In September 2018, the teacher at an elementary school in Gifu City exhorted the children in his class to finish their lunches, leaving no food unconsumed. The request seemed reasonable enough: school dining halls have long tried to cut down on waste.
But some of the kids found discomfort in being encouraged to eat more than they could comfortably consume, and after five of them vomited, parents mounted resistance to this form of "food fascism" -- the words appear in Spa! (April 23) -- leading to at least two social movements on Twitter: #Kyushoku (#school lunch service) and #Kanshoku shido (#orders to eat completely).
In Tokyo, an 8-year-old student in grade 3 -- we'll call her student A -- who had not suffered from any previous issues, began showing physical and mental changes, believed caused by coercive eating.
"After advancing to grade 2, her teacher would call out to the entire class the names of the students who completely finished their school lunch, and also names of the ones who didn't. These became topics of conversation in the class," A's mother told the reporter.
Student A was born prematurely and being of smaller stature than her peers, tends to eat less. The size of lunch servings does not take such individual differences into account. Nor does the time allotted for eating.
Student A's absences from school began to increase. She became anorexic, and depressed. Not surprisingly over a fairly brief period her weight declined, from 20 to 17 kilograms. Finally she confronted her parents and complained bitterly about her teacher's coercive tactics.
Chikara Oyano, a veteran elementary school teacher and outspoken education critic, calls the treatment accorded Student A was "a violation of her human rights by those in authority, an act of violence."
"Not to allow a child to get up from the seat until the meal is finished is a vestige of the Showa era," he asserts. "And it seems surprising that it was common to keep them seated through the recess period that followed," says Oyano, who thinks teachers' overbearing behavior toward their wards eating habits reflects their own childhoods from an earlier generation, both at home and in school.
When meeting with student A's parents, her teacher was asked to explain why such strong importance was placed on finishing meals, but no clear explanation was forthcoming.
At this particular school, the office overseeing school lunches performs periodic checks on the volume of unconsumed food for children in each school year, and then issues special awards such as the "Completely cleaned the plate prize" and the "Come on, one more bite prize." These have been traditions at the school for generations and while it is not clear from these that they are intended to encourage children not to leave unconsumed food, the existence of a prize in itself can be considered a form of pressure.
Even worse, taking a hint from their sensei, children notice when a classmate doesn't finish his or her meal and are known to chide them with remarks such as "Hurry up and finish, will ya?" or "Oh gee, you didn't finish again," which may be the first stepping stone toward full-blown ijime (harassment).
"I continue to advocate boosts in education budgets and hiring of more instructors, but in addition to differences in academic levels we also need to address differences in individual students' abilities," Oyano said. "In Europe and North America it's common, for instance, to have assistant teachers in addition to the main instructor. In any company as well, budgets are allocated to reinforce shortcomings.
"Instead of just exhorting teachers to "Work harder," if we allocated more funding and boosted the number of instructors, problems like those of student A would vanish."
The problem may be more pervasive than one thinks: Spa!'s writer notes that from May 2017 to September 2018, more than 1,000 parents are said to have confronted elementary and middle schools concerning their child's chronic absenteeism or health problems, and at least some of these appear to have been brought on by coercive policies concerning school lunches. In some cases, the parents sought remedies through the courts.© Japan Today