Living In Japan: On Love and Miso Soup in a Japanese Elementary School
Japanese Elementary Schools: Love and Miso Soup 小学校
Joanne G. Yoshida
Love and how to make miso soup are two subjects you may not hear about in the curriculum of Japanese elementary schools.
But I found out the other morning at a PTA open school day, that they are included in the lessons.
Although I can't tell you whether or not they are on the national curriculum, I can share the happy surprise it was for me to know that my daughter is not only learning the basic subjects such as mathematics, language, science and kanji, but that she is also learning to think creatively and to treasure traditional values in nourishing life lessons.
For PTA, parents are invited to the school several times a year - a few times per term - to watch a lesson during school hours. My daughter never tells me in advance what the lesson will be on these PTA days so it's always a surprise.
This time, it was a "Do-toku" class (道徳), a subject my daughter later told me is where they learn "kokoro o sodateru" (心を育てる), which I would translate as "educating your heart", that makes me think of the expression 'food for the soul.'
I sat down to a discussion where the children in their individual 'han' (groups of three or four students) were discussing what rights they would choose if they had to for their basic survival.
Ten 'rights' included: Love, sufficient food and drink, and the right to clean air. The lesson was to encourage students to express what they think and why. I was struck by the freedom and lightness with which the eleven-year old students shared their opinions.
On the worksheet in front of each child there was a picture of an open air-balloon. They were asked to rank which values they would take with them in the balloon, and which would be the first to throw away.
When the teacher asked one student why he chose the right to love and be loved over the right to have sufficient food to eat and water to drink, he responded with "Because without love, you can't live."
Out of a list of ten values, the top four that the students voted for were:
1. To love and be loved by your family
2. Sufficient quantity of food and water
3. Clean air
4. To be ensured that you would not be bullied or controlled by others
The teacher wrote each reply on the board with the tallies as she asked the students to stand up and one by one give their top ranked value as well as the reasons. One child who suffered from asthma said the most important thing to her was the right to clean air.
The teacher was surprised that one of the boys ranked that same right as number ten on his list. She questioned him in a teasing manner about how he could live in a world without the right to clean air.
From what I understood, he teased back about how already the air is not clean, and so he figured he can do all right without it. In contast to what I've heard about how the schools do not encourage children to express themselves freely, this honest almost bantering between eleven year old and his teacher was very refreshing
My daughter said that for her the right to love in a family and to be loved by her family was the most important value. This made me look at what is important to me as well, something I don't always take the time to do. I reflected on my love for her and for the community that I live in and the larger community as something to treasure more deeply. This lesson made me see that being there to see what she was learning was in itself something to "taisetsu" (treasure).
The next lesson was equally nourishing. We watched a televised lesson from the past week were the students learned to make miso soup. It had been on the local news. Representatives of a well known miso-and-other-food-products company came to the school to teach not only how to make miso soup, but to remind students of how delicious and nutritious it is, in an effort to bring miso consumption back up in an age where households are losing the traditional values of cooking traditional foods.
According to the figures that were broadcast, the amount of miso consumed per family reduced by half from 1970 to now. I started to wonder if there is connection between the miso soup in this lesson and the love in the previous one.
When I make miso soup in the mornings for my daughter, I prepare the dashi soup stock the night before with dried shiitake mushrooms and konbu both grown locally. In the morning while she is just getting out of bed I slice daikon or renkon or nappa to put in and let them cook a few minutes while she brushes her teeth.
There is something reflective in the act of adding the miso and seeing the golden color spread into the soup. When she is ready at the table I spoon it into a wood bowl into which I add kurome, a variety of seaweed grown on the island where my husband's family is from - they send it a few times a year, and it's one of my daughters favorites, I believe she tastes their love in each sip.
Watching the TV screen in the classroom, I feel sadness and almost urgency in this statistic about the decline of miso consumption. What is being consumed instead, I wonder? And why? Is it that miso soup takes too long to make? Is it that the children are growing up preferring the tastes of something canned or processed? Where does the cycle start? From the schools, from the parents, the children?
In elementary school the children learn to plant and harvest rice, grow morning glories, okura, green peppers and goya. They learn about responsibility by having to clean the floors of the classroom. They learn how to recognize medaka eggs, and go on a field trip to a fish farm. My daughter had a whole unit in fourth grade about recycling.
I don't know what awaits her in Junior High. I imagine it will be tough, but at the same time I am pretty sure that like in elementary school, there will be many other lessons that she will learn about friendship, community, camaraderie, and hopefully even love that we don't always read about in the reports and statistics about education in Japanese schools.
In the meantime, I have a new textbook to study. It's the book on "Miso Soup 365 Days a year" which the students were given by the miso company who visited the school. Today is December 8. I flip through the pages and find today's miso soup is mochi, tofu and konnyaku. My lesson for today will be to prepare it with Love.
Joanne G. Yoshida