Sunday, 17 October 2010

Eats, good and bad.

 Japan celebrated "health and fitness" day last monday, a holiday with no discernible ceremonies or customs attached to it besides taking the day off from work and school. This presented a lovely opportunity to engage in my favorite pastime: stuffing my face. The above image represents a fairly typical weeknight meal for me in my new Japan-ified lifestyle: Stir-fried vegetable scraps, miso-marinated chicken, brown rice. I try and keep things healthy and local - Wakayama produce, mini-helpings of meat, brown rice, miso soup with wakame (a type of seaweed) and tofu - but convenience store ice-cream and Asahi Super Dry beer somehow find their way into my fridge...

I had intended to wax poetical about the gustatory joys of last weekend - The melt-in-your mouth beef cooked on a tabletop grill, the legendary maximum spicy-ness curry of CoCo Ichiban, the eclectic awesomeness of chanko-nabe, the chicken/shrimp/oyster/noodle/rice/vegetable/mushroom stew used to fatten sumo wrestlers. There was also a sad, solitary, lukewarm McDonald's cheeseburger accompanied by an neon-yellow "vanilla" milkshake.  Instead, though, I want talk about the Japanese approach to school lunches ("kyushoku"), eaten by teachers and students alike in Arida.  

First there's the food: Here's a fairly typical kyushoku menu - grilled fish, pickled greens, miso soup with bits of fish cake and tofu, milk, and of course, a bowl of rice. They're quite tasty most of the time (the attempts at spaghetti being a major exception), prepared in big batches each morning at the kyushoku center and bused out to the 11 elementary and middle schools in town. A poster in every teacher's room gives a rundown of the months' meals, dividing each meal's ingredients into three categories: "body-building foods"(meat, fish, tofu and the like)  "body regulating foods"(vitamin-rich vegetables, miso, etc.)  and "energy-providing foods" (rice or bread, plus other starches). This being the prefecture of "The Cove" fame, I hear that fried whale finds its way onto the menu once or twice a year ("Kind of a blander, chewier, fishy beef" in the words of one fellow ALT). 

More interesting than the food, though, is the way the kids eat it. Students themselves are put in charge of serving and clearing away the food, which kyushoku responsibilities revolving every few weeks within each class. There is no vegetarian option, no options at all, actually - each student gets served the same meal in roughly the same portion. This last point makes me wonder if childhood "pickiness" is  acquired rather than congenital- nurtured rather than natural? I remember childhood acquaintances who would pick the cheese off their pizza, who refused foods colored green or red, who would only eat items within the white-beige-yellow-brown color scale (the last person's actually a college friend). Here in Arida, the kid who refuses the fish gets an empty saucer to go with his rice. Not surprisingly, I've never seen a student refuse an entree at lunch, though I should add the disclaimers that I've been teaching here for less than 2 months, and that the meals are rarely exotic and never, ever spicy.

Finally, the scene from last Wednesday that inspired this post: Curry day at elementary school, 3rd grade classroom. The 8 and 9 year olds serving the meal are decked out adorably in white hats, aprons, and surgical masks. They serve their teacher first and move on to ladle out the warm, savory goodness for their classmates. The curry falls one bowl short, and the teacher matter-of-factly asks any kids who think they won't finish their portion to contribute to the empty bowl. The looks on the kids faces tell me that each one of them could finish much more than the helping in front of them, but five or six of them stand up without hesitation.

I was not that good at sharing at 8, certainly not when it came to food.

Much ink has been spilled on the differences between American "individualism" and Japanese "group-orientation." Such talk easily veers into stereotype-land and silly/excessive claims about "national character." That said, one doesn't have to be Michel Foucault to see that the little things we take for granted as kids, like school lunch or, say, the pledge of allegiance, go a long way in inculcating certain ways of behaving. Kyushoku, I realized Wednesday, functions as a tool for education as well as nutrition. Though the Amherst College paper-writer in me wants to see something sinister in this, it's hard to object to a system that teaches kids values like sharing and self-sacrifice.    

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