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No matter how you stir it, slice it or serve it, more often than not, teaching public school is a full-time job. So your school becomes like a second home of sorts. This is true whether you’re teaching in the U.S. or teaching in Japan. Spending lots of time at your school means that you’ll end up eating there pretty regularly, namely during lunch time. Among the many delightful differences between Japanese and American school culture, one glaring difference is public school lunch.
In elementary school, I was one of the kids who “brown-bagged” lunch from home. Even when Mom was pressed for time, public school lunch couldn’t compare to what Mom made. In high school, I wanted to add muscle to my lanky frame. So I started making my own lunches. Nope, my lunches weren’t as tasty as the ones Mom made. However, I realized that the only way I was going to get the protein and nutrients I needed was to make my own stuff. I can literally count on one hand the number of times I ate cafeteria lunch.
When I say “public school lunch,” what image comes to mind?
I see a heavyset woman with plastic gloves and a hairnet. She’s scooping up a ladle-full of mystery goo and plopping it onto my plastic, yellow tray. I travel down the assembly line of “mysterious goodness.”
Don’t get me wrong, I think public school lunch is ESSENTIAL because there are kids who might not get to eat otherwise. While school lunch is a wonderful concept, it seems like it could be so much better (at least in the U.S.)
Teaching public school in Japan, though, I almost never see anyone carrying a lunch from home. Unless of course there was a day (generally specified in advance) where everybody knew to bring their lunches. Nearly every kid eats school-made lunches. If kids have food allergies, the school gets notified and the lunch staff makes adjustments (crazy, right?).
Having eaten public school lunch in the U.S. and here in Japan, I have to admit that I think Japanese public school lunches (給食, kyushoku) BEAT THE PANTS OFF of the lunches I remember at my elementary school (except for maybe pizza day). Why?
I was pleasantly surprised to see how balanced the meals on the students’ plates were. I loved that lunches had a protein source, vegetables, carbs and milk to power the kids through the last half of the day. There were days where some of the lunches went a little overboard on carbs, but overall I was quite impressed with the nutritional balance.
Some parts of the meal were cooked right there at the school each day, namely soup. There was fish, fresh tomatoes, and green lettuce (as opposed to the slightly brown, wilting kind). Kids were smiling while they ate their vegetables instead of just eating around them or tossing them.
Can you guess what one of the culture shocks was when I taught at my very first Japanese public school? There was no cafeteria!!!!
Believe me, I checked…and checked…but never found one. Now I can only speak to Japanese kindergartens and elementary schools; I’m not sure whether or not Japanese middle and high schools have cafeterias.
As a result, students eat their lunches right in their classrooms. Every week a group of students is designated to don aprons, plastic caps, and serve their peers!
Not having a cafeteria means that Japanese lunch is something that everyone in the school is responsible for, including the teachers & kids. This makes it an entirely different experience. It’s not a small, overworked staff dishing out food as fast as they can for the masses. You’re having lunch with your class and your teacher.
Yes, I’m sure there are benefits to the cafeteria-style lunch, too. However, the smaller, cozier lunch-style puts a tally mark on the lunch quality side of things, at least from my perspective.
Did anybody else’s high-school have a soft-serve machine? Mine certainly did. If you had the money, you could get ice cream. Plain and simple.
How about after-school stores that sold just about every kind of junk food you could get your hands on? Yep, had that too.
Comparing that to the junk food culture I’ve seen here in Japan is fascinating. I’ve seen so little junk food in the Japanese schools I’ve taught for. I can’t even remember seeing kids chewing gum! WTF?!? Where were the vending machines with all the hot fries? Where was the candy lady’s house (LOL)?
While I know junk food can be bad for your health, I have mixed feelings about kids being able to eat it. I wholeheartedly agree that kids should be eating the good stuff 90-95% of the time, but treats every now and again aren’t a bad thing.
However, the lack of junk food may be the reason why the vast majority of the children here are slim. Last I checked, wasn’t obesity a major childhood issue in the U.S.? This seems like a great opportunity for our schools to learn a valuable lesson?
To give you a sense of what Japanese school lunch is like, I wanted to just show you pictures of ten random, days of Japanese school lunch: いただきます! (ITADAKIMASU!) – “Let’s eat!” in Japanese.
**The reason why I just say “soup” in each of the pictures is that I honestly don’t know the names. I apologize for that in advance. If anyone knows…there’s a comment space below just begging for you to post **
The typical Japanese school lunch consists of rice, some form of protein (fish, chicken, beef, etc.), vegetables, soup, and milk. Overall the meals are well balanced and often really tasty. If you’re a teacher here in Japan, what are lunches like at your school? I’d love to see pictures if you feel like sharing! 😀
To wrap things up, can you guess what Japanese students do after lunch?
Donald Ash is an Atlanta, Georgia-born, American expat who has been living in a Japanese time warp for the last eleven years. While in that time warp, he discovered that he absolutely loves writing, blogging, and sharing. Donald is the creator of thejapanguy.com blog. Wanna know more about this guy? Check out his "What's Your Story" page.