After an early commute into Tokyo central on a cold spring morning with the famous sakura (cherry blossom) buds ready to explode into colour, I arrived at Sendagaya elementary school, a large primary school with 350 pupils.
As is the Japanese way, the planning was meticulous, timed to the last minute. Accompanied by two Japanese colleagues, one Japanese interpreter, two directors from the Japanese ministry for education and technology (MEXT), and the Japanese equivalent of the director for the local authority, we entered the school gates.
Having had a 20-minute television special on NHK (the Japanese equivalent of the BBC) that week, it's fair to say the school was excited about my trip, and MEXT had researched the challenges that the School Food Trust has in the UK.
A poster of "Welcome Mr Robert Rees" adorned an open-plan entrance hall. As in all good schools, there was the noise of children's laughter and talking, a group playing rounders in the playground, and kindergarten children playing in the sandpit.
But let's stop here. Before moving on to the school meals provision, it's important to consider the context of Japanese society.
Here is an economy struggling at present within the global marketplace. At the same time, I noticed in Tokyo's high streets the same battles as within any society: high-street food operators such as McDonald's and Wendy's, and corner-shop supermarkets selling demonised Western snacks alongside Japanese delicacies.
Society in Japan is built on tradition, respect for each others' differences and, at the same time, tight-knit families, communities and a social infrastructure that has survived generations. In Tokyo, as with all major populated capitals around the world, it's absorbing expats, visitors and migrant workers into the belly of its life and dealing with the gases it emits as wisely as possible.
With regard to global eating issues such as childhood obesity, there was a sense that the country was looking outwards. It seems to be evaluating, listening, observing and putting in place structures, strategies and campaigns to prevent childhood dietary problems getting out of control in its own country.
MEXT recognises the need to survey education around the globe in order to carry out informed and evidence-based reform in its own education systems and to encourage the young people to make independent decisions. Here's a country that is saying: "We know what good food underpins and all that we're about. We've dipped our toes into the Western way of food provision and it just isn't right."
There are similarities with what has been happening in the UK. Some Japanese secondary schools have been losing their kitchens in place of IT units and other classrooms, although the scale is nothing like that of, say, Devon or Cornwall.
MEXT also monitored the impact of these changes. It found that the behaviour and performance of children was compromised in schools where the kitchens had been removed. A quick resolution was passed by the government of no derogation of services, and kitchens are now being restored in these schools. These are common-sense policies based on social change and knowledge of the fact that, if you eat better, you will do better.
So, as in the UK, there's a strong belief in Japan that a good school meal improves behaviour. However, finding the quantifiable scientific research to support this is difficult. Nevertheless, the Japanese see school lunches as an extension of the family way of life. The meals are prepared using seasonal products that are locally sourced. About 38% of ingredients come from within a short radius of each school, and the government has pledged a future target of 50%. This helps to educate children about where their food comes from.
In addition, each lunch service is structured as an educational experience that brings together the class and its teacher as a team. There were no dining rooms in Sendagaya, the school I visited, only classrooms. This is often seen as a barrier here in the UK, but in Japan it's turned into a positive.
The food is sent up to each classroom. On arrival, every child in the class has a role to play. They lay up dining spaces with cutlery or chopsticks and their own individual place mats brought in from home.
Four classmates don chefs' aprons and take the place of servers behind the food trolley. Another child calls the class to attention and reads out what today's menu is. At the same time this becomes not only the menu of the day, but also a regular quiz about important food groups and tastes. The children then eat. They do so quietly and in a fun, interactive and social way that you would expect of children aged 11 and 12. It's an enjoyable experience.
The teacher is present throughout. She eats with her children and on an equal footing with them. In this school, and in many other Japanese schools, it is compulsory for staff to eat a hot school meal and is often written into their job descriptions.
This particular day there was a salad of spring greens and vegetables as a starter clear vegetable broth with barley as a middle course sautéd baby scallops with vegetables and rice as the main course and poached peaches in jelly for pudding.
Each child aged seven to 12 in this school gets the same menu and is allowed to go back for seconds. However, depending on their year group, they are allowed a bigger-sized portion of that menu in line with their body needs. Children up to 12 years old get 50 minutes to eat their lunch, and those in secondary school get 45 minutes - but it's not the full length of their lunchtime break.
Only after every child has finished do they all help to clear everything away. What they gain is respect for each other. During lunchtime, discussions focus on community, friends and every child's social responsibility. Lunch is a lesson in itself, with many of the issues spilling over into the curriculum and vice versa.
Throughout the production, serving and consuming of the meals a school dietitian is present - although on further investigation they seem to be the Japanese equivalent of Healthy Schools co-ordinators. This scheme was launched in April 2005, and there's one of these employed by the local authority for every other school. They listen to the children and act as a facilitator between them, the head teacher, the school caterer and the local authority. This is a well-paid, well-resourced role that's respected in each school. MEXT sees this role as the essential linchpin and catalyst to promoting co-operation in food education between schools, homes and local communities.
As in the UK, the Japanese also believe that a well-balanced diet improves health only if it partners a wider healthy lifestyle. Physical activity is equally important within Japanese education. And so is sleep. Japanese school policies often have sleep strategies, with a firm belief that early to bed means early to rise.skipping breakfast
In 2006 MEXT implemented a campaign called "Early to bed, early to rise, and eat a good breakfast". But MEXT officials are worried. It seems that 4% of young people in Japan are skipping breakfast, causing knock-on problems such as poor attention during morning lessons.
The figure of 4% is nothing compared with the problems here in the UK, but the difference, perhaps, is that MEXT has recognised this early and is reacting to the problem before it gets worse. As in the UK, they are bringing parents, teachers and young people together to celebrate a whole-school approach to food.
MEXT points out that those preparing the meals are well-trained, professional chefs. The kitchens I see are gleaming, busy and vibrant. You can see fresh produce in fridges and simmering away in large pans.
Public-sector catering in Japan is predominantly a male-orientated business, and caterers are paid based on their qualifications. Each local authority produces a personal development plan for every member of staff, including those in the catering teams. About 63% of all cooks working in Japanese schools have a level 3 qualification. That is out of a total workforce of 70,000 cooks.
The cooks in each authority also meet regularly to review menus and ideas. The school dietitians attend, and the whole local authority moves forward together rather than on a school-by-school basis.
Food and cookery is taught regularly in the Japanese curriculum to create demand and keep the values around good food alive. There's a basic minimum standard (almost like the Cub Scout home-help badge) called the katei-ka. This is a home skills qualification taught to all children from the age of 12 to develop nutritional, shopping and budgeting skills. They design well-balanced menus and start to work on textbook basic recipes, such as omelettes and stir-fries.
In sixth grade, the dishes become more varied: rice dishes, miso soups, macaroni cheese and pasta dishes, fish cakes, basic salads and more complex fish and meat stir-fries.
Techniques of cooking are also explored, from steaming, boiling and grilling to frying and roasting. This provides a basic portfolio of life skills encompassing food as well as other matters such as sewing and wiring a plug. Each term, young children work with parents and teachers on smaller cooking sessions, where together they produce rice cakes, sweet potato cakes and basic tofu dishes.
The fast-food culture is taking hold in Japan, and MEXT officials remain concerned. Not only Western snacks, but many Japanese snacks can now be bought in Tokyo stores. That said, many are relatively healthy, such as the bento lunchboxes, rice cakes, noodles and fast-food soups. It's not so much the content that MEXT is worried about but the "on the hoof" antisocial aspect of fast-food eating.
Outside school you can see "office girl" culture taking hold. This is where young professionals are eating quickly under pressure from work to perform better than the competition. If this doesn't slow down, then in a generation's time Japan could see the problems that we face here in the UK.
MEXT has introduced a programme of activity over the next three years that will comprehensively revitalise its local community education functions. Its policies aren't dissimilar from the UK's Every Child Matters programme.
A White Paper about education reform was released in 2005 by the government in Japan. Its English translation refers to young people "being fit to compete within an international community" and the need to balance this with an "education and culture-orientated nation". Food and health are the very first listing on page one of the document as priorities that can deliver the correct and basic approach to educational reform.
Japan doesn't shy away from its responsibilities to its children. It has acknowledged the challenges, shares effective policy wisely, and has common-sense strategies in place that work.
Quick facts about the japanese education system
• There are 11 million school-age children based in 35,000 schools. These figures include special education schools, elementary schools, secondary schools and also those who take part in evening courses within the upper tier of secondary schools.
• Uptake of a full meal in primary schools is 99.3%, or just over seven million children.
• Uptake of a full meal in secondary schools is 82.2%, or just under three million children.
• Uptake of a full meal in special education is 90.6%, or just over 90,000.
• Uptake of a full meal in evening education is 64%, or just under 61,000.
• In total, 93.3% of those in education eat as part of the Japanese school meals programme.
Sharing the cost of school meals
Japanese school meals legislation ensures that the cost of school meals is shared by all within a community. Parents pay 90p for the ingredients and then the remaining costs of overheads are paid for by the local authority.
These work out in line with some of the UK costings for school meals - about £1.50-£1.65, depending on your location in Japan. Cost versus quality is not a problem in Japan. That's due to the demand, uptake, and sharing of who pays for what. The buck doesn't just stop with the parent.
Meals are served for 188 days of the year, and there's no stigma attached to free school meals - simply because they don't exist. Government policy says that every child should have a hot meal service. The individual local authority each year sends payments directly to the parents in low-income areas rather than the school. This leaves it up to the parent to take the responsible action.
MEXT and individual head teachers are then responsible for empowering parents, who are best-placed to decide how to provide the best for their child. In a nutshell, the authorities trust parents to act responsibly with their grant.
Could we do the same here?
The cotswold chef
Rob Rees, 37, is known as the Cotswold Chef. He develops food policies for Gloucestershire, the South-west and nationally.
He is a board member of the School Food Trust and chairs the South West Transforming School Food Group and the South-west's delivery of the Year of Food and Farming. He is a trustee of the British Nutrition Foundation and a former board member of the Food Standards Agency.
As food ambassador for Gloucestershire Food Vision - an integrated food policy for the county, which is owned by Gloucestershire's Strategic Partnership - Rees also works closely with Food From Britain, VisitBritain, the South West Regional Development Agency and the Cotswold Destination Management Organisation, promoting the UK food, drink and tourism industry around the globe.
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