Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Being an ALT #16: School Lunch

We've posted before about school lunch, several times. But to be more comprehensive we've decided to update our old entries and incorporate them into the Being an ALT series.

So, let's explore the wonders of school lunch time in Japan.

In my school (and most other elementary and junior high schools in the region), the children of my weekly host class come and collect me and my food from the teacher's room. Then we go to their class and I wait until the children have finished serving each other (food is served from large vats at the from of the class by those students whose turn it is to do so).

If you don't have one, I suggest buying a lunch mat (see the images later in this post). All students have them, and will be excited that you have one too.

Then we say the customary いただきます (itadakimasu) and eat. This usually ends well before the "end of lunch" chime, and we must wait for that before washing and returning our dishes. In this time, you can talk with the students or sit in total silence. Often the kids are either scared still of communicating with you, or just don't want to.

Don't get me wrong, I love my kids. But if they ever work up the courage to speak to me it's just to ask what my favourite colour is, how tall I am and if I have a girlfriend. I've taught them for years, they know this stuff already.

Talking Japanese to them just makes them laugh... :(

When the bell rings we say our いただきました (itadakimashita) or ごちそうさまでした (gochisousamadeshita), "wash" our plates and bowls with 100ml of water and a pair of chopsticks and then go our separate ways. Then the students and teachers brush their teeth.

The food
If you're vegetarian, either forget it, or bring your own lunch. Japan isn't welcoming to your kind. Generally lunch always consists of milk and rice (replaced once a week with bread or noodles depending on the time of year), and will come with some kind of soup (usually containing small piece of meat), a piece of meat or other source of protein, and a salad (often very, very pickled). Here's a sample from my 5 Random School Lunches post from last year:


  • Rice with yukari. Not sure what that is but it turned it purple and tasted similar to umeboshi (pickled plums),
  • Tomato omelette,
  • Fried sweet potato slithers, cucumber and lettuce,
  • Sumashi soup with wakame, mushrooms, reformed fish and indeterminate bits of vegetable.
  • Calories: 734
  • Review: Cold and miserable. 2/5

The combinations of food are often quite strange. In fact, so strange that a book was written on it. You can check out all the odd combinations with glossy, full-color photos in the book on Amazon; a smattering of the funny ones are listed here:

  • White Bread + Rice Cakes
  • Brown Sugar Bread and Miso Soup
  • Toast with Jam and Vinegared Pork
  • Steamed Strawberry Bread and Kitsune Udon
  • Curry Tofu Stirfry and Chocolate Deep-Fried Bread
  • Curry Udon and an American Hotdog
  • Yakisoba and a Donut

To be fair, when interviewed, the nutrition experts at offending school districts defended their position, saying they are required by the national government to provide a certain number of calories and amount of vitamins and minerals in each lunch. But, Japanese kids are (in my opinion) some of the pickiest eaters in the world. So, the nutrition experts continued, its necessary to choose high calorie foods kids are willing to eat and pair them with a smattering of other stuff to meet the vitamin requirements. 


  1. We had coffee powder to put in our milks today.
    WTF! What kid likes coffee milk....all of them apparently!

    One of the weirdest yet!

  2. Ah kyushoku... I use it as an opportunity to practice my Japanese and talk about One Piece. And even though I hate it, I always have fun when it's natto for lunch...