School lunch in Japan is very different from school lunch in the States. I don’t have pictures of what the classroom looks like because of privacy reasons, but I’ll describe it as best as I can:
First off, students serve themselves in their classrooms and eat at their desks! As soon as the lunch bell rings around 12:30, the students put on white smocks, hats, and masks, while the teachers put on aprons. The kids first cover their desks with a square handkerchief decorated with Disney, Pixar, Mario, or various anime themes. Then they pull out some tables to the front of the classroom and set up the lunch line. From right to left: lunch trays, the main dish, rice (usually), and soup.
Each class is a little different in how it passes out the food. In the majority of my classes, several students are assigned the tasks of handing out milk, trays, spoons (if the menu calls for it – most times the kids use their own chopsticks), or straws; two kids will serve the main dish, two kids will serve rice, and two or three kids will ladle up the soup. Everyone (including me) lines up with a tray to go through the lunch line. Instead of serving ourselves, though, we take the loaded trays back to the desks and get back in line until everyone is served!
Each class has at least one, sometimes two, nicchoku, or class captain. The dialogue goes something like this:
Nicchoku: “Do you have your lunch?” (“Kyuushoku arimasuka?”)
Everyone: “Yes!” (“Hai!”)
Nicchoku: “Put your hands together!” (“Te wo awasete kudasai!”)
Everyone: “Yes!” (“Hai!”)
Nicchoku: “Let’s enjoy this delicious meal!” (“Oishii kyuushoku itadakimasu!”)
Everyone: “Let’s enjoy this meal!” (“Itadakimasu!”)
Some classes allow the kids to talk during lunch, while others keep quiet. We listen to a radio broadcast and some music. One of my schools plays classical music for fifteen minutes, while another plays one popular song (yesterday it was the Star Wars theme song). After a time the teacher allows the students to get seconds.
Afterwards, when we’ve finished, the nicchoku goes to the front again and says “Gochisousamadeshita!” (“That was a delicious meal!”); we repeat; then we throw away any uneaten food in the soup bucket and put our dishes back on the racks.
At this point I leave the classroom, but after they’ve cleaned, the kids all go out to the sinks in the halls and brush their teeth.
As for the food – it’s interesting! Usually it’s fairly good, though there are many meh days, and a handful of pretty awful days. My favourite school lunches are karaage (fried chicken), bibimbap, and curry; my least favourite school lunches are pregnant fish (you would not believe how many eggs fit in those little dead-eyed silver fish) and natto (foul-smelling, gooey fermented beans. There’s a great video of kids eating natto on the Kids React YouTube channel).
Salad here is very different. It’s usually pickled, and usually some combination of cucumber, cabbage, seaweed, beans, edamame, or konyaku (basically a type of potato that has been jellified and is literally there to, shall we say, keep things moving).
I’ve gone ahead and photographed my lunch over the past few weeks. Here’s what we’ve had since second semester started:
Salmon, salad (mountain veggie mix – not entirely sure what everything in there was, but peas, carrots, mushrooms, and some kind of root), miso soup (with tofu, onion, carrots, and burdock), rice, joa (drinkable yogurt), and barley tea.
Stir fried pork and veggies, pickled cucumbers with sesame seeds, quail egg soup with a spinach-esque vegetable, rice, milk, and barley tea. And my chopsticks in their chopstick holder!
Dumplings, salad (pickled cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, and little rice noodles), rice, and some mystery thing they serve every once in a while that I swear must be whatever’s left at the back of the shelf at the kyuushoku centre. This one had quail eggs, soggy green peas…and that big brown blob is a mushroom).
A good day! Tempura piman pepper (basically kind of like a small green bell pepper…the kids hate it!), salad (broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, and corn with some kind of white dressing), keema curry (beans, onions, some kind of grain), bread, and a special custard dessert.
Not one my favourites. A little silver fish in salty sauce (it’s good if I’m hungry, but that crumbly little spine I can’t pick out and have to eat…ugh), fishy-tasting salad, and a bowl of boiled veggies (potatoes, carrots, green beans, pork, and konyaku), rice, and milk.
Tasty stir fry (pork, carrots, onions, and sprouts), salad (salty cabbage, spinach, carrots, etc.), miso soup (with tofu, seaweed, and leeks), rice, and milk.
Salad (cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, rice noodles), pasta (with tomato sauce, beans, and mushrooms), whole wheat bread, an Asian pear slice, and milk.
(A note – most of Japanese humour consists of puns. Terrible, terrible puns. “Nan” means “What?”, so when we have naan at lunch, the jokes abound. This day a second grader looked at my tray and said I didn’t have a straw. Basically, “Sutoro nashi?” Nashi also means pear. We threw that joke around for a minute.)
Some kind of fried fish, salad (pickled ginger, cabbage, and cucumber), soup (tofu, carrots, burdock, onions, daikon, etc.), furikake (a packet of flavour that can be added to rice…this one smelled and looked like fish food, so I didn’t eat it), and manju (a Japanese dessert with an outside made of flour, rice powder, and buckwheat and some kind of (usually) delicious filling…aaaand today the centre was a liquid that looked like honey but tasted weirdly salty).
So there you go! Lunch in Japan. It’s not always the best, especially to my western palate, but it definitely fills you up and the kids really seem to enjoy it!