LB Travels: Japan | Public policy meets law

7 mins

This week, we travel to Japan—the land of the rising sun. It’s a place where people revere the old traditions, alongside the new. We’ll delve into the Japanese school lunch, a public policy initiative translated into law.

Japan is an intriguing country with everything worth experiencing in life—history, food, nature, architecture, art, kawaii (cuteness 可愛い), onsen (hot springs 温泉), bathrooms (not kidding, they are the best), shinkansen (high-speed trains 新幹線) and a real perfectionist streak. Most places are so clean that you can eat off the floor.

Strolling the streets of Kyoto.

An oft-used phrase is “gambatte kudasai” (頑張ってください) or “please do your best”—but used as an encouragement to work (really, really) hard. It is one of the few places, if not only, that has family-owned businesses run over an absurd number of generations enough to make your eyes pop—like the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan hotel, run by the same family for 1,300 years.

As one friend said, Japan is “secretly a post-apocalyptic society”—and one must agree.

Post-apocalyptic cat in Tsutaya Bookshop.

Living standards in Japan are relatively high by global standards. This is despite its decade-long recession in the 1990s following record-low interest rates that fueled stock market and real estate speculation in the 1980s.

Travelling on the shinkansen (operational since 1964) from Tokyo to Kyoto is a jaw-dropping experience. But that’s old news. Japan is building a Maglev (magnetic levitation) train line that will operate between Tokyo and Nagoya in 2027. A Maglev train broke the world record by travelling at 603 km/h in a 2015 test run.

The bustling Osaka, packed with street food. As the Japanese saying goes, “Kyoto is the town that loves to dress up, Osaka is the town that loves to eat.”
Biggest gyoza in town.

A walk through history…

All of this seems phenomenal given the past few hundred years of history. The earliest laws in Japan revolved around centralised, hierarchical power.

“During the third and fourth centuries, social life and hierarchy were under a strong religious (Shinto) influence. Confucianism was added to this Shinto religious tradition in the fifth century and provided a strict hierarchical social order serving political purposes. Buddhism arrived in the sixth century and its doctrines also served existing political purposes. Law could not be distinguished from social rules and there was no foreign influence. Power was concentrated in the government of the emperor and powerful clans.”

– Percy Luney, Jr., “Traditions and Foreign Influences: Systems of Law in China and Japan”, p 145

Samurai Museum, Tokyo.

In 1635, the Sakoku Edict (amongst a series of other edicts) closed Japan off to the outside world for over 200 years. The intention was to limit foreign influence following “attempts by Europeans [including Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch] to convert the Japanese to Catholicism and their tendency to engage in unfair trading practices”.

On 8 July 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry entered Tokyo Bay with four ships and an offer to trade, and an implicit threat to use firepower. The Japanese, which had no navy at the time, begrudgingly signed the Treaty of Kanagawa with the Americans the following year on 31 March 1854. Japan reopened to Western trade and signed trade treaties with other European powers.

“As a result of the lack of knowledge about Western law by Tokugawa officials, the treaties which Japan signed with Western nations were extremely prejudicial to Japan’s national interests. In order to protect its independence, Japan sought to establish a system of government strong enough to discourage Western imperialism. To the Japanese, this meant rapid Westernization of Japan’s legal and political systems on the model of European nations and subsequent revision of these disadvantageous treaties.”

– Percy Luney, Jr., “Traditions and Foreign Influences: Systems of Law in China and Japan”, p 146

At the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo arena in Tokyo.
And a close-up…

Unlike in China, Japan quickly implemented Western-style legal codes and institutions in the late 1880s and 1890s to stave off the Western powers (ironically). It was the European civil law that the Japanese looked to modernise its legal system. The common law, in comparison, was too difficult to implement in a practical way—given its reliance on evolving case law. In these early days, civil codes were borrowed in a wholesale manner. There was little consideration of government policy or the need for uniformity across the legal system.

“What finally emerged in 1898 was a civil code modeled on European code systems including French, German, Swiss, Austrian, and Dutch legal codes. In form and substance, the Japanese were most influenced by French and German law; and, indeed, the Japanese Civil Code has been described as a selective combination of French and German legal principles. However, German laws were firmly establishing themselves as the dominant source of influence on Japanese legal thinking. A year later, the Japanese legislature adopted a German-style commercial code.”

– Percy Luney, Jr., “Traditions and Foreign Influences: Systems of Law in China and Japan”, p 148

Nothing but the best

Like this exquisite bonsai – Tsutaya Bookshop in Ginza, Tokyo.

A reflection of high standards in Japan, the pass rate for entering the legal profession is dire—even if you attend the best law school. Before 2006, the pass rate for the Japanese bar exam was 2–3% per year. In 2006, a reformulated bar exam imposed a “three tries and you’re out” rule. This saw the pass rate rising to around the 25% mark, hardly a piece of cake.

By comparison, entry into the legal profession in Australia is virtually guaranteed as long as you have a law degree and—or your employer is—willing to cough up a hearty AUD$9,000 – $16,000 depending on whether you’re a domestic or international student.

I recall meeting a Japanese lawyer on secondment who was incredibly nice and modest, given what he had achieved. A partner at his law firm suggested that he sit the New York Bar—while still working at his law firm—because it would “be good for his CV”.

Me: So did you pass?
Japanese lawyer: Yes, I did.
Me: First time round?
Japanese lawyer: Yes, it was OK.

(My eyes nearly roll out of my head. Just a casual pass.)

School lunch, anyone?

Just as you thought standards couldn’t get any higher…

Japanese schoolchildren are provided with nutritious school lunches known as gakkō kyūshoku (学校給食) since Japan enacted the School Lunch Act (学校給食法) in 1954. At least 94% of “elementary schools, junior high schools, special needs schools, and evening high schools in Japan” participate in this program. The school lunch goes back to 1889 when Yamagata prefecture monks gave lunches to schoolchildren from poor families.

In 2005, Japan enacted the Basic Law on Shokuiku (food education) (食育基本法) in 2005. The concept of “shokuiku” relates to “the acquisition of knowledge about food as well as the ability to make appropriate food choices.” With the rising concern about poor food choices and obesity rates, the School Lunch Act was revised in 2008 with the aim of “promoting shokuiku”.

The Japanese school lunch is a case of “policy meets law”. In practice, school lunches are cooked at the school from scratch. Ingredients can come from the school’s vegetable garden. Children learn about balanced eating from the school’s nutritionists, who plan meals over the course of the year. During lunch, the children get involved in the lunch service by dishing out meals and then cleaning up after.

The school lunch teaches important life lessons, including:

  • Healthy eating habits and proper nutrition
  • Understanding what ingredients are in season during the year
  • Service to others
  • Mealtime manners
  • Doing the dishes!

The fee for school lunches per student is said to be around 4,000 yen (around AUD$55) per month. Under the Act, “municipalities bear the costs of facilities and manpower (e.g. cooks), whereas parents cover the cost of ingredients.”

In contrast, recent scandals in Australia around low or non-existent food standards in our institutions—particularly aged care facilities—mean that we can learn from the Japanese experience. If you have a spare 20 minutes, check out this video:

Tokyo tips

There are plenty of travel tips on the web, but here are some favourites:

  • Harajuku – shopping, food, people watching
  • Kamakura – a seaside Japanese city south of Tokyo (1 hour by train)


  • And too many more to name…

Further reading:

Special thanks to…

Anna, for booking tickets to the sumo 🙂
Daniel and Hiroko for translating tricky texts.
Mehmet, for being a super Japan guide!