As Japan looks to make itself more child-rearing-friendly, private companies are also jumping on the bandwagon. However, an offer of free food by a well-known lunch company didn’t go over as well as the company had perhaps envisioned.
Making Japan more child-friendly (maybe?)
As Japan’s birth rate continues to plummet, politicians are grasping for strategies to reverse course. With rising prices on top of everyone’s minds, most strategies involve giving people cash for kids.
But parents and would-be parents note there are other issues with raising kids in Japan. For example, Japan has one of the worst housework imbalances among OECD nations, with women doing five times the housework and child-rearing that men do. For men who want to take paternity leave, some say they can’t because their companies actively discourage it. In a few cases, men say they’ve been forcibly transferred and separated from their families for daring to take time off.
Some parents also complain that day to day life doesn’t accommodate parents. It’s not uncommon to spot social media reports of harassment and discrimination towards parents who bring baby strollers on public transit, for example.
“Child-unfriendly Japan” was a hot topic in local news this past December, when Nagano moved to close a local park. It came out that an older resident – a retired professor – had lobbed complaints against the park for years because the kids who played there were “too noisy”. The issue became a flash point for people in Japan who say the country wants them to birth kids while society looks down on the people who raise them.
To its credit, the government of Prime Minister Kishida Fumio is trying to respond to at least some of these concerns. It’s launching various initiatives to encourage men to take paternity leave – and to cajole their employers into giving it to them. It’s also added free public school lunches for elementary and middle school students into its overall population decline strategy.
A free lunch (if you’re learning to eat)
Lunch chain Soup Stock Tokyo entered the parenting controversy this week with what it probably thought was a kind gesture to parents. Sadly, that gesture engendered a ton of online pushback.
Soup Stock Tokyo focuses on the freshness of its product, touting that all of its soups are made fresh without any additives or preservatives. Started in 1999 in Odaiba as a child venture of Mitsubishi Corporation, the chain has dozens of stores in the Kanto region, and a smattering in Kansai and other regions.
On April 18th, the company announced its latest offering: free baby food. In a press release, Soup Stock Tokyo said it would offer 100 gram servings of food to kids around nine to 11 months of age – i.e., the latter part of the phase where kids ween from breast milk and onto solid food.
The program is limited to certain stores. Additionally, baby food will only be available in store and not for delivery or takeout.
Not everyone wants kids over for lunch
In its announcement, Soup Stock said it wants to “help look after the growth of young children and create a space where they can enjoy a meal together with their dads and moms.”
But not everyone was happy about the new offering. One Twitter commenter complained, “I used to go here but never again. You shouldn’t try to attract customers with freebies. You’ll get a bunch of people looking for free food who won’t spend any money. You’ll lose your serious customers.”
Another user said that Soup Stock should consider the “impact” that attracting families will have on customers who are single. Still another, in a well-liked comment, said that they worried about the “neurosis” that might inflict store employees from dealing with crying kids and demanding parents.
That said, other Twitter users lauded the move. One user astounded by the negative pushback, lamented: “We were all kids – what an intolerant society, knocking a store just because kids come.”
Know your customer?
Is this solely a case of hating on parents, though? At least one expert, Meidai University professor Seki Osamu, argues this may be a case of stores not knowing their customers.
“Lots of companies don’t study the psychology of their heaviest users. If this had been a family restaurant or a food court, it probably wouldn’t have been criticized so heavily for offering free services for kids.”
Seki says that many companies are jumping on offering services for families or for the elderly as part of an overall effort to align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDG framework has gained popularity among Japanese businesses during the past half-decade. However, in making these moves, Seki argues, companies risk alienating their core customers.
Given the huge push at the national governmental level to make Japan a more child-friendly country, I guarantee we’ll see more promotions of this kind going forward. Time will tell if the pushback dies down – or only gets stronger.
What to read next
スープストックトーキョー. Wikipedia JP
2023年4月25日（火）より、Soup Stock Tokyo全店で離乳食およびキッズセットのご提供をはじめます。PR Times