LUNCH TIME ­— A typical lunch served at Japanese elementary schools. photo by Mika Osaki

“Don’t you want to eat the spine? It’s soft, you know.” I had taken great care to split the small mystery fish in front of me in half so that I could debone it. This is not an easy task to do with only a pair of hashi and the limited amount of time the school lunch break entails, but I do it nonetheless.

Personally, the answer to the question: “Do you want to eat the spine?” will always, always be no. I grew up (like many Bay Area kids) on a diet of Asian American fusion, Mexican, and all-American food. Spines weren’t really on the menu. But when it comes to school lunch, one simply cannot be picky.

Like many things in Japan, school lunch is a ritual. It’s not cafeteria-style like in the states. Students will spend their entire day, including lunch, in their classrooms, and teachers will rotate every period. After the fourth period bell rings, several students will don ridiculously adorable white aprons and hats, and go down to the lunch room to bring food back to the classrooms. The elementary school first graders would melt the iciest heart in their lunch uniforms. They carry trays, dishes, a container of vegetables, a container of protein, a container of soup, boxes of rice, and cartons of milk every single day. The milk is from cows that live on the local mountain and on Wednesdays, we have bread instead of rice. Once they are back in their classrooms, some of the students serve the lunch assembly line-style, and the other students will help distribute the lunches to each student and the teachers. Everyone brings their own hashi, and students have designated groups that they eat with everyday. We all say “itadakimasu” at the beginning of the meal and “gochisosama deshita” at the end in unison. After we eat, students wipe down the tables, carry the empty dishes down to the lunch room, and prepare for their next class. At school, everyone eats the same lunch, from the first-year students to the principal. It creates a strangely apparent sense of solidarity to know that all 800 people in the school eat the same meal at the same time everyday.

Some of the meals are notably delicious, like curry rice, beef stew, chicken karaage, and salmon. Some of the lunches are … not items I would choose to eat myself. There is definitely an unspoken expectation to clean your plate down to the last grain of rice everyday, so I always eat everything to be a good example to the students. I often have no idea what it is I’m eating. I’ll ask the students what the item is, but the quick Japanese they give me rarely answers my question. I’m still not entirely sure what exactly konnyaku (konjac jelly) is, as everyone has struggled to give me an answer beyond “konnyaku desu.” Sometimes, even the kids don’t know what the day’s lunch is. After six months in Japan, I have gotten used to most of the lunches, though I still experience occasional surprise and confusion.

Personally, I very much enjoy the ritual of school lunch. I’ve tried many new foods because of it, even if I still don’t know what they are. I don’t have to prepare anything the night before, which would be quite the task every evening considering I also have to cook dinner, and my tiny kitchen has exactly one stove burner, no counter space and no oven. The lunches are also quite healthy. They are planned by a nutritionist with growing children in mind, so I appreciate receiving a hot, healthy meal everyday that I don’t have to make myself and costs next to nothing. I also enjoy eating with the students. Their slower and simpler Japanese is easy for me to understand compared to the rapid fire speech adults use, and I’ve found that my students are also great teachers.

A lot of the Japanese I’ve learned since I’ve come here has been from my students during lunch time. I may not be able to use honorific Japanese, but I can definitely ask you what your favorite animal is, or what anime you like.

Lunch time is definitely a time of day I look forward to, and I can’t wait to see what tomorrow’s lunch will be.

Mika Osaki is a Yonsei and a recent college graduate. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up deeply involved in SF’s Japantown community. She is currently living in Tottori City, Japan as an English teacher with the JET program, and can be reached at The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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