In Japan, school lunch is not provided in high schools, so high school students usually bring their own bento to school. However, elementary and junior high schools have their own school lunches. While school lunches may be provided in other countries as well, the experience in Japan is a totally different ballgame.
First of all, each school is assigned a professional nutritionist who plans the lunch menu to ensure that the meals are well-balanced and healthy. The actual menu differs from area to area, but there’s usually a wide variety in order to expose students to a range of cuisines – a typical school lunch may consist of Japanese natto, or Chinese shumai, or Indian curry, or Italian spaghetti… the list goes on. In general, all school lunches include a packet of milk, and elementary school lunches are usually more delicious than their junior high counterparts.
Professional cooks prepare the food, after which the students distribute it amongst themselves in their own classroom. Usually, the students form what are called “lunch groups”, and eat together. There are exceptions – extremely small schools have a lunch room where all the students eat together. This practice of eating together is to encourage communication amongst the students in order to foster a better relationship with each other. Teachers who have a homeroom class eat in the same classroom as their students. But while some join a lunch group, others eat alone at the teacher’s desk.
Not every student eats in the classroom though. Students on broadcasting duty have their lunches in the school’s broadcasting studio. The actual tasks performed differ from school to school, but they may include acting as deejays by broadcasting songs and music, and announcing the day’s lunch menu.
Once all the food is served and everyone is ready to eat, there is a simple “ritual” of sorts that must be followed before everyone eats. A few students stand in front of the class and ensure everyone else is quiet before leading the class to say 「いただきます」 “itadakimasu”. Finally, everyone can start eating. After eating, a similar “ritual” is conducted. This time, the students say 「ごちそうさまでした」 “gochisosama deshita”. Saying these words is basically a way of showing appreciation to the people who had cooked the food.
Students are also taught proper eating etiquette in school. They are required to hold chopsticks the proper way when they eat. This is so important that there is a period every year when the nutritionist gives a talk during lunch time on the proper way to hold chopsticks. Students should also hold up their bowl of rice up with one hand, instead of simply using their chopsticks to carry the rice to their mouths without lifting up the bowl. This practice goes on through their adult lives, and if you have the chance to observe, you’ll see that Japanese people always hold up their bowl of rice when eating from it.
Another interesting fact is that around 20 minutes before the official lunch time starts, the school principal or vice-principal must eat first, acting as a taster. This is to make sure the food is not contaminated or inedible for some reason before the rest of the school consumes it.
In elementary schools, students are required to brush their teeth after lunch. Most schools get the students on broadcasting duty to play a “brush your teeth” song during the 「歯磨きの時間」“hamigaki no jikan” or teeth-brushing time. The actual song used varies by school, but the lyrics are really about brushing teeth!
Lunch time at Japanese schools can be quite an interesting affair. However, whether the system is good or effective varies from class to class, school to school… But that is a story for another article.