The history and institution of the Kyushoku — Japanese School Lunch

These days a school lunch story is often able to make the news headlines, see Teacher goes “undercover” to expose American school lunches — and it’s not pretty! School lunch scandal…How a Box of Milk Became a Right Wing Scandal of the Day. With the dwindling birthrates, assertive and demanding X-generation parents or the so-called “monster parents” in Japan are also quite capable of making a meal out of this issue.

The school lunch is afterall, a topic that everyone can relate to, just about everyone has had to eat a school lunch … unless you happened to have been homeschooled all of your life. School lunches create memories for a lifetime … adults may remember their school lunch hour affectionately, with nostalgia, or with horror … depending on the kind of associations built around them. Only recently, a Scottish 9-year-old’s school lunch blog caused quite a stir both overseas … see “9-year-old’s lunch blog shames school into making changes”  and amused the Japanese community somewhat (see Japanese blog). The school lunch affair at both my kids’ public elementary school in Kanagawa looks somewhat like this picture below:

The Japanese kyushoku tends to have rather positive connotations, and attempts by the government to abolish the institution, have been met with fierce objection by parents in Japan. Recent concerns have had to do with E. coli scares with fresh salads, over the increasing number of parents who have been skipping payment of their school lunch fees or over adequacy of radiation checks on the school lunches since the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year.

In this next segment, we shall take time off to scrutinize the history and the institution of the Japanese Kyushoku School Lunch.

The School Kyushoku (Soba City Kyushoku Center)

Kyushoku,  A Lesson with Lunch

For most Japanese school children, school lunches are more than just a tray of food. Gakko-kyushoku, school lunches, are an integral part of their studies. Along with tasty meals, Japan’s unique kyushoku system serves up some very important lessons in nutrition, health, cooking, social skills and more.

Kyoshoku toban

Most public elementary and many junior high schools in Japan provide lunches for their students. These meals, paid for by monthly school lunch fees, are prepared in kitchens within the school or at school-lunch centers serving several schools. School lunches in Japan are an integral part of a school’s educational activities: in fact, school lunch instruction is defined as a special classroom activity. Lunch programs are designed to help school children understand what constitutes a nutritionally balanced meal while learning the fundamentals of proper eating and table manners.

Children deliver and serve the food themselves and eat at their desks in the classrooms with their teachers. Each week, different students are appointed kyushoku toban – lunch staff. The process of taking responsibility to prepare, serve, eat and clean up after lunch gives school children a real work experience. These kinds of cooperative activities help to build a sense of service and a spirit of harmony. In addition, lunchtime presents an opportunity to apply skills learned in homemaking, social studies, biology and other subjects.

Students also learn about how we get our food: the fishing and farming industries are introduced, as well as food production, processing and marketing. And once a year, some schools invite parents to a tasting of the lunch menus and to learn about balanced nutrition.

Japan’s school lunch program has its roots in the late nineteenth century, when an elementary school in Yamagata Prefecture served lunches to students from poor families. Much later, in the face of food shortages following the Second World War, school lunch programs provided necessary nutrition to many school children. In 1954, the school lunch law was passed and by the mid-fifties, such programs were in place throughout most of Japan. During this era, menus featured powdered skim milk and bread. In following decades, typical kyushoku menus served age-pan (fried bread), soft noodles with meat sauce, cream stew, curry rice and milmake, flavored milk. It was not until 1976 that rice-based menus were officially introduced.

Soba City Kyushoku Center school lunch program

Today’s school lunches are well-balanced and provide about one-third the daily nutritional requirements of each student. A typical menu might include a staple dish of either bread, rice or noodles; a soup dish; and a meat or fish dish followed by dessert. Today’s kyushoku menus comprise a wide variety of dishes representing not only Japanese cuisine, but foods from various countries. During the school year, students experience a wide-ranging and international palate of tastes that might include such varied offerings as Korean bibimbap, rice topped with seasoned meat and vegetables; tandoori chicken; spaghetti pescatore; and minestrone soup. There are also schools whose menus include regional foods or vegetables harvested locally, to help students better appreciate their own hometowns.

For those Japanese reminiscing about their childhood, the very thought of gakko-kyushoku triggers myriad memories of old friends and classroom camaraderie. To nurture this nostalgia, there are restaurants that serve kyushoku menus, and special Internet sites that sell typical kyushoku foods to help feed the craving for the lunchtime lessons of school days past.

Source: Courtesy of Kikkoman

Editor’s afternotes:

Another excellent account of the history of kyushoku comes from Roger Pulvers’ Who dares take the ‘Q’ out of Japan’s 5-star kyushoku? (from Counterpoint, The Japan Times Apr 22, 2007) Excerpted immediately below:

“The Japanese adopted their school-lunch system from Europe, where it has traditionally been the belief that the central government has a duty to look after the welfare of all children equally. The Germans and the French instituted the school lunch in the 18th century, followed by the British in the 19th. What could be more important to your modernizing nation, thought the Japanese of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), whose social models came from Europe, than raising well-nourished, healthy children?

The first school lunch in Japan was served in 1889, in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture. It consisted of two rice balls, salted fish and pickled greens. Tokyo followed in 1914, when the Japanese government began subsidizing school lunches. In 1919, bread was introduced to the menu.

But the real history of the school lunch began after World War II, when, in December 1946, Tokyo, as well as Kanagawa and Chiba prefectures, started serving them. By the next year, the entire country had joined in. The typical fare then was stewed tomatoes and skim milk. By 1952, primary schools in all prefectures were offering school lunches, and by 1954 all middle schools had followed suit.” Read more here.

Explore further:

What do high school students have for lunch?

Hear the Kindergarten Kyushoku Song

Early school lunches (1965) and what it looks like today

School lunches in Japan (Genki radio)

What’s a Kappogi? – on the paraphernalia that school children have to don in order to serve the kyushoku

Kyushoku (Higo Blog)

P.S. to this segment, if you want to hear what the foreign teachers in local schools are griping about, check out this thread.


For a comparative survey, take a round-the-world-trip with school lunches:

French school lunches rival the Japanese school lunches for quality and cost, see French School Lunch Menus and French school lunch compared to American school lunch article by a registered dietitian living in Southwest France.

If you have to have a book in the hand, then check out “What’s for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World” by Andrea Curtis, a new nonfiction book aimed at kids aged 8-12 published by Red Deer Press, you can find out more at the related What’s for Lunch blog here; also French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon and Outside the Box (about Italy) by Jeannie Marshall

If that was enough to whet your appetite, you might also also want to peruse these: School lunches from around the world 30 pics;  School lunches around the world; School lunch China vs Malaysia;  What’s best for our kids 11 school lunches from around the world; American Lunch RoomSean’s School lunch in America blog; What school lunches look like in 20 countries around the world. And don’t forget to read the highly amusing Kyushoku Diaries (from the “Shitara Happens” Blog) and NeverSeconds: primary school pupil’s daily dose of school dinners, the 9 year old Scottish girl’s blog that has gone so viral!

Kyushoku Center Homepage

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3 thoughts on “The history and institution of the Kyushoku — Japanese School Lunch”

  1. As an English teacher I used to be so excited to get back to school after holidays to HAVE LUNCH. The schools in my area took a lot of trouble with serving seasonal and local ingredients. There was always a printout up of “what’s in season now” or a radial chart that could be adjusted as the year progressed. There were a few dishes I didn’t like, but that was mostly my issue, and had nothing to do with the quality of the food. I loved the soups the most. At junior high the portions were quite big for not-particularly-active adult females. I started a trend of halving my rice–keeping it for later or taking it home–otherwise I lapsed into a carb coma after lunch and could not stay awake at my desk, no matter how hard I tried. Later we got a teacher who could never eat enough, so everyone just piled onto his tray. I much preferred the rice to the bread–white bread is boring and gives me heartburn. The best was when they occasionally had rice-flour bread. Aaaah natsukashiiiii.

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