Most children in Japan long for a return to the days when they could chat to their classmates over lunch – a pleasure they have been denied during the coronavirus pandemic.
After well over two years of eating in near silence to prevent the spread of the airborne virus, schoolchildren say they want their classrooms to reverberate to more than the sound of cutlery and crockery at lunchtime.
While two other Covid-19 measures – a ban on foreign tourists and restrictions on eating out – have been lifted, many preschool, primary and middle-school children are still required to stay quiet when they eat.
A recent survey found that 90% of children said they wanted the ban on chatting to end. The survey, conducted by a mother whose daughter had been told by teachers to “look straight ahead and eat in silence”, said the measure had outlived its usefulness.
“Many children wonder why silent lunches continue unchanged, even though adults can go drink at bars and talk during lunch,” Maho Ono told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. “No adult has offered a convincing explanation.”
According to the online survey of almost 1,600 children, conducted in late May and early July, 79% said they thought mokushoku, or silent eating, was “bad” while 15.4% had no opinion and 5.5% thought it was a good idea.
Asked if they wanted to talk over lunch, which is typically eaten in classrooms, 90.4% said yes and just 3.2% said no.
Some children said the talking ban had taken the fun out of going to school. “Why do only children have to feel this way when adults can enjoy lunch without masks on?” one wrote, according to the Mainichi.
Another said: “My lunch was taken away when I talked to a friend. It’s awful.” Others complained that eating in silence ruined their enjoyment of lunch and said they “hated” eating while separated from their friends by plastic partitions.
Many schools have imposed a ban, even though the education ministry’s hygiene manual does not demand that meals be eaten in silence. Instead, it calls on children to wash their hands before and after lunch, refrain from having loud conversations, and have their desks facing in the same direction.
In June, as Covid-19 cases fell across the country, some local education boards said they would relax the measures amid concern over the effect the ban was having on children’s educational and social development.
Education authorities in Miyazaki and Fukuoka prefectures ended the ban in June, while officials in Aichi relaxed the rules this month, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper said. But Japanese media reports suggest that most schools still insist on a prandial hush.
Ono, who has submitted a petition to the health and education ministries calling for an end to the policy, said pupils had “reached their limit”. “This is a question of how closely schools are willing to listen to the voices of children,” she said.