I have a piece of paper with 500 written on it stuck to my fridge. It reminds me of this unbelievable statistic: the average American consumes the same quantity of food as do 500 Ethiopians. It's not meant as a guilt-laden diet plan; “make yourself so depressed about the state of the world and you won't want to eat!” Rather, it is a reminder of a principle that has long since vanished from our doorsteps in the West: moderation. Our society encourages thoughtless consumption, from Hummers that end up in the driveways of cookie-cutter homes in the suburbs to pasta dishes for children that contain more saturated fat that an adult should consume in four days. If someone is selling it, we think it must be a good idea to buy it.
With this cultural heritage, I was thrilled to be making my way to Japan in 2008. Known as a society heavily influenced by it's religious and artistic aestheticism, Japan could be the poster-child of “less is more” and “quality not quantity.” What I couldn't anticipate was the wreckage that the principle of motainai wreaks on school lunch at my junior high school.
Motainai is kinda like “waste not, want not.” In a conversation you'd use it to explain why you'd saved the scraps of fabric from a sewing project just as much as you could use it to explain why you stayed up late watching the Olympics. Applied to school lunch, this principle forsakes wisdom and pushes the boundaries of sanity.
Our school lunch company is, from what I can tell, incapable of counting or reading a calendar of events. If half the teachers will be away for a sports conference the company does not give us less food; we simply eat twice as much. Why? Motainai. The lunch company also keeps track of the food we didn't eat and sends my school a report card.
Class competitions are held to see what class leaves the least amount of milk bottles behind. Variables like chronically absent students and those with allergies are not taken into account. Allergies in general are not considered by the company; there was a student at my school last year who is allergic to seafood, all seafood. Almost everyday we eat fish, especially in the summer, and he simply went without. No meat replacement was ever offered.
So I was not surprised, really, when after informing one of my teachers that I didn't eat today's soup because I'm allergic to clams, she said “Motainai.” Not a command, necessarily, but certainly a sentiment that expressed as much or more disappointment in me having an allergy than in the school lunch company for not providing me an alternative.
Any principle, even moderation, observed entirely for it's own sake loses all meaning. Motainai is a good idea when it encourages students to try foods they don't like or aren't familiar with. And it's a good idea when it encourages us to soak in every last moment of an event. And it's a good idea when it makes us appreciate the labor that's gone into our food manufacturing, making us thoughtful in our consumption. But at junior high schools all across Japan motainai has gone terribly wrong.
I have become an expert at force-feeding myself and ignoring my gag reflex all to satisfy a principle that is, in the meantime, rendered meaningless.