Food Culture and Education in Japan

Food Culture And Education In Japan

Thu 27 Feb 2014

Story by Noriko Misawa

Japan Takes a Spin on The Food Revolution!

Japanese Diets: Ever-Evolving

Many who have traveled to Japan may have felt that Japanese people eat a variety of foods with different textures, colors, tastes, cooking styles, and ingredients. Deli sections of department stores are a typical example where tourists and visitors experience dish after dish of beautifully presented food. Obento boxes might have little compartments with side dishes made up of 20 different ingredients: soy sauce and dashi-braised seasonal root vegetables, seaweed and cucumber dressed in ginger vinaigrette, sashimi, fried tofu with dashi, blanched green vegetables, crispy pickles... Anything one could desire. The 24-hour convenience shops carry everything from pastries and energy drinks to foods like tofu, dashi egg omelet, and cooked hijiki seaweed, packaged and ready to be warmed and served at home. It is so easy to pick up delicious and balanced food to go; with all this prepared food everywhere, it is tempting not to cook at all!

The Japanese diet has been evolving, much like diets worldwide; now more westernized, it contains more fats and protein from meat sources, and less fiber and minerals. Young people cook less with so many accessible convenience foods. Over time, there has been an increase in lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes, obesity, or extreme weight loss due to lack of nutrients.

Japan Takes Action: Shokuiku!

The Japanese government saw this and took action. Since 2005, Food Education has been implemented nationwide. The philosophy is to educate everyone, starting at a young age, about the importance of food in order to live a healthy life, both physically and mentally.

By providing tools to educate kids at school as well as at home, the goal is to teach about the importance of a balanced diet, and that it is something which needs to be followed every day. You can find the English version of what the government says here.

For example, similar to the Food Revolution, the philosophy acknowledges that school lunches are the perfect medium to start teaching kids about food. ‘In order to promote Shokuiku in schools, the diet and nutrition teacher system was introduced. This is a new license that combines the qualifications of registered dietitian and teacher. The major roles of the nutrition teacher are to provide children with nutrition education through the school lunch system, foster desirable habits and self-management capacity in children, and advocate for a healthy diet in connection with other subjects and in families and the community’.

The Nutrition Top

The number of diet and nutrition teachers varies according to school size, but what is consistent is their message. To communicate what ideal meals should look like, they have created a symbol of ‘Food Education’, which is something like the American food pyramid, with a slight twist…literally! It spins like a top, implying that balance is important in maintaining health.

The first and largest layer is the starch group. The second biggest layer is called the ‘side vegetable’ group, and consists of vegetables, mushrooms, root vegetables, and seaweed items. This category of food is supposed to provide the necessary fiber, minerals and vitamins not provided by the other layers. The protein follows as the next big layer, and it is made up of meats, fish, soy products, and eggs. The final layers have fruits, which are expensive and thus are consumed less, and dairy. Exercise and water is also needed to create a good balance, and as a result, allow the top to spin better.

Food education is endorsed at different levels in the community by volunteers, university students, parents and teachers. Corporations, universities, and the city government are involved as well. For example, food and agriculture corporations give out tomato plant seedlings to schools and communities to encourage awareness for growing vegetables, university students give classes at local elementary schools, and parents who are involved in the food business teach kindergarteners about cooking. There are people from all walks of life, and varying career paths, that are part of the Food Education movement here in Japan, and it has joined in the world in the revolution toward a healthier future.

About the author: Noriko Misawa is a food scientist by training. Her food related work has allowed her to experience and study food cultures around the world. After living in the US for 13 years, she returned to Tokyo with in 2007. She has been the Food Revolution Ambassador in Tokyo since early 2014 and can be reached at


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