After two years of eating in near-monastic silence, children in Japan have been given permission to chat to their classmates over lunch, as Covid cases in the country continue to fall.
Throughout the pandemic, primary and middle school classrooms have reverberated to the sound of cutlery meeting crockery and, in some cases, piped music, but the young diners have been silenced as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.
In many schools, children have been told not to eat while facing each other and to refrain from talking to their classmates. Instead, they must observe mokushoku – or silent eating.
But with Covid-19 cases falling across the country, some schools have abandoned the code of silence, amid concern that it is affecting the social and educational development of children as young as six.
The board of education in Fukuoka in western Japan said it was lifting the ban on lunchtime conversation at primary and middle schools – where children eat together in their classrooms – provided that pupils spoke quietly.
Their desks will continue to face the front of the classroom, however, and they will have to wear a mask when they join in a communal chorus of “Itadakimasu” – a widely used expression of thanks uttered before eating.
The move was welcomed by teachers in the city. “Silent eating has gone on for a long time now,” Kenji Tanaka, a primary school principal, told the Mainichi Shimbun. “I hope happy school lunchtimes will return soon.”
Parents, though, were divided. While some were pleased their children would now be able to interact normally with their friends, other said lifting the ban was premature.
“My child is used to eating silently, and I’m sure she doesn’t feel lonely as she is with her family when she gets home,” one mother said. “I’m concerned about the possibility of infection, so I hope they will continue to eat without talking.”
But other prefectures are also relaxing their rules. Miyazaki ended its silent lunch regime early this month, while schools in Chiba, near Tokyo, have come up with a compromise that allows to children to face each other but eat without speaking.
Pressure to introduce a semblance of normality in schools has increased since the government lifted “quasi-emergency” virus measures for the general population in March, including restrictions on eating out.
School officials are also being asked to apply a commonsense approach to masks during PE lessons after rising temperatures triggered a spate of heatstroke cases among children who were required to wear face coverings while exercising.
The incidents prompted the education minister, Shinsuke Suematsu, to urge teachers to allow children to remove their masks when they are walking to and from school, and during PE lessons.