Please view the main text area of the page by skipping the main menu.

Some municipalities in Japan to end 'silent lunches' at schools

Children eat their school lunches quietly while facing the same direction at the municipal Kego Elementary School in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward on June 9, 2022. In the past, children ate in groups facing each other during lunch, but "silent lunches" have been in place since the spread of coronavirus infections. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

FUKUOKA -- Some Japanese municipalities are considering reviewing bans on talking during school lunchtimes, first imposed on elementary and junior high schools about two years ago to prevent coronavirus transmissions.

    The shift comes as COVID-19 infection numbers decrease nationwide, and amid concerns that depriving children of the chance to talk with friends over a meal will impact their social development. However, many people are resistant to the idea of dining together without a mask. How will the road to lifting the restrictions go?

    When a Mainichi Shimbun reporter visited a sixth-grade class at the municipal Kego Elementary School in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward at lunchtime on June 9, the sound of cutlery striking dishes echoed through the classroom. While music and an explanation of the menu were played over the school's PA system, the children ate in silence, facing the front of the room.

    Principal Kenji Tanaka said, "Silent eating has gone on for a long time now. I hope the happy school lunchtime will return soon."

    When schools reopened in May 2020 after a nationwide closure, the Fukuoka Municipal Board of Education told its schools that students should "not sit across from each other at their desks" and "refrain from private conversation" during lunch. This is in line with the education ministry hygiene manual's call to avoid spreading aerosol droplets emitted from people's mouths when dining together, and most municipal elementary schools still have "silent lunches."

    Fukuoka Mayor Soichiro Takashima indicated on June 7 that he may review the silent meal policy. At a news conference that day, Takashima stated that "'food and nutrition education' is not only about getting nutrition, but also includes conversation. Eating in silence in a classroom is an exceptional practice only taken because of the coronavirus emergency."

    Children eat their school lunches quietly and facing in the same direction, at the municipal Kego Elementary School in Fukuoka's Chuo Ward on June 9, 2022. (Mainichi/Noriko Tokuno)

    Eventually, the city's education board on June 13 issued a notice to its elementary and junior high schools and special-needs schools, stating that students may engage in conversation during lunchtime as long as they are not loud. According to the board, desks will remain facing the front, but students can turn to the side to speak.

    Prior to the notification, some parents cited pros and cons about the move to end silent eating. One fourth-grade boy's mother in her 40s had welcomed the move, saying, "Eating while reading others' facial expressions is an important part of development, but wearing a mask makes it impossible." Meanwhile, a third-grade girl's mother in her 30s had said, "My child is used to eating silently, and I'm sure she doesn't feel lonely as she has family gatherings when she gets home. I'm concerned about the possibility of infection, so I hope they will continue to eat without talking."

    Although other local governments have proposed reviewing the silent lunch policy, there is yet little evidence of change in classrooms.

    The Miyazaki Prefectural Board of Education indicated that it would stop requesting silent lunches at prefectural schools from June 6, as infections had settled down and the standards for "adult" dining had already been loosened.

    A prefectural official overseeing the policy explained, "We hope that schools will make their own decisions based on the actual situation, rather than a uniform policy." But they added, "It's not easy to comply with the education ministry's manual on not spreading droplets. Some schools may decide to continue to impose a silent meal policy."

    Hiroyuki Moriuchi, a professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Nagasaki University Hospital, said, "Dining without masks poses a high risk of infection. Since many people feel uneasy, it may not be realistic to eliminate silent meals all at once. But it's a good idea to start considering a review as the last step to return to normality."

    (Japanese original by Ken Nakazato and Yu Yoshizumi, Kyushu News Department)

    Also in The Mainichi

    The Mainichi on social media