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Teaching in Japan: An Ode to School Lunch

Many ALTs in elementary and junior high school will get to experience eating school lunch with their students. So what's it like?

By 5 min read

When the bell rings after 4th period, it’s time for lunch.

I need to bring my brimming tray from the staffroom to the class I’m eating with today. A whirlwind of activity threatens my careful ascent up the stairs: kids chase each other to the sinks to wash their hands, while others wheel carts laden with food to their classrooms. They’ve listened obediently to their teachers all morning, but lunchtime is their domain. The soup splashes precariously in its bowl as I maneuver around them all.

When I reach the classroom, it has the atmosphere of a busy kitchen. Everyone’s rushing to push their desks into the lunch groups and grab chopsticks and place mats from their cubbies, but they see that I’ve walked in and hasten to play janken—the Japanese name for “rock, paper, scissors”—to choose who I’ll sit with. A victor emerges and pushes a spare desk over to his group for me. He runs to rejoin the line, where the servers are ladling out portions of food. They look ready to perform cartoon surgery in their colorful aprons, handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads, and reusable cloth masks on their faces.

Everyone’s been served and seated, and a duo hovers by the lunch calendar, waiting to announce today’s menu. “Quiet, please,” the boy says meekly. They gaze imploringly at the Sensei, who shakes his head. He won’t help. I look out the window. It hasn’t stopped snowing since this morning, or the morning before that, or some morning weeks earlier. The classroom is well-lit and cheery.

The girl finally finds her voice. “Be QUIET please!” she shouts. The chatter fades away and they finally get to read the menu. Today’s lunch is: gohan, white rice, the essential staple only noticed when it’s absent; grilled saba, or mackerel, the silvery charred skin gleaming; a vegetable medley of bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, and spinach; and a bowl of nourishing miso soup, with tofu and seaweed and soft potato mochi.

The pair claps their hands together, and everyone follows suit. “Itadakimasu,” they say in unison, awkwardly trying to match their timing. “Itadakimasu!” the rest of us chorus in reply. This is an expression of gratitude for the food we are about to eat, and the world for providing it. It has the same kind of cozy and comforting feeling as a hug.

My group tucks into the meal with loud gusto. I ask them what they learned this morning. They’re researching how to grow rice; they’ll plant the seeds in old milk boxes first, and then transfer them to the garden plot outside when spring arrives. We’re interrupted by the lunch hour radio broadcast. Today’s announcers read some school updates and play the latest J-pop hit. I learn that the boy across from me has a new crush. We all try to guess who it is. His friend knows, but loyally refuses to spill the beans, or else is just covering up the fact that he already forgot. One of the kids has a Pokémon place mat. I ask everyone their favourite Pokémon, but don’t recognize all of the Japanese names.

What will they all be doing 15 years from now, when they’re my age? It’s impossible to imagine. I can only see them as they are at this moment, raising bowls to their small faces to drink miso soup.

At the end we clap our hands together again, and this time we repeat: “gochisosama deshita.” Another expression of appreciation, this time for the people who cooked the meal. The food is made in school lunch distribution centres and none of those people are here, so I imagine the students are also thanking each other for getting lunch to all our desks today.

Sensei utters the phrase a second later, which signals souji, or cleanup time. Everything is done with incredible speed. Students clear their trays, and bowls and dishes are reloaded onto carts with the large serving containers. I’m glad that I drink tea instead of milk, because the process of unfolding milk boxes is one I can never get right—like backwards origami, the boxes are unraveled so that the extra flap hangs down in the same place on all of them.

I’m put in charge of sweeping the hallway today. I dodge the carts rattling back to the pickup station, and the kids racing each other as they push rags across the floor. Everyone has a part to play in cleaning and once all the groups are finished, they reconvene in the classroom for a cleanup meeting to judge how well they performed their duties today. Only then are they finally dismissed for lunch break. From start to end, it’s easy to see why school lunch here is often referred to as a perfect microcosm of Japanese culture.

One of the most common topics of conversation at lunch is also one of the first things they learn to say in English. “What food do you like?” the students will ask me, in English or Japanese, eagerly or just to fill the silence.

“Ramen,” I’ll say, to murmurs of agreement. “Sushi. Pizza.” And then, “kyushoku,” which means school lunch.

“Eeeehh?!” They respond with shock, and then laughter. Their own feelings about the food served at lunch are lukewarm. Many items on the menu are things they dislike, and most of it is bland compared to restaurant food. After school they go home and eat a home-cooked dinner with their families.

I’m sure that if they thought about it, they could come up with a reason why I like school lunch so much.

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