Disclaimer: While the below is based on a real interview, certain incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Sitting across from me in the dodgy ramen restaurant where he chose to do our interview, Alon leans back in his chair and surveys the room with a disdainful glance.
“Their food is alright, I guess,” He remarks as he chokes on his water, but plays it off like it was a cough. He looks out the window, his black rimmed glasses reflecting the setting sun.
“But nothing… nothing could compare to kyūshoku.” Licking his lips obscenely, he pulls out his phone and starts showing me photos.
“This is from September… I got two breads. TWO.” Alon looks up from his phone and his eyes seem to sparkle with excitement. At first glance, he looks like your average ALT with the manic glint in his eyes and too-loud, raspy voice from spending his days around non-English speaking children and his nights at the local watering hole, with other ALTs. But beneath the surface lies a man on a mission.
Alon has faithfully documented every single kyūshoku, down to every minute detail. He spends precisely forty-five minutes every school day recording the origin of every ingredient found in his kyūshoku and how it was prepared. Recently, he’s even considered bringing a small kitchen scale to school due to his concern that he is receiving a below average amount of soup.
“Some people call me crazy.” He laughs and leans forward, with the eyes of someone who has been alon-e for too long. “But they don’t understand… it’s an art.”
Indeed, kyūshoku really is an art. Although most people do not appreciate and scrutinize school lunches to the same level that Alon does, it is still a familiar and important aspect of Japanese culture. Kyūshoku became prevalent in Japanese public schools after World War II when the nationwide famine made it necessary for school lunches to be implemented in urban areas. In 1952, all elementary schools implemented school lunches and in 1954, all junior high schools implemented them following the establishment of the School Lunch Law. As of 2004, 99% of elementary school students and 82% of junior high school students eat kyūshoku.
Alon works at two schools in Shizuoka – an elementary school and a junior high school. They both provide him with school lunches at the cost of about $2.50 – 3.00 CAD per meal.
Swiping through the endless parade of kyūshoku photos, Alon chatters on animatedly about the various meals his school serves. “You know I don’t mind the noodles coming in a bag. My aunt lived in a bag on the street once. Did I ever tell you that?”
The server comes and clears away the remnants of our lunch. Alon’s ramen is barely touched.
“I usually ask them to serve my food on a plastic tray in restaurants, but sometimes they don’t have them… C’est la vie.” He shrugs, betraying his easy-going nature. “I’m really not used to eating anything that they don’t serve in school lunches. Sometimes I go to the 100 yen store just to look at the different pastel-coloured serving trays. Sometimes I smell them. They smell to me like the first day of autumn.”
“I want to show you something.” Alon reaches into his large backpack and carefully pulls out a very large hot dog bun. “This… is kyūshoku bread. We have it with almost every meal.”
The advent of bread in kyūshoku can be traced back to American donations of surplus wheat flour during the post-war occupation of Japan. Rice-based lunches were formally implemented in school lunches after 1976; Rice is sold to schools at a discount compared to market prices, which also serves to take in surplus rice product. Since serving rice in school lunches costs more than bread, many schools still serve mostly bread-based meals or have “bring your own rice” days.
“In elementary school, my kids usually serve the meal.” He smiles indulgently. “I mean, they’re not actually my kids, but you know…” Gazing off into the distance tenderly holding his large kyūshoku bread, he looks like a modern Madonna and Child.
Alon’s school is similar to the majority of elementary and junior high schools where students put on white coats and caps to serve their classmates and help clean up after the meal. Lunch time becomes a communal activity where students eat together with their teacher and classmates and learn about nutrition.
He is overly excited as he shows me exactly how he holds his bread to dip into the imaginary curry.
“See, it’s that easy! By dipping your bread into whatever sauce you have that day, you actually soften it and add flavor.” He looks at my face, watching for my reaction with a child-like innocence. I tentatively smile back. Suddenly, his fervor doesn’t seem so strange anymore.
Alon suddenly takes an enormous bite of his hot dog bun. Breathing heavily as he chews with his eyes half closed, he looks like a man who is truly satisfied, if not with life, then at least with this daily allotment of school bread.
Q&A with Alon
How is lunch served at your school?
First, a delivery service brings ingredients to all schools in a given ward (I rep the souf, boi). The lunch ladies then gather together in a kitchen and prep the food and kids serve it to each other in the classroom. I eat in the staff room, so the janitor serves us. I don’t know this for a fact, but I imagine as the lunch ladies prep, they bitch and rant about everyone in the school. That’s what I’d do if I was a lunch lady.
Can you tell us about the differences in school lunches at your school and what school lunches are like in your country (Canada)?
In Japan, lunches are provided as part of a program, are well-balanced and oishi as fuck, ne-. We didn’t have junior high school where I’m from, but in my high school, we had a cafeteria which served burgers and fries (fries with gravy if you were a boss like me). We also had a pizza shop nearby with questionable pepperoni served by very hairy men. The pizza was sweaty. Like, I’m honestly not sure that it was greasy. It just actually perspired. We also had this bomb-ass spicy fried chicken place but you had about a 35% chance of food poisoning – a chance I took every. Single. Time.
Overall Japanese school lunches are cheaper, tastier and healthier and I’ve lost 20 pounds largely due to those factors.
What is your favorite kyuushoku meal?
My favorite kyuushoku meal was probably a ‘three colour don’ – a make your own rice, egg, meat and veggie rice bowl, served inside the lunch tray with rice that you put together. I actually didn’t know that you’re meant to put it together and was eating each ingredient separately until the school nurse called me an ass-hat and told me to eat like an adult. The meal came with a mysterious soup which had quail eggs in it, because everything always does.
What is your least favorite?
I didn’t mind natto for lunch and I ate it up, but it was probably my least favorite meal so far. Mixed with soy sauce it wasn’t as offensive as I read, but it just wasn’t something I’d eat again for the nomz. It felt like dry boogers mixed with wet snot were preserved and mixed with soy sauce. Which I know sounds delicious, but really it was just average.
What is a typical meal at your school like?
At my school, the lunch comes served on tacky yellow lunch trays straight from That 70s Show, with a soup, a carb, a side dish and sometimes the smallest segment of fruit imaginable, to ward off scurvy. Like a single grape. Or a segment of mandarin orange.
The carb component is the most hilarious. It’s either bread, rice or bag noodles. As in, the noodles come in some sort of weird plastic wrapping. And they were microwaved with the wrapping still on, so you fight to separate bag from noodle without burning your delicate yet extremely manly fingertips. Rice is served in a tin container and bread always…ALWAYS includes a fucking hot dog bun. Another popular choice is this bread with raisins in it. There are just enough raisins to make it shittier than regular brad, yet not enough raisins to add any sweetness or value.
The meat component is usually fish and is always delicious while the soup always makes me miss my Russian mom. I say that because my mom would just take whatever ingredients she had in her fridge and mix them together to make a soup. ‘today I made zee french onion soop. But I not have onion or bread so I use hot dog and bell paperz instead. YOU DON’T LIKE? ZEN YOU COOK YOUR OWN SOUP. WE NOT REECH LIKE YOU SON. WHEN I WAS YOUR AGE IN RUSSIA I ATE BREAD WITH SUGAR ON IT.’
Where do you eat usually?
While in some schools ALTs eat with the kids, I eat in the staff room with the Kyoto sensei, head PE teacher, office lady and others who don’t have home rooms. We are served by the janitor. At my school people keep it real with their lunch. We dont wait for each other to begin eating, we microwave food if we want to and there’s no issue with putting back bread or rice that you don’t want to eat.
I really enjoy eating with the staff as we get to converse. I always microwave my soup together with the head PE teacher and ask him how his diet is going. We usually end up in a conversation about what liquor has the fewest calories and how we both drink too much. Often a teacher would also randomly come up to me and explain what the meal is and what its called in Japanese, as I nod and stuff my face.
Can you tell us more about your placement and school(s)?
I work in Shizuoka for a designated city of 800,000 people and report to a city’s board of education. My main school is a junior high, with fairly well behaved kids, but the school is more into soccer than academics. Once a month I teach at an elementary school nearby. Overall I’m very happy with my placement!
What has been your overall experience with kyuushoku?
Every 5th word that comes out of every teachers mouth in the staff room at any given time is ‘kyuushoku’. Teachers here work very hard and kyuushoku is most certainly what keeps them going. School lunch is cheap, delicious, balanced and normalized. Being a teacher is hard – there’s marking, jerk kids (fuck boyz) and constantly shifting schedules and plans. Kyuushoku is the part of the day, where, no matter your mood, no matter your schedule and no matter your stress level, will always pick you up, at least temporarily. It is delicious, exciting, interesting and usually comes with a fucking hot dog bun.
Please rate your school meals out of 10.
Alon can be found on Tumblr and sitting on random street corners crying and eating oden. Jialin is a mysterious being who can be found on Instagram if you try hard enough.
Special thanks to Alon for editing and providing photos of his lunches.
Jialin is a cat-loving Vancouver ALT living in western Tokyo who spends too much time drawing weird stuff and wondering about extraterrestrials. She is slightly obsessed with all things medieval, and secretly dreams of becoming a farmer.