“Sources cite the first ‘school provided meal’ [gakko kyūshoku] to have begun in Tsuruoka City, Yamagata Prefecture, in 1889. The notion of meals at school directly correlates with the cultural and political changes sweeping Japan at the end of the 19th century. The advent of school lunch in Tsuruoka relates directly to the propagation of fukoku kyōhei [‘Rich Country, Strong Army’] and the national effort to rear strong, healthy, and capable citizens.
“School lunch was usually comprised almost entirely of local flavors and traditional products. As no official government mandate was sanctioned until the 1930s, school lunch until then was largely an ad-hoc affair. Correspondingly, communities banded together to provide meals for the school children, offering what made the most sense. Although meal types and portions differed from prefecture to prefecture, the typical 1890s and 1900s menu usually included plain salted rice balls, pickles and a piece of fish.
“It seems no coincidence that the first school lunch was implemented in northeast Tōhoku – a region that had suffered a devastating crop failure the same year (1889). With many families impoverished and their livelihoods destroyed, obtaining enough food became problematic. In an effort to stave off starvation and general rioting, the government increased its imports of grains to offset the rice deficiency.
“Furthermore, many areas in the Northeast region were still recovering from the devastating 1886 Meiji-Sanriku earthquake and the tsunami which wiped out many coastal and agrarian industries. Due to the severity of natural disasters in Northeastern Japan, it is likely that the first kyūshoku arose not only for nationalistic purposes, but also as a reaction to the unreliable availability of food, a method to relieve parents and ensure stable food sources for their children when at school.”
– Flavoring the Nation: School Lunch in Japan, Alexis Agliano Sanborn, Harvard University, 2013