Japan's government responding to country's changing eating habits

Published on
July 2, 2018

A food education white paper submitted by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, and approved by the Cabinet of Japan in May, says that more of the country’s citizens are eating alone, leading to poor nutrition. 

The report detailed a survey on dietary education which showed that 15.3 percent of the 1,786 survey respondents eat meals on their own more than half of the week, up five percent from 2011, when the government added the question to the survey. This reflects a rise in single-person households due to a falling birthrate, an aging society, and changes in household composition. 

The number of widows not living with family members, and of unmarried people is increasing, the study found. In addition, the paper found an increase in elderly people aged 65 years and over living alone. In 2015, such elderly men accounted for 13.3 percent of the population, while such elderly women made up 21.1 percent. In 2040, these numbers are expected to increase to 20.8 and 24.5 percent, respectively. 

The report promotes communal eating as a foundation for food education, and tries to address the limitations that people’s diverse lifestyles place on enjoying family meals. Studies have found that when people eat together, they tend to cook a greater variety of dishes and consume more fruits and vegetables, resulting in a better nutritional balance. They also tend to cook more and depend less on packaged or fast foods. 

In response to the report, the government has called for community dining events to be held in local neighborhoods with a high percentage of socially isolated elderly people. The government has also increased its target for the number of times its citizens eat with their families from the current average of 10.5 to 11 by the year 2020. Among couples, overtime work for men often prevents eating together, and the government noted that adjustments to working hours can make a difference in work-life balance and improve family time by allowing workers to share meals with their families.

Some Japanese companies are already taking steps in this direction. Many have instituted a no-overtime Wednesday policy. Takahiro Momoeda, a salesman for medical diagnostic machines in Osaka, told SeafoodSource that while his company does not have such a policy, he is not expected to work overtime much because his wife has a new baby, and while many of the single workers in his company do work late, they do not usually eat alone, but instead eat out with colleagues or customers several times a week. He eats a Japanese breakfast of fish, rice, vegetables, and miso soup with his family most mornings. On the other hand, many engineers at an Osaka area car manufacturing company said that they only eat a rice ball on their way to work, to save time in the morning. Due to overtime work, they usually eat at home after their families have finished their meals. Their company does have a cafeteria with reasonably priced, well-balanced lunches, they said.

Other parts of the report detail food education efforts at various levels: The home, school, and at the regional level. In the home, the government is now promoting cooking education classes for adults, as the report found there are many young women in Japan who do not know how to cook. The classes teach participants how to handle a knife well, and how to make traditional sauces and soup stocks (dashi) that form an important part of Japanese cuisine. 

This is perhaps swimming against the current, as the current trend in Japan is toward “nakashoku” – literally, a middle course between cooking and eating out. This means more Japanese are buying take-out foods or dishes prepared at a supermarket or convenience store and eating them at home. Even when Japanese women cook, they often add some store-bought prepared dishes as sides, the report found. As it relates to seafood, these products are often already portioned, deboned, and flavored with sauce. Some come ready to heat in a retort pouch, or already cooked and ready to eat. 

Japanese elementary school children eat their meals together in the classroom, with the children taking turns picking up foods from the school kitchen and serving them. School lunches are considered to be methods for imparting lessons in proper nutrition. Children at all levels of school also learn cooking in schools, similar to what U.S. students experience in home economics. A recent study in Japan found that school students who eat breakfast every morning do better on tests than those who skip breakfast. As a result, the Japanese government has been promoting a well-rounded breakfast for its youth, as well as encouraging going to bed an hour earlier, and then waking early and eating a family breakfast.

To promote food education at the regional level, the government focuses on passing on regional specialties and using locally produced foodstuffs through cooking lessons and events.

Also as part of its new nutritional program, the government is encouraging more personal exchanges between producers and consumers. As an example, students of an agricultural high school would give tours of a vegetable farm to local children and their parents, with children having an opportunity to learn about how vegetables are grown and what is produced locally. In addition to promoting healthy eating, the government believes these farm tours and other similar endeavors could revitalize agriculture and fisheries in harmony with the environment.

Of importance to the fishing industry is an increased stress on recommending so-called “washoku” dishes, in line with the designation of washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine, by as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. The government believes this is a good way for its citizens to incorporate more local and seasonal foods into their diets. Prior to the Japanese government’s 2016 revision of its dietary guidelines, the recommendation was “Take advantage of your dietary culture and local food products, while incorporating new and different dishes.” Now it reads, “Take advantage of Japanese dietary culture and local food products. Preserve local dishes.”

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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