In Japanese Schools, Lunch Is As Much About Learning As It’s About Eating

I grew up in the Unit­ed States, and we Amer­i­cans don’t, in the main, look back on our school days with par­tic­u­lar­ly fond mem­o­ries of lunch. Some schools do a superb job of serv­ing up deli­cious and nutri­tious meals. Oth­ers can bare­ly get their act togeth­er to reheat yes­ter­day’s chick­en fin­gers, and, as with much else in Amer­i­ca, it all aver­ages out to a frus­trat­ing medi­oc­rity. These days, the culi­nary stan­dards of Amer­i­can school lunch­es often come in for pun­ish­ing com­par­isons in the media to those of oth­er soci­eties, espe­cial­ly France, which has long held up eat­ing well as one of its high­est pri­or­i­ties, and Japan, known for its atten­tion to detail as well as the health of its peo­ple.

Just have a look at the nine-minute doc­u­men­tary above on one lunch peri­od at an ele­men­tary school in Saita­ma (about fif­teen miles out­side Tokyo) and you’ll have a vivid sense of the dif­fer­ence — a dif­fer­ence that goes well beyond what gets eat­en. At 12:25 in the after­noon, the kids all bow and thank their teacher for the first half of the day’s instruc­tion. Then they put on their caps and smocks and lay their place­mats and chop­sticks on their desks. A rotat­ing team of stu­dents goes to col­lect every­one’s meals from the kitchen (thank­ing the lunch­ladies before wheel­ing their carts away) while the rest arrange the fur­ni­ture into the stan­dard lunch for­ma­tion. Back in the class­room, the stu­dents serve each oth­er the day’s fried fish with pear sauce, five-veg­etable soup, and mashed pota­toes grown on the school’s own farm by stu­dents.

But wait, there’s more: the kids all brush their teeth after lunch, then break down their milk car­tons, wash them, and set them aside to dry before plac­ing them in the next day’s recy­cling. The video then shows how, after lunch, they all clean their class­room togeth­er. Lunch becomes an oppor­tu­ni­ty not just to eat healthy food, but to teach stu­dents a num­ber of valu­able life lessons–good man­ners, ethics, team­work and more.

I could­n’t have imag­ined any of this hap­pen­ing in my own fifth-grade class­room, and if you could­n’t have either, you can read more about how the phe­nom­e­non of the Japan­ese school lunch came to be at Japan­ese School Lunch, the site of Japan schol­ar Alex­is Agliano San­born. She delves into the his­to­ry, the goals, the mechan­ics (right down to sea­son­al menu plan­ning), and the suc­cess­es of Japan’s school lunch sys­tem. “Per­haps no oth­er coun­try in the world can offer school lunch cook­books, school lunch-themed restau­rants or even school lunch-themed para­pher­na­lia,” she writes. Cer­tain­ly not the one I came from!

(via Twist­ed Sifter)

Relat­ed Com­ment:

A Wealth of Free Doc­u­men­taries on All Things Japan­ese: From Ben­to Box­es to Tea Gar­dens, Ramen & Bul­let Trains

Dis­cov­er Japan’s Earth­quake Proof Under­ground Bike Stor­age Sys­tem: The Future is Now

Cook­pad, the Largest Recipe Site in Japan, Launch­es New Site in Eng­lish

What Pris­on­ers Ate at Alca­traz in 1946: A Vin­tage Prison Menu

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Faylinn says:

    I think that it is inter­est­ing to learn about what oth­er coun­tries, like Japan, have their stu­dents eat and com­pare that to what we eat here in our schools. How­ev­er, I have to say that we do have to take cul­ture into con­sid­er­a­tion as well, because I’m not sure that we’d be able to place Amer­i­can stu­dents in a Japan­ese eat­ing envi­ron­ment and have them have the same expe­ri­ence. Per­son­al­ly, I enjoyed eat­ing the square piz­zas and bur­ri­tos that I got in my school grow­ing up. We also did­n’t drink milk out of milk car­tons, but, instead, plas­tic bags that you had to poke a straw through and that made recy­cling

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