Undercooked: The Problem of Baking at Japanese Schools

By Josiah Ng

Japan’s ministry of education announced earlier this week that it would again increase funding for its bread baking programs run out of the department of home economics, making it the most well-funded school culinary program in Japan and more funded than any baking program run by its neighbors to the west, China and South Korea. The funding comes on the heels of a recent third-party review of Japan’s baking education which concluded that the Japanese student graduating from high school are less competent at baking than other students in east Asia and thus unable to compete in the growing demand for baking internationally. Now, instead of baking education beginning upon entrance into middle school, this decision starts baking classes two years earlier, or fifth grade in elementary. Eventually it seeks to by 2020 have children as young as third grade measuring flour and singing “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”

The ministry has made contracts with private publishers to produce elementary-friendly cookbooks which mainly cover topics like basic ingredients and tasting, (for it is commonly thought that students at this age lack the necessary faculties to bake bread themselves, and decision-makers at local boards of culinary arts would prefer students focus on memorizing the core ingredients salt, water, and flour early, so that by the time they enter junior high school they can transcribe recipes from cookbooks without difficulty). The bread ingredients used in these tasting activities fall mainly within the most commercially common grains – ones with the greatest trade value in international markets – and after each tasting, students are asked to do one of two things: either match the bread they tasted to a corresponding one in the cookbook, or recite the ingredients they tasted to homeroom teachers and the school-appointed baker. This is similar, if not identical, to the style of tasting tests students will do later on in junior high and high school. Depending on the school, elementary tots may be permitted in the form of a final project to do some real baking, at most a Pillsbury crescent roll from the can.

Bread baking as part of the home economics curriculum is still under heavy debate ever since
bread was first introduced by the Portuguese in the 1600s. Although it has a long history in
Japanese culture and now lies as a staple throughout much of its cuisine, some Japanese think it unnecessary, seeing as how rice dominates the national diet and leads many to identify Japan as a purely rice nation. When asked why bread baking is failing, one high school teacher says, “I guess it’s difficult for students to get interested in baking since most homes in Japan just don’t have ovens. When students go home, maybe they want to bake, but they can’t. There’s nothing to bake with.” He continues, “Heck, I even studied baking in college, became a certified baking teacher for the public school system. But to be honest, most days, in class and at home, I don’t bake at all. It’s very unnecessary since I mostly eat rice.”

Another teacher says, “It’s just too much. We can’t expect students to become proficient in baking when they’ve grown up eating and cooking rice, and bread baking just happens to be the
complete opposite. We first cook rice and then shape it into its final form, maybe into sushi or
onigiri. But with baking, all the shaping takes place before the bread is cooked, and after it’s
cooked, there’s not much more to do. The two are totally different, and bread baking is just
incomprehensible to most of my students.”

Additionally, the new funds coincide with this year’s 20% increase in attendance at shokus around the country, essentially after-school private baking programs meant to prepare students for high school entrance cookoffs, programs for which their extremely repetitive techniques make them better known as “kneading schools” or “kneaders” for short. Parents with students at shokus say they make up for the shortcomings of the home economics curriculum, while others criticize them for exasperating health issues among young people since their emphasis on bread consumption alone boosts gluten intake past the daily recommended level.

The ministry is also allocating more money to bring in bakers from other countries and install them at public schools as regular staff. The idea is that, by exposure, people from cultures more familiar to bread baking can diversify students’ culinary knowledge and help them overcome the stark differences between rice cooking and bread baking. However, this specific money comes under heavy criticism from the more progressive channels of food society, particularly from baking leagues like the Early Risers and the Black Pan-thers who cite longstanding inefficiency when it comes to utilizing these bakers at school. With so much resistance to bread baking already embedded in the culture, many of these short-term hired bakers find themselves pushed out of baking classes and picking up scrap work from other home economics studies, like harvesting potatoes and washing cabbage. The leagues also point to the privileging of some baking traditions over others, like the cookbook’s heavy emphasis on Western style baking and total erasure of cuisines like Indian and Ethiopian flatbreads.

Claire Wheats, one of these foreign bakers who serves at a junior high school in southern Japan, takes a broader view: “We can debate all day about what’s in the cookbook and what’s not and about who’s standing at the front of the kitchen. But none of those discussions get to the fact that Japanese students aren’t baking. In school, their doing everything on the periphery of actual baking: they’re tasting, reading recipes, setting up ingredients on their workbenches, cleaning their aprons, sanitizing mixers and other equipment. But they’re not baking, and they’re not asked to, and that’s the problem.”

Japan hopes that its soon to graduate high school baking students will surpass expectations and wow other countries at the international baking summit of master bakers set to take place in Tokyo next summer. However, with most of today’s graduates unable to bake much more than a frozen pizza roll, many are skeptical.

Josiah is a first year JET living and working in Matsuyama. In college he studied English literature and second-language writing pedagogy. Outside of school, he spends his time cooking and either running or biking all around town. 

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