Suki Kirai wa Damae desu yo. Or, To Like or Dislike is Not Allowed

How I wish that I had photocopied, or otherwise gathered evidence of, the sign with the above motto that I saw plastered up around a Japanese elementary school.  Underneath the motto was a cartoon of two children eating their school dinners.  One of them was visibly baulking at a food item included in the dinner, or kyushoku; the offending piece of food hovering mid-way from tray to mouth; a sour look playing on the child’s face.  The other child was happily eating up all of their own food, and reminding the picky child that to like or dislike is not allowed!  With friends like that… 

My point is that this demonstrates something very important about the Japanese psyche, which clashes with our Western outlook entirely.  In the West, people now define themselves by their likes and dislikes.  ‘Allergies’ and intolerances abound – proven and unproven.  In Japan, these are virtually non-existent.  All students and teachers eat exactly the same kyushoku – which is dished out in classrooms by the children who take it in turns to don the protective white pinafores and face-masks to ladle the food onto their classmates’ plastic trays, and distribute the milk.  There are no lunch staff – the teachers eat with their classes.  The kids are hungry by lunch-time, properly so, as they are not allowed to bring any money of snacks to school – so they are very ready for lunch when it finally comes around.   

I visited fifteen elementary schools and seven middle schools over a period of three years, and only once did I see a teacher eating something other than the school dinner.  I never saw a student decline to eat it, as of course that was not allowed.  I enjoyed the school lunch myself, most of all when it was something traditionally Japanese.  It often was: things like hijiki seaweed salad, fried salmon, miso soup, kare-risu (rice with curry), nikujaga meat with potatoes, etc.  It was lovely.  I could see why the children were healthy, with shining eyes, bushy tails… and why there is a very low incidence of obesity.   

The students in Japan do genuinely love the school lunch.  As I sat on a tiny chair next to a tiny girl in 1st grade one day for lunch, I asked her if she was enjoying the natto (a hideous fermented bean dish that deserves its own entry) that she was delicately devouring with her tiny chopsticks. “Hai” (yes) she declared, not missing a beat.  “Really?” I further queried, “I don’t like natto myself.  Is it delicious?”  At this she cocked her head and pursed her lips and made a thinking noise.  “Amari,” she admitted (not so) “demo, karada ni ii yo” (but, it’s good for you). 

Unfortunately, kyushoku is not always karada ni ii.  When the hard-pressed kitchen staff tried to produce a Western-style dinner, things often went awry.  Sometimes we were served a large pile of white or pink artificial cream with pieces of canned pineapple, madarin and peach in, plus some white bread to make a sandwich with it!  I tried to stop school lunches after being served one day: a bowl of creamy seafood stew, a large white bread roll deep-fried and rolled in sugar and cocoa, some boiled spinach with bonito fish flakes, jam, and milk with a sugary flavouring powder to stir in.  I asked the Board of Education for which I worked if I could take my own lunch in the future, as the kyushoku frequently had too many empty calories for a grown woman and it was making me fat. No, they said.  Eating school lunch with the children is part of your responsibility as a teacher.   

If the kyushoku were indeed always totally healthy, I’d be tempted to infer that in the West we are actually doing our children a grave injustice by allowing them to feast on whatever fried, fatty, sugary foods they wish, and we should impose kyushoku universally right away.  Indeed, more and more, we do try to limit their access to said health-damaging foods.  Yet, Japanese-style school dinners could never be enforced here, they are against our love of the freedom of choice.  However, I believe that all of society (government, schools, parents) is responsible for providing a choice of healthy lunch options for children, and to assist children in losing their attachment to continually consuming foods that they particularly like and always avoiding foods they think that they dislike, thus widening both their palate and their possible sources of nutrition. 

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Explore posts in the same categories: Food/Philosophy?, Japanese

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