Seasons have been celebrated in Japanese society for centuries through poetry and prose. During the Edo-period (1603-1868) this appreciation of nature codified in the creation of the saijiki, or, poetic seasonal almanacs. These almanacs, notes Columbia University Professor Haruno Shirane, “systematically categorize almost all aspects of nature and much of human activity by the cycle of the four seasons.” Without a doubt, food and food production are important seasonal markers.
In the modern era this appreciation of seasonality continues in new forms. Food knowledge has come to be combined with lessons of hygiene, food safety, food production, cultivation of healthy diets, and other teachings through food education, or shokuiku. Food education became law in 2005 which outlined the goals and provisions for local and national support of activities to foster an understanding of a healthy diet and appreciation of food and food production.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of food education are children, who learn about food and diet through classes and hands-on experiences in and out of school. One of the primary ways they learn about food is through their daily school lunch. School lunches use local and seasonal ingredients and serve as a way for children to taste and understand where food comes from, how it is produced, and how the food and themselves are connected to the environment.
Food education as taught in schools almost serves as a de facto culinary saijiki. Children come to remember the seasonal or even monthly association to a certain food. The loquats of early to mid-summer will give way to the eggplants and figs of late summer. The month of March almost always include the na-no-hana, the edible rape blossom with a mustard-like taste that is often cooked into rice as part of the daily meal. The month of October is characterized by chestnuts, sweet potato harvests and wild boar. Eating according to the season – shun – has a long history in Japan, but one that is in danger of being lost as diets change and evolve in a globalized world. Even if cantaloupes may now be available in the grocery store year round, children in school experience teachings rooted in the cycle of the seasons.
Just as strict adherence to the saijiki in haiku composition does not offer much room for deviation, so too does the seasonal culinary calendar tend to keep ingredients in their time and place. Nevertheless, there seems a certain innate joy and comfort to see the return of specific ingredients again and again at a prescribed time every year.
While food education is itself a complex and nuanced topic, the cherishing of seasons and nature as viewed through food is an undeniable hallmark and one that helps to re-forge connections to nature and the world around us.
If you would like to learn more about food education and school lunch in Japan, visit Alexis’ web page to learn more about her documentary film Nourishing Japan.
Shirane, Haruo, Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons (New York: Columbia University, 2013), xii.