On Eating School Lunch in Japan, Part 2


Yesterday, we looked at the history of middle-school lunches in Japan. For some reason, we’re doing it again today; only this time with a focus on what lunch is like in the modern day.

The Ministry of Education states the goal of school lunch explicitly:

1. To foster proper understanding of food and desirable eating habits.
2. To foster pleasant social habits and contribute to the enjoyment of school life.
3. To improve physical health and nutrition.
4. To foster and guide a correct knowledge of production, consumption and distribution of food.

This is from a set of guidelines that runs several pages. The modern lunch period is designed to mold children’s attitudes toward food consumption, preparation, culture and socializing. Highlights of the program goals include, “to learn the correct way to hold, align (or lay out) dining ware; to follow the proper posture (sitting and eating) and master basic manners when eating,” and “To deepen human relations while dining.” It notes that “students should not have any picky habits and also understand the importance of chewing one’s food properly.”

The government also mandates that students develop the skills to “cheerfully and peacefully” promote conversation during mealtime.

As such, kids are given a first-hand role in the serving of food from elementary school to the end of middle school. Meal prep, dining and cleanup is introduced in bits and pieces to students, essentially transforming the lunch time into Introduction to Eating. This is an opportunity for the school to teach collaborative team building, but also how to socialize over food.

No Hot Dog Wars
The school cafeteria in US schools is full of untrained performances – a lunch room is where kids express their individuality, unconstrained by authority. But US kids are left to define that performance without any guidance, often in clumsy ways that may or may not end with wielding a hot dog as a weapon.

The Japanese government – which, for one, does not value American individualism – steps in here, encouraging students to thoughtfully reflect on their social behavior. To paraphrase a Japanese Education Minister, lunch is a part of education, not a break from it. The lessons teach students how to engage in proper lunchtime rituals, including socializing. While some may see this as Orwellian conditioning, others might see it merely as training on social manners and etiquette.

This regimented social training has its ups and downs. For one, relying on social protocols over social Darwinism teaches the kids how to perform at lunch – to eat food they don’t like, make conversation with people they don’t like, and express gratitude (and platitudes) whether they like it or not. How do you foster individual expression in a regimented way, when clumsily learning individual expression is precisely what makes American teenagers such assholes?

The answer is deeply cultural – and may explain, a bit, why Japanese students end up so poor at expressing their opinions or ideas in isolation later on in their education, when guidance isn’t available:

“It may seem paradoxical to a Westerner, who assumes that Japanese children are not encouraged to develop independent thought, speak their own minds, and project a strongly individualistic image to the world. Yet they are in fact, much more than our children, explicitly trained in public performance. This perhaps can be explained by separating performance as a skill, which anyone can learn, from responsibility for the content of one’s own pronouncements. Once the distinction is made, the child is free to perform confidently since he is not usually displaying material of his own creation. So he isn’t as vulnerable as a child who is asked to “state his mind.” The quality of a Japanese child’s performance is usually high but somewhat ritualized and predictable, thus perhaps minimizing the risk on his ego. Later, of course, that same child does recite his own work, but by then he may well have justified confidence in his skill to perform.” (Merry White, White, Merry. The Japanese Educational Challenge: A Commitment to Children. New York: The Free Press, Macmillan Publishers, 1987. Pg 47. )

In other words, Japanese kids are trained to be socially lovely, but at the expense of connecting the content of their words to authentic feeling in public (private, intimate conversation with friends is, of course, a completely different ball game – let’s not universalize this outside of an educational context). So if Japanese kids are tempted to parrot words they don’t understand during English class, school lunch may be partially to blame.

American kids, on the other hand, navigate a vicious circle of unassisted self-definition and vulnerability that leaves them socially unmoored, with only their own cruelty and meanness providing a disciplined framework. As a result, middle school in America is a trial by fire where all the worst aspects of American society is forged. Is Japanese school lunch the solution for American kids? I don’t know; Japanese kids are still bullied and suicidal, the only difference is that it doesn’t happen at lunch.

Everything I Learned about Life I Learned from Kyuushoku
Every day 5 to 7 kids are designated as “lunch leaders.” These kids are rotated around willy-nilly, without preference to ability or skill, so everyone does every task a few times. Small weak kids will be asked to lift heavy objects, less clever children may be asked to do more demanding arrangements (remember these kids start at about 5 or 6 years old).

While the lunch leaders are loading trays onto carts and whatnot, the remaining kids are rearranging the desks and cleaning them, preparing for meals. Kids eat in the same room they learn in.

The two teams work together to make sure they are both prepared for the other. If the kids moving lunch to the classroom drop all the food, that’s a holdup for the class. If the kids in the classroom haven’t cleaned up in time, the kids holding the trays have to wait. You can see how this fosters a sense of dependency around a meal. Each meal is a celebration of a collective effort – a small-scale version of the kind of awareness the Ministry of Education is hoping to teach.

This understanding of the food network stretches out from the classroom into the kitchen, then to field trips to farms where the food is grown (by law, 30% of lunches must contain ingredients from local farms) and lessons on agriculture.

Lunch leaders serve the meal in the classroom, using proper tools and eyeballing amounts so each student gets an identical portion, a skill that teachers help the student refine. Today, all Japanese are expert pourers of beer and soup ladles (That’s not a joke).

Lunch leaders make sure each student is silent and ready to eat. Once the kids are ready, the leaders say “itadakimasu” (“I humbly partake”) and start the meal. Itadakimasu is a big deal in Japan – connected to the idea of humble gratitude to the food itself, and to the farmers and the people who prepare it. It’s the Japanese “grace,” and it is said at every meal. The school lunch program actively reinforces the idea behind itadakimasu.

Younger students can’t talk. Instead, they focus on the speed of their chewing and regulate it to finish the meal on time – a stated goal of the program. By the fourth grade, kids can talk while eating, in keeping with the promotion of meals as a harmonious social experience. Students rotate assigned seats to chat with new people, and by middle school the students are often allowed to form their own groups within their homerooms.

Sometimes there are presentations about the food. Meals use local ingredients, and incorporate “internationalization” efforts to teach about foreign and exotic cultures. Dishes might focus on specialties from other prefectures. The teacher or students will talk about what’s eaten in Hokkaido, for example, so that students grow up knowing “Hokkaido has delicious crab.” Any Japanese person can usually tell you what’s grown or eaten wherever you are going.

With foreign foods, the kids are taught how to eat it. Hands? Chopsticks? Spoons or Forks? A poster or an announcement will cover what to do.

After lunch, the kids clean up and go to recess, including brushing their teeth to the tooth-brushing song. Trays are put back and desks cleaned. This encourages a gratitude toward the food, since the students have an active role in its presentation and cleanup. I would argue it spawns less entitlement in general.

Clean Your Plate
Forcing students to eat is actually forbidden by the Ministry of Education (MEXT), but this is taken about as seriously as English classes conducted entirely in English: Some schools abide, others don’t. That said, the pressure to eat the entire meal is reinforced through social expectations rather than dictated (much like smoking behavior). The dilemma, however, causes a lot of hand wringing for teachers:

“I am a third grade teacher. In my class there are some very picky eaters—hardly touching vegetables or fish. The teacher of the class next door says, “The reason they are picky is because they are selfish,” and says I should train them to leave no food behind. Now, I remember disliking a lot of food when I was a kid, and I was forced to eat it anyways. I certainly don’t want to force my students, but even when I tell them they can leave some food behind as long as they try a little, they resist anyways!”

It seems odd to me, as an American, but the consensus to finish a meal is usually so strong that kids, even in their first year of school, can have an emotional battle with their food and the pressure to eat foods they don’t like. Some older students report memories of crying in their elementary school lunch room because they just couldn’t eat a meal that all of their friends were eating, because they felt left out and ashamed.

It’s less about wasting food and more about being abandoned in a task everyone around you is sharing and enjoying. This sharing-of-food is a national default in adults, who often share large dishes of food rather than individual orders at restaurants. It’s such the norm that some waiters will be confused by two people ordering two dishes and not sharing them.

But students may be subject to less positive-oriented teachers (especially older teachers who may remember the mandate of milk drinking, as we discussed in part one). Students report being forced to sit and stare at their food until everything is eaten, missing recess. The process is part of the broader character education of encouraging perseverance and striving to meet demands perfectly; gaman, the same “lesson” that motivates high schools to send kids on epic mountain hikes in cold rain or to leave the windows open in classrooms in winter. (This overvaluation of gaman and “building character through discipline” is an attribute of each truly terrible teacher I’ve stumbled upon here, who often indulge me in gloriously pompous long-winded speeches about the benefits of their strictness).

Picky eaters may become so flustered that they try to play sick. Forcing kids to eat is actually against MEXT’s recommendations; in December 2012 a fifth-grader with a milk allergy actually died as a result of eating her school lunch under pressure.

Most kids, however, love their school lunches. Much is made in the foreign press about school cafeterias who open up to the public for dinner, or sell their recipes. In fact, the idea of serving home-cooked foods rather than restaurant or fast-food style meals is deliberate, as part of an aim to make school lunch educational: Ideally, kids will grow up able to make these recipes at home.

I’ve even eaten at a middle-school themed restaurant. The private booths resemble a sixth-grade homeroom with chalkboards on the wall and desks placed together for tables. The staff, dressed as “lunch leaders,” serve standard school lunch fare with some cheeky replacements, such as beer in a brass tea pot. Tests were given halfway through the meal.

You don’t have to go here to see the effect of 3 decades of modernized school lunch, though. The appreciation of food here is as stunning as the actual food, and a lot of what was once an elite food culture is now universal. If there is such a thing as food-literacy, Japan would top the rankings, with the typical person-on-the-street probably capable of telling you where certain ingredients come from, when they are in season, and ways that you can prepare them.

The meal is the number one topic of conversation during every meal I have. After experiencing and reading about Japan’s middle-school lunch socialization program, I understand why.

Much of the research for this article came from Alexis Sanborn’s thesis paper, “Flavoring the Nation: School Lunch in Japan,” which can be downloaded in its entirety here

You can follow This Japanese Life on Facebook, just like you did in middle school. 

This entry was posted in Food, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to On Eating School Lunch in Japan, Part 2

  1. Locohama says:

    NIce Job again!! becoming one of my favorite blogs (-;

  2. Pingback: On Eating School Lunch in Japan, Part 1 | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  3. Eric says:

    While I enjoy your articles — this miniseries being no exception, it’s very interesting! — the inconsistency here is distracting.

    Regarding Japanese behavior: “…let’s not universalize this outside of an educational context…”

    Followed by immediately, in regard to American middle school: “…a trial by fire where all the worst aspects of American society is forged.”

    From this it seems like you probably had about as horrendous an experience in middle school as I did; there’s not much other reason for this bit of hyperbole. Normally I’d just smile at the overstatement and push down some nasty memories, but in this case it comes hot on the heels of an (admirable and appropriate) attempt at keeping the commentary in perspective.

    Aside from being inaccurate*, it’s an unbalanced and unnecessary dig that doesn’t really help frame the information you’re presenting.

    All that said, thanks for presenting this, particularly regarding the Ministry of Education’s positions and the conundrums faced by both students and teachers. It seems like an interesting approach with (like anything else) mixed results, and it gels very well with what little Japanese culture I’ve actually been exposed to.

    * All the worst aspects of American society are actually floating around in the interpersonal ether until the major political election conventions come up every four years, during which the forging and re-forging truly takes place.

    • owwls says:

      Eh, I can’t win. I’m either a racist “orientalist” or a self-hating American, haha.

      I get what you’re saying, and kudos for keeping me on my toes about generalizations. But my statement about American middle schools being the “trial by fire where all the worst aspects of American society is forged” relates to my statement in part one: American Middle Schools are an unguided melee of children given far too much free time and not enough gentle supervision. The result is that a bunch of kids, just as they are constructing their own identities, are constantly being torn down by others, and learn that the way to build yourself up is to deflect from yourself (or tear others down). This fosters a terrible sense of insecurity that manifests itself in my least favorite adult behaviors; so often I see some grown man acting like he’s in middle school.

      This is not to say I disagree with you; the political conventions are, in my opinion, no different than the bullies fighting the nerds (you can assign the role to whichever parties you like). It all goes up to getting wedgies in middle school, man. I promise!

  4. wombatarama says:

    I have nothing intelligent to add, I just wanted to say that this was fascinating (and thank you for slogging through that thesis to write it, maybe it’s been a long day but I gave up after two pages). And in contrast with the last commenter, I think it’s just as insightful about American schooling as about Japanese.

  5. Gary says:

    As an educator for sixteen years in the U.S.who has been blessed with opportunities both to observe and to teach a few lessons in Japanese junior and senior high schools, I really appreciate your insights. Yes, I can see that the contrasts in philosophies of education result in two different sets of values and abilities. At the same time, I don’t think I was premature in jumping to the conclusion that kids on either side of the Pacific bring the same sets of basic human personality characteristics to the table. It’s fascinating, if not somewhat sobering, to see how much the educational system can shape raw human personality types into people who exhibit markedly different behavior. Thanks for your thesis. It’s very thought provoking!


Leave a Reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s