The Japanese school lunch system has many unique facets, but perhaps the most interesting is student involvement. Listed below is an approximation of the daily process that most elementary and middle school children participate in.
Lunch duty students wash their hands, change into their cap and gown and proceed to the distribution area. Lunch duty students are chosen and rotated on a weekly basis, so that at one point during the year every student - even special needs students - participate.
Outside the distribution room, the lunch duty students organize themselves according to who has been designated to transport certain components of the meal. These components include table-ware, carbohydrate/staple, main dish, soup, side dish and other accouterments. Before receiving the items, the students ritually pronounce (in unison) “itadakimasu” literally, “I humbly partake”—a set phrase employed for a myriad of occasions, but in this case conveying respect for the daily efforts of the cooking staff. The honorific ritual is completed with a bow by the students.
The transportation process begins. This can be an arduous process as often the children are too weak or clumsy to work quickly. While admirable, this step often leads to delays.
While the Lunch Duty students are transporting the meal, the remaining students configure the classroom. After being wiped clean, desks are arranged in a 'lunch time' configuration, which often includes an assembly line.
Lunch Duty set up the meal containers and begin to serve. Students learn how to adapt serving methods to accommodate differences food types, amount, number of students, and types of utensils the meal requires.
Once all students have received a full lunch tray and are at their desks, the Lunch Duty students proceed to the front of the classroom. There, they wait until the students are quiet - there can be no fidgeting or whispering. Once the class has quieted down, the Lunch Duty students then lead the class in saying —“itadakimasu” (in this context, meaning "I humbly partake of the meal."). Then, the meal begins.
During the meal talking is usually prohibited. Younger students (1st-3rd grade) are easily distracted, generally eating slower and being picky eaters. For older students, who can multi-task better and have fewer food particularities, the rules are often bent. Talking, as long as food is still being consumed, is permissible. Beginning around the fourth grade, a more social dining experience is promoted (MEXT, Goal No. 2). Children organize their desks into groups that rotate throughout the school year. These types of interactions promote communication and camaraderie, as lesser-acquainted students are forced to interact. Additionally, during the lunch time hour there is usually a student broadcast with announcements, quizzes, popular music, jokes, short story telling, and news, as well as information about the lunch itself (MEXT Goal No. 1 & 4). The majority of these broadcasts are student created and implemented—another facet to garner pride, participation and involvement between food and students.
After the broadcast has finished, the meal ends with a word of thanks—gochisōsama deshita (literally: “it was a feast”). Students who have finished eating collect their dining ware and dispose of it accordingly. Milk cartons must be washed, broken apart in a specific method and set out to dry. Finally, the children brush their teeth to the tune of a “teeth brushing song” before they are allowed to enjoy their mid-day recess. Sometime before school cleaning time (which occurs after lunch) the tōban gather the empty trays, dining ware, utensils and trash and transport them to the distribution room. Only then has the daily lunch cycle been completed—a process usually estimated to take a little less than one hour.