Not like the rest of the world.
I went to Tokyo to eat for a week. I came back full, both literally and figuratively as I was given the grand tour of the art AND science of how the Japanese prepare, eat and digest their meals.
As it was my first time in Japan, my stock knowledge of Japanese food culture was limited to an amalgamation of whatever I found in commercial restaurants to the “Japanese experience” of Little Tokyo. Hearing anecdotes from friends who have since made the great trek to Japan since the relaxation of VISA requirements, I was excited to sojourn into the land of push-button ramen, melt-in-your-mouth tuna, tofu served in many ways, omurice, and chicken sashimi.
And yes, having arrived back to Manila after a week of eating, I can very much say that my previous knowledge of Japanese food was only (chicken) skin deep. While the better part of daylight was spent touring an eclectic mix of Tokyo – from Akihabara to the Yakult Plant in Fuji, food was perhaps the common denominator.
Here are three things I learned about how the Japanese eat.
Eating healthy is actually a law in Japan
Being more than just “guidelines to eating healthy,” the Japanese government went as far as declaring food nutrition and education as law. In 2005, the Japanese government implemented the Basic Law of Shokuiku. Roughly translated, Shokuiku is, and I quote, “promoting people’s physical and mental health and well-rounded character. Building gratitude for food and understanding its importance.”
During my stay, I sat in a lecture with Professor Naomi Aiba of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology where she talked about how the Japanese population is rapidly ageing with over 14 million Japanese citizens above the age of 75. On the other hand, the younger population of Japan has become more obese, thanks mainly to new eating habits such as the influx of fast food to compensate for the busy lives of the working class. So, roughly a decade ago, a law was passed to promote a few of these core values which include eating together (as a family), a move to reduce salt in diet, and an education movement to teach children to appreciate where their food comes from (this is basically what Western cooking calls ‘farm to table.’)
The Japanese Custom of Eating, called Washoku, is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
What exactly is a Japanese meal? According to the late poet and children’s book author Kenji Miyazawa, a traditional Japanese meal in the 1960’s consists of “A handful of brown rice, some miso, and a few vegetables to suffice for the day.” As you can clearly see, “traditional” Japanese food has vastly changed in the past half decade.
According to the same lecture, the top concerns about Japanese cooking are that local ingredients are disappearing while imported foods that are considered to be health hazards are increasing. Nothing new here — as this is typical of many other countries with globalisation. What I did find interesting was that other major concerns were that young people were no longer saying their greetings before meals, many children no longer know how to use chopsticks, and that women who traditionally should know their knife skills are no longer confident with them.
You see, Washoku isn’t just about the food, but the entire ceremony of food preparation to the way families treat food when they eat together, as well as cleaning up. Although it was not part of the lecture, this made me realize how the ‘bento box’ is a physical manifestation of Washoku because of the scientific dietary portioning (the right amounts of carbohydrates, miso soup, meat and vegetables), and for children, making it look attractive enough to eat.
To cope with the modern day hustle (Tokyo is especially a busy city), there are a lot of government and private sector partnerships to creating better meals despite the hectic schedule of the Japanese commuter. Companies like Yakult for instance produce more variants of its probiotics drink to cater to the stomach, small and large intestines to help digestion. Yakult ladies don’t just go door to door, like in many countries, but also set up temporary shop inside offices during break time to sell probiotics, yogurt drinks, noodles and tea (yes Yakult makes tea and noodles too!). This rather fascinated me – I was able to visit a Yakult Center in downtown Tokyo, which serves as a supply cache for the Yakult ladies to regroup and restock their door to door peddles. One of the heads told me that in Japan, Yakult is more than just a drink, but a way of life. Yakult ladies who go door to door also serve the role of trained health consultants for the family, many of which have served their routes for decades so they have seen families and their children grow. They are almost like family physicians and yes, to me , as someone with engrained western sensibilities, this doesn’t make sense. But then again, this is Japan and their system works.
Most, if not all Japanese schools have a full-blown food preparation commissary and dietician per school.
I was able to visit a typical Japanese elementary school at the Minato Ward in Tokyo. With around 500 students and a total of 30 faculty, Seinan Elementary School had recently celebrated its 110th anniversary. I must admit that previously, the concepts of Shokuiku and Washoku were all intangibles to me until I finally got to see how the Japanese government treats its public schools and health. In Japan, it is forbidden to bring food to school. Special dietary requirements aside (such as allergic reactions), all children are taught how to serve, eat and clean up as a community. This is why it is hard to find obese Japanese children — as their diets throughout their schooling is portioned by dieticians. Rice is served around three times a week together with a combination of traditional Japanese dishes from around the region as well as foreign dishes (the Japanese love Italian food) to promote appreciation for other cultures. All of this is prepared in a hotel-like commissary under strict observance by the assigned school dietician.
Eating is a community activity inside the classroom. Meals are rolled in large vats and catering carts, students are assigned to serve their classmates. The teacher endures that everyone gets their fill and makes sure that there are no leftovers on the plates. Afterwards, the entire class takes part in cleaning up the tables and mopping up the floors.
This is how the Japanese eat. It doesn’t start with a flat lay Instagram photo of what’s in front of the table. It starts in the classroom, where children are taught about the health benefits of the corn that’s served in front of them. They are taught about the uniquely Japanese flavour of umami and how it is used in cooking. They’re taught manners – saying greetings before meals, serving others and tidying up after meals. This is how they eat. It is unlike any place in the world.
This piece originally appeared in Manila Bulletin’s Lifestyle Section on August 25 2016.