Japan is often referred to as a country that should serve as example for teaching healthy eating habits, especially to children. To attempt to understand the basic principles that have been guiding the Japanese nutritional philosophy, one has to be familiar with a key term – "Shokuiko". Literally translated as "Health Education", this term emphasizes the need to educate people to eat properly healthy food.
The concept of Shokuiko was coined in the early 20th century by Japanese doctor Sagen Ishizuka who stressed the need for a healthy balanced diet.
Japan had the means to implement policies of healthy eating education from an early stage, since school meals are a long-established practice, going back to the roots of the country's modern school system in the 19th century. At first, school meals were aimed at supplying food for children whose families did not have the means to prepare meals at home, but as early as the 1920s, a strong emphasis was given to school meals as a means of encouraging healthy life through healthy nutrition. This policy continued during and after World War II as means of fighting malnutrition among children.
From the 1950s, the practice of meals provided by schools started finding its way into state laws, and as the country began its slow movement from post-war poverty to economic prosperity, these laws again emphasized promoting healthy eating habits and letting the public understand the processes behind food production and consumption. Over the next few decades, local rice began supplementing bread, professional nutritionists began working in schools overseeing meals, and school children began being involved in the process of preparing and serving the food for their friends – giving an even greater weight to the social aspect of the practice, and to healthy eating as an individual responsibility.
Today, when Japan is among the world's richest countries, the school meal programs still have dominant presence in the life of children with over 10 million children participating in them. The economic prosperity and the busy daily life of both young and old people in the country has brought many changes to the national eating habits; a 2005 study has shown that 20% of the schoolchildren in the country tend to skip breakfast, and that many of them purchase dinner at convenience stores (participation in after-school activities does not leave time for a proper dinner). In view of these changes, schools stress even more the importance of school meals as an educational tool – not just for healthy life, but also for proper behavior.
In 2009, the Japanese School Lunch Law was updated and defined the following principles as the aim of school meals:
1) Sustaining and improving health through proper nutrition.
2) Fostering understanding, decision-making and eating habits for an appropriate diet.
3) Livening school life and encouraging an actively social and considerate spirit.
4) Furthering appreciation of the gifts of nature that support us, fostering respect of life and nature and encouraging a spirit of environmental conservation.
5) Acknowledging how the food industry is supported by the activities of many people and respecting their hard work.
6) Furthering understanding of the traditional cuisine of Japan and the local region.
7) Promoting a correct understanding of the mechanisms of food production, transportation and consumption.
The understanding of the importance of proper nutrition, not just for healthy growth but also for a healthy social function, has been the basic principle for Japanese child nutrition – and other countries would do well to follow Japan's footsteps.