Mothers under pressure as Japan pushes return to a traditional diet
The Japanese government’s shokuiku (food education) campaign entered a new phase recently that again places rice-based dishes at the forefront of the national diet.
Shokuiku started in 2005 in response to concerns over rising lifestyle-related diseases, food safety and national food sufficiency, and for the need to preserve Japanese food culture. Its aim is to increase knowledge and understanding of food in Japan.
Schools, childcare institutions, local government, and food-related business sectors play a leading role through activities such as cooking classes, food workshops, ‘green’ tours and farm tours. Local governments are required to produce their own food education plans and submit them to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
Since shokuiku began, the number of nutritionists in schools and other institutions in Japan has increased more than 150-fold. Their role is to provide advice on food to students and parents, help develop school lunch menus and teach children about local food cultures. In recent months, the government has stepped up the campaign to provide food-related activities and public lectures at weekends.
Since the start of the Modern era in the late nineteenth century, Japan has seen repeated campaigns, based on a ‘banal nationalism’, that seek to restore what are perceived to be traditional Japanese values and culture. Shokuiku is encouraging people to eat more rice because of the growing national imbalance between rice production and consumption, by portraying the classic Japanese meal as consisting of rice as a staple, and ‘one soup and three dishes’. Such meals are being promoted as the essence of being Japanese.
The campaign highlights the nutritional value of traditional Japanese meals. Rice is filling and therefore prevents overeating. And because Japanese dishes have less fat, eating more rice will help decrease the number of obese children and adults suffering from lifestyle-related diseases.
The current strong emphasis on rice consumption, however, contrasts with past Japanese dietary reforms. It was only after the Second World War that rice became accessible to a large part of the Japanese population. Before Japan began modernising in the mid-nineteenth century, nearly 90 per cent of the population were farmers whose daily meals consisted of millet and small amounts of vegetable. The only refined rice they were allowed to eat was the small portion left over after they had paid the rice tax.
Mark of status
With the development of technology in the late nineteenth century, refined white rice became a mark of status and a large part of the daily diet of urban residents, the elite classes, and soldiers, until it was found too much white rice consumption led to malnutrition-related diseases. The solution was to mix rice with barley and introduce flour products such as bread and noodles.
Improving nutrition was also part of Japan’s modernisation and militarisation process during the first half of the twentieth century. This was reinforced by the need to support the armed forces. The mother’s role in improving the national diet was seen as crucial, and her dual role of ‘good wife, wise mother’ was promoted as the ideal of Japanese womanhood. As Japanese meals were considered insufficiently nutritional, home-cooking reforms were encouraged and a greater variety of meals was introduced, including Western, Chinese and fusion.
Today, more than 90 per cent of schools for children aged from 6 to 15 are provided with a nutritionally balanced school lunch as part of the national food policy. Initiated during the US occupation after the Second World War, school lunches that included flour products were a way of dealing with the overproduction of wheat in the United States. Free bread and powdered milk supplied by the United States became staples of school meals.
In the 1970s, there was a shift to rice-based school lunches as the Japanese government tried to dispose of its rice surplus. This was followed by a combination of bread-based and rice-based meals. In the past few years, however, there has been a rapid switch back to rice-based meals for school lunches. Many schools have also stopped providing milk on the grounds that, because milk is both filling and unsuitable with rice, children will eat more rice.
While promoting a rice-centred diet, the government stigmatises the ‘Westernisation’ of Japan’s diet as the cause of rising obesity and lifestyle-related diseases. It is also drawing comparisons with other Asian countries, such as Vietnam, Thailand and India, where rice consumption is higher than in Japan and their diets contain less fat. In doing so, Japan seems to be seeking an Asian identity formed through rice-based collectivism.
The care and preparation of the lunch box has a significant, almost ritual role in Japanese society, and is often seen as a measure of a mother’s love and care for her children
The role of the Japanese mother again remains crucial in food reforms. Another aim of shokuiku is to nurture domestic education skills. Although the policy does not specify gender, its emphasis on domestic cooking implies it is the woman’s responsibility. As well as preparing healthy meals, parents are expected to spend as much time as possible sharing food experiences, including shopping and cooking, with their children.
Mothers have to pay considerable attention to the contents of the lunch boxes they prepare for their children going to childcare centres and primary schools. The care and preparation of the lunch box has a significant, almost ritual role in Japanese society and is often seen as a measure of a mother’s love and care for her children.
The enormous pressures to prepare lunch boxes that are not only nutritional but ‘artistically’ presented to meet the expectations of the children and their schools keep mothers busy in the kitchen.
Media reports suggest that the burden on mothers to prepare lunch boxes has increased under the influence of shokuiku. A growing number of childcare institutes have set rules about the lunches children can bring, such as not relying on processed or frozen food.
However, there has also been opposition to the increasing burden on mothers imposed by the campaign. Hapiku (happy parenting)—a website that provides advice to mothers on child-rearing—states that it wants is to help them reduce the stresses of parenting. One article—‘Balance is important, but you first need to reduce your mental burden’—refers to the government’s promotion of the rice-based, ‘one soup, three dishes’ combination and suggests how mothers can vary meals and choose the right ingredients. It concludes:
Your cooking doesn’t have to be perfect. You as a parent are great enough in that you make a lot of effort to prepare well-balanced meals. Even if there are days when you prepare only one dish for breakfast or work less hard to cook dinner, don’t hate yourself.
As the title of the Hapiku article suggests, reducing the mental burden and responsibility on mothers does not release them from the physical task of meeting the government’s expectation of ‘one soup, three dishes’ meals. Women continue to suffer guilt and self-hate for failing to meet this ideal.
Shokuiku has imposed a greater, socially enforced burden on working mothers in today’s Japanese society. As long as the gendered division of labour remains deeply embedded in Japan’s patriarchal, conservative society, the question needs to be asked: ‘How long should we wait before we see mothers in Japan enjoy their meals?’
Young of sardines rice. The Japanese government is urging people to eat more rice-based meals. Photo: Wikimedia Commons