Nutrition educator in Japan

Masako Otsubo lectures on Shoku-iku during lunch at Harumichi Elementary School in Yamatokoriyama, Nara Prefecture. (Danielle Nerman/CBC)

In 2014, the Japanese government spent more than 200 million yen on "Shoku-iku." Translated, Shoku-iku means "eating education." Dr. Yukio Hattori coined the term more than a decade ago and calls it a blueprint for conscious eating.

"Many young people don't eat well, their diets are bad. So we had to rectify this. And so that is why we started this movement," says Hattori.

Shoku-iku is taught in every Japanese public school, starting in kindergarten. Students learn to:

  •     Never skip breakfast.
  •     Avoid buying food from convenience stores.
  •    Choose a traditional Japanese meal over fast food.

"We need people to become healthy through eating because currently, our medical fee is 40 trillion yen per year. Increasing one trillion yen per year," says Hattori.

Hattori helped the Japanese government develop and implement the "Basic Law of Shoku-iku" in 2004. Since the law was brought in, the number of diet and nutrition teachers in Japan’s public schools has gone from 34 to more than 4,000.

Masako Otsubo is one of them, delivering food education at three schools in Yamatokoriyama City, in Nara Prefecture. 

"More and more people are suffering from lifestyle-related diseases, and that is not only among adults but also children. I think more people in Japan are recognizing the importance of teaching children about good food and good eating so they can become healthy grown-ups," says Otsubo.
 
After I interviewed Otsubo, she gave a Shoku-iku lecture to Grade 6 students at Harumichi Elementary, while they ate lunch. The meal was made from scratch and consisted of steamed rice, Japanese curry with vegetables and a green bean and lotus root salad.

Otsubo designed the healthy menu. "School lunches are part of education," says Otsubo.

School lunch program

At Sanya Elementary in the Tokyo suburb of Suginami, I watched a group of Grade 2 students haul heavy trays of service dishes and pots of hot food into their classroom. Wearing matching white chef's hats and sanitary masks, they quickly and confidently ladle steaming miso into bowls for their teachers and classmates. There is no room here for picky eaters. Everyone gets the same lunch and eats together, at their desks.

About 99 per cent of elementary schools and 85 per cent of middle schools in Japan’s public school system have a hot lunch program. It costs about $4.00 per meal and each one rarely hovers over 700 calories.

"To be obese in Japan would be very difficult because you'd be scrutinized. [There's] huge social pressure to be similar. There's a saying here that goes, 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered down,'" says Jason Wik, who grew up in Cranbrook, B.C.

He's been living in Tokyo for nearly two decades. Wik married a Japanese woman and has two daughters, 9 and 13 years old. During dinner at the Wik household, I watched the girls fill their plates with their favourite foods — raw fish and edamame. Both girls are enrolled in the Japanese public school system. Their dad gives Shoku-iku some credit for their healthy eating habits.

"Certainly, aggressive steps to educate kids about what eating properly is and how to grow their own food would be a good start. But I don’t think it’s just up to the individual consumer. The industries and corporations that are responsible for a lot of food in the stores need to change," says Wik.

That's already happening. Employees from Kikkoman regularly visit schools and give lectures on soy products. And Tanita Corporation, a Japanese company that manufactures weight scales, has opened a chain of restaurants that offer "500 calorie meals." The eateries also offer diners a free full-body composition test.

Danielle Nerman travelled to Japan under the 2014 Foreign Press Centre Japan (FPCJ) media fellowship. The program is designed to enable Canadian journalists to broadcast and write articles that will give people outside of Japan an opportunity to learn about the country.