary and middle school children (out of about

30,000 students) did not drink milk in 2012.[4] Some parents also asked the schools to exempt their children from school lunches altogether and allow them to bring homemade lunches. For instance, a survey by the Fukushima City Education Council in February 2013 found, in addition to 204 elementary and middle school students who did not drink milk, 49 students who brought their own rice, and four who did not eat school lunches at all.[5] However, not many were able to do it, and in most instances, permission was granted on an ad hoc basis.

Therefore, shokuiku had a strong influence on post-Fukushima responses. Here, it is worth asking how shokuiku policy came to be in the 2000s. The notion that students need food-related education sounds like a laudable idea, but it was driven by complex social and economic calculations.[6] The 1990s saw a series of damaging food-related scandals that shattered consumer confidence in food policy such as domestic cases of BSE (Mad Cow Disease) and contaminated frozen foods. There was also increasing concern over the health impacts of ‘Western style’ dietary life including the rise in obesity and metabolic syndrome. The government advocated what it called ‘Japanese-style dietary life’ (nihongata shoku seikatsu) as a healthier alternative. The push for Japanese-style dietary life was in turn intimately linked to the government’s desire to promote Japanese agriculture and its concerns with declining food selfsufficiency.

I would like to highlight the deep-seated concern over the deterioration of the so-called traditional family as another key driver behind the shokuiku policy. Prominently featured as a rationale for the need for shokuiku was the notion of koshoku. Koshoku is a neologism that combines the Chinese character for ‘alone’ (?Ж ko) and ‘food’ (^ shoku), and refers to the phenomenon of family members eating separately. Replacing the first ko with another Chinese character with the same sound (ko: ^) that means ‘individual,’ koshoku is also used to critique the behaviour of family members who do not share the same food at the dinner table but rather eat individual plates, presumably because they are eating store-bought food; combined, koshoku highlights a lamentable dietary behaviour in contemporary Japan.

Often accompanying such criticisms of koshoku have been the calls for the resurrection of ikka danran or families eating together, and the preservation of katei ryori (home cooking). As Cwiertka and Koyama point out, the discourses of ikka danran and katei ryori are a relatively new coinage.[7] Yet the debates surrounding shokuiku portray ikka dan- ran and katei ryori as an established tradition, the ‘loss’ of which is lamented in contemporary Japanese society. Family members sharing the same table and home-cooked meals are depicted as the cornerstone of a healthy diet, familial happiness, and the proper disciplining of children.

Interestingly, when koshoku is problematized, it is not the absence of fathers that is seen as the problem. Indeed, fathers have been absent from meals for many decades.[8] Even when Japanese workaholism and the ‘worker bee’ lifestyle gained much attention in the 1980s, fathers who could not eat dinner with their families did not become the object of social criticism. The current attention to koshoku is really about the absence of a mother who fails to attend to her children at the dinner table. The other koshoku - that different food is eaten at the table - also subtly places blame on mothers by implying that food is not home cooked but bought in from outside. Hence, although the moral problem seen in koshoku is broadly framed as the loss of a family and home- cooked meal, at its core is a societal ambivalence about contemporary family structures that diverges from what is seen as the ‘traditional’ family. In policy and media discussions about shokuiku, therefore, it was not the fathers who received the blame for the disappearance of home meals and the increasing use of pre-cooked food. It was the mothers who were always marked as the ones accountable for cooking. Shokuiku policy was then intricately tied to the insistence on patriarchal family structures and its division of labour.

  • [1] See also Assmann’s contribution in this volume.
  • [2] Levine, School Lunch Politics; Sato, ‘Gakko kyushoku no kenkyu’.
  • [3] Cabinet Office, Shokuiku hakusho, 2008.
  • [4] Interview with the Division of School Lunch and Food Education, Iwaki City 2014.
  • [5] Yomiuri Shimbun, ‘Gyunyu nomazu beihan wa jisan’.
  • [6] Kimura, ‘Nationalism, Patriarchy, and Moralism’.
  • [7] Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine; Koyama, Katei no kisei.
  • [8] Ishige, ‘Kazoku to kaji’; see also Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine, 114; Bestor, Tsukiji, 157.
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