About three years ago, I was working as an ALT in a junior high school. I was halfway through my school lunch in the staffroom when the science teacher, who also coached the tennis team, sat down beside me.
“Sensei,” he began, for he was speaking Japanese, “You don’t eat whale in the UK, do you?”
“No we don’t.”
He pointed at an empty compartment of my tray. “How was it?”
To our left, two younger, female teachers nodded their heads in unison and pushed their trays away with uneaten meat on it. Across the table, another teacher did the same. This was unprecedented, as Japanese teachers often try to set a good example by eating all their food, even if there are no children around to see it.
I returned my tray and chopsticks to the metal trolley and checked the lunch menu pinned to the teacher’s notice board. I vaguely remembered expecting some kind of fish that day. However, I saw a handful of stray fliers promoting today’s lunch first. It had the name of the animal in kanji and a guide for pronunciation written over the top. The text, loosely translated, read, “A whale is a large animal, so you can take a big serving!” It was accompanied by a cute anime-style picture of a smiling whale.
Apparently, they were expecting dissent.
I realised my mistake immediately. Even within sushi bars where you can find all kinds of semi-obscure kanji for fish, ‘whale’ is frequently written out phonetically. If presented solely with the kanji, it’s a reasonable bet (for a non-native speaker) that it’s a type of fish as it includes another kanji which means ‘fish’.
The reaction of the teachers in the junior high was markedly different from those teaching in many of my elementary schools. These teachers were clearly enjoying it and sighing about how it took them back to their school days. I actually have a great deal of sympathy for people whose childhood food is being restricted and declared morally wrong, but it’s interesting that a deliberate attempt to instill the same sense of nostalgia in the next generation is being made.