Lunch On!

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There are two kinds of people in this world: those who want to know what you did while on vacation, and those who want to know what you ate. I belong to the latter. Though the day-to-day details of life often feel mundane to me, I find the meals eaten along the way endlessly fascinating. My honeymoon in Spain was defined not by the Prado but by the bocadillos (delicious Spanish sandwiches available any time of day, just about everywhere). The story of the birth of my daughter includes my wife's pre-delivery and post-delivery meals (an egg-and-cheese bagel and a chicken parmigiana panini).

This interest in the meals of others often made me feel alone; a creepy voyeur consumed by a hunger for food-related information that is at best trivial, and at worst, irrelevant—the Jerry Seinfeld of my family and friends. At least, that was the case until I discovered Lunch On, a Japanese television show dedicated to documenting what everyday people eat for lunch.

That's the show. It's 30-minutes of almost exclusively Japanese lunches, and it's positively riveting.

The episodes air on NHK, Japan's version of PBS. Lunch On is the English-language version of Sarameshi (サラメシ ), or Salaryman’s Lunch. Salaryman’s Lunch began as a Japanese late-night show in May 2011. Lunch On spun off in 2013 for NHK’s international, English-language channel. As it grew in popularity, its time slot got better and better, eventually fighting its way into primetime this past April.

The episodes follow a certain pattern. The first segment visits a workplace and looks at what the employees eat for lunch. Though the lunch is always teased at the start of the show, the segment actually focuses on the work done at the company. It could be anything from running a daycare, to manufacturing utility poles, to hunting wild animals, sake-making, or working on a dating website. Lunch On offers a revealing slice of insight into Japanese industry through its investigation of the lunches eaten by the very people who shape it.

The Japanese lunch culture is different from the American. "In Japan, lunch is special," says Greg de St. Maurice, tenured Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Business and Commerce at Japan's Keio University, and Vice President of the Association for the Study of Food and Society. The day before we spoke, his lunch from the university cafeteria was: marinated raw tuna on rice; miso soup with pork; sides of spinach, bamboo shoots, and a small seaweed salad. "You spend [lunch] with your peers. It's usually eaten in a group. It's seen as sad or deviant if you eat lunch by yourself." Some companies even specify your lunch hour in your employment contract.

The universality of the Japanese lunch experience is what makes Lunch On work as a television show. “No matter if you work for a big and famous company or for a small business, you have to have lunch,” said Jumpei Yoshioka, from NHK’s publicity department, moments after a “typical, white-collar” lunch of mackerel braised in miso sauce with white rice, miso soup, and Japanese cucumber pickles. Everyone can relate to the minutiae of the lunch experience. The mandatory camaraderie might not be everyone’s idea of a great work experience, but it makes for positively thrilling TV, especially if you're food obsessed.

Japanese employers are under pressure to show they're treating employees well. The Japanese work long hours—some of the longest in the world. "There's been a lot of public and government scrutiny over how companies treat their employees," said de St. Maurice. "Employees have died from overwork." Cafeterias—free, subsidized, or otherwise—are a way for employers to demonstrate they're trying to take care of their employees.

Maybe I'm a sucker, but I don't always get the vibe that the bosses featured on Lunch On are only trying to look good. It often feels more sincere to me. Many company presidents running small businesses will personally prepare lunches for their staff. They'll talk about wanting to keep employees healthy and productive, and a proper lunch is seen as a way to make sure that happens. And these aren't high-flying start-ups. One episode visited a tire repair shop with a president who fixed his handful of employees meals cooked outside using camping equipment. His employees teased him about his cooking, but the whole process was very sweet. It's not about a Googlesque company bringing in an army of chefs to keep employees from leaving a compound. Rather, it’s about someone trying to make a small gesture to the people who work for him.

This way of thinking about employees is not entirely surprising. William Ouchi, an American academic, had a theory of management he called Theory Z. This theory was based upon Japanese business practice, and posited that management should show an overall concern for the welfare of their employees beyond their job-related responsibilities. This would include something like making sure the workers are eating properly. Suffice it to say, this theory has fallen out of favor in both Japan and in the United States.

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Lunch On tends to spotlight the person who prepares the food, even if it's not the leader of a business. This is also unusual compared to the United States, where we worship celebrity chefs, but ignore the people who prepare our food on a day-to-day basis. Lunch On treats everyone like a celebrity chef, breathlessly following someone around, like the older woman who cooks at a taxi depot, preparing traditional Japanese meals as taught to her by her mother-in-law.

Not all the lunches come from cafeterias, though. There's also a bento component to many of the episodes. Bentos are boxed lunches, either made at home or purchased, and very common in Japan. They are also seen here in the United States, where there exists a bento subculture. As with the canteen chefs, Lunch On often spotlights the people who prepare the bentos. Exasperatingly, this is often the woman of the house—either a mother or a wife. There's also an expectation that women will prepare their own bentos. Interestingly enough, men who make their own lunches are teased, either by their work colleagues, or sometimes even by the show's narrator.

The faceless narrator who speaks English is another reason Lunch On is so engrossing. Her tone alternates between passive-aggressive and obsequious. She constantly apologizes for bothering subjects, while somehow managing, at the same time, to express a decidedly less apologetic perspective. For instance, one episode visited an office where a group of colleagues regularly make a giant hot pot in the office. None of the men involved in the hot pot cabal seemed to know much about cooking, so they broke a number of hot pot conventions, causing the narrator to naggingly question what the workers were doing. The narrator similarly couldn't hide her judgment about a woman who literally ran home on her lunch break while simultaneously eating her lunch so she could do housework.

Part of the reason Lunch On is so entertaining is that the producers understand that even people like me, who have an almost bottomless appetite for seeing what other people are eating, need another show angle. After all, there are 20 episodes a year, which is 10 hours of other people’s lunches (even more impressively, Salaryman’s Lunch is 30-35 episodes per season). So many of the other segments use lunch to frame a different hook. For instance, for the second segment, a producer might stand in the street, randomly asking people if she can go to lunch with them, interviewing the subject over a meal, not just about lunch, but about larger life issues, like the challenge of being a working mother in Japan. It's like Spalding Gray's "Interviewing the Audience" but with side dishes.

The third and final segment is often "The Lunch He Loved So Dearly," which focuses on a dead contemporary celebrity (with the term celebrity occasionally used as freely as our own Dancing with the Stars or Hollywood Squares use it) and a lunch the deceased enjoyed eating. The show will visit the restaurant where the lunch was made and talk about the meal, as well as how and why the departed enjoyed eating it. For instance, Eigo Kawashima, a singer/songwriter, would always visit the same okonomiyaki, or savory Japanese pancake, shop in Tokyo. The segment has the chef making the dish while the narrator describes it, creating a segment that's part food review and part obituary. There's never any video of the celebrity. Often, it's just a single headshot shown on a loop throughout the segment, like the subject was just photographed that one time. It's as weird as it is sweetly sincere.

That’s because Japan takes food seriously. There are magazines dedicated to bento, featuring tips and, of course, photographs. Japanese quiz shows often involve food knowledge. According to de St. Maurice, food is ingrained in popular culture because the Japanese are incredibly open-minded about it, making food a safe topic to discuss and read about. "The contemporary [Japanese] food scene is liberating. People aren't afraid to enjoy food. They're not ideological about it." Because of this, food is also often a focus of scripted Japanese television, both comedic and dramatic. I came to Lunch On after falling in love with Midnight Diner, a Japanese anthology drama airing on Netflix, that takes place in a diner (actually closer to what Americans might consider a gastropub). Each episode is titled after a dish, which also factors into the plot. It's a food-driven drama and it made me fall in love with Japanese food. It sent me to message boards, looking for similar shows, where eventually the Internet directed me to Lunch On.

I constantly think about if a show like Lunch On could work in the United States. In many ways, Japan is the inverse of the U.S., food culture-wise. While Japan is a homogeneous culture, there is great pride in making meals unique. Here in the States, we're a heterogeneous culture that takes great pride in making meals homogeneous. The legendary appeal of McDonald's is that each and every one that you step into is no different from any other. A show like Lunch On would have to work very hard to find unique American lunches.

There's also something about the sacredness of the Japanese lunch hour that feels quaint and old-fashioned when observed with an American sensibility. Americans with enough power to have a lunch break often take great pride in not taking advantage of it: "I'm so slammed at work. I wish I had time for lunch," someone will smugly brag. And people who could use a lunch break, like Uber drivers and other members of the gig economy, try to avoid an extended break, since every minute they're not working they're not getting paid.

Japan's work culture, although perhaps improving, is the stuff of my personal and professional nightmares. But their take on lunch, perhaps sans the forced coworker bonding, feels healthy. Food is important. Good food is important. Lunch On spotlights the importance of eating well. It's not about eating organic or eating fancy or even eating homemade. It's much more pragmatic. Lunch On, at its core, is about spotlighting lunches that will help you do what you need to do. It’s really about self-care. So instead of being disconnected from your lunch, feeling like it's a hurdle to be cleared, or even worse, intermittently fasting, which no one wants to hear about, think about what you want to accomplish after lunch and eat something that will get you there. And then pretend a camera crew is going to ask you to draw what you ate. Because maybe that will help you up your lunch game a little.

Steven Ovadia Comment