Yui Hirasawa (K-ON!)
In a good percentage of school related anime, a character always ends up oversleeping and running late for school. Since they cannot have breakfast at the table like a normal person upon waking up, they still need to catch a bus and/or train to school. As the character runs, they tend to have a slice of toast in their mouth to compensate for lost time (and maybe simultaneously burn those calories).
What We've Seen in Anime
For most anime viewers, their main exposure to this trend is through the original Sailor Moon series. Usagi is always waking up late and rushes to school while eating her toast. This is seen in a great number of episodes throughout the series. In addition to Sailor Moon, Miaka from Fushigi Yuugi has done this, Kallen in the last episode of Code Geass R2 does it, and even Rei in Evangelion exhibits this trait (though it was a parody).
This happens so much in anime to the point that others may think that art is imitating life. That's what I thought prior to moving to Japan, and I really do not blame anybody reading this in making the same conclusions. How did this quality come about? Does it come from real life? Nobody knows for sure but in anime, it is officially the signal for “I’m late for school!” Some Japanese sites believe it originates from a number of classic titles from Shoujo, but the series that comes to mind to some Japanese experts is Patty no Hatsukoi, or Patty’s First Love, from 1968.
Some fans think it is meant to symbolize “Slice of Life,” while others think it is meant to be some sort of reflection of that character’s personality of always being in a hurry, but nobody conclusively knows the origins and why it continues to resonate. Sailor Moon may have been a western audience’s gateway to Japan’s education system with its rigorous exams, sailor uniforms for girls and gakurans for boys But does it accurately portray other aspects of the average life of a Japanese student such as running with a slice of toast in one’s mouth if they're running late?
What We See in Real Life
For an entire six years spent in Japan up until this point, I have taught elementary, junior high and senior high school. On my way to school, you do see students running towards the bus and/or train but never with a slice of toast in their mouth. I must confess, I thought the slice of toast running schoolgirl would be real and I wanted a video of that for my YouTube channel. As my time in Japan went on, reality started kicking in. The first instance happened to a fellow American friend of mine living in Hyogo (where the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya takes place).
He was working for an English conversation school for children one summer and he walked to school eating an ice cream cone he bought at a vending machine. By the time he arrived, his boss actually called him into his office saying they got a complaint over the phone about him eating ice cream while walking. He was told he should not be doing that because it is not the “Japanese way” and that was that.
Usagi Tsukino (Sailor Moon)
What We Need to Understand
The thing about Japan is the people are completely about harmony, and within that harmony, there are “unspoken rules” which foreigners will have difficulty understanding due to these cultural and society differences. In a country where the foreign population has maintained at 2% between 2000-2014, the Japanese can easily do that due to them being a homogenous society that makes them in sync.
My friend thought he was accused of littering which he claims he did not do, and failed to understand what the deal was about having ice cream on a hot summer day other than it’s not the “Japanese way.” When he told me about that incident, I didn't get it either. He just went with the flow and followed the rules throughout the remainder of his brief employment there.
A year later after that while I was teaching junior high school in Southern Saitama, right by the border of Northern Tokyo, I was riding with two teachers on our way back from a meeting and it was past 5pm and school was long over. Near the train station, we caught a student walking by eating bread he bought at a convenience store. The teacher told me the boy broke the rules and she exited out of her car to warn him. Growing up in America where there are no such rules for students not being allowed to eat outside of school, I asked the teacher if what he did was bad.
The first thing she told me was that in Japan, it is very rude to stand/walk/run while eating. The reason for this is because it is very disrespectful to the people who made the food from the farmer who farmed the wheat, to the baker who baked the flour, and to the clerk that sold bread. I was tempted to bring up that it happens in anime all the time. Considering I was in my late-twenties and this teacher was in her mid-fifties, I thought mentioning something which happens only in anime would make me look like a fool, so I just left the discussion there to not disrupt the harmony on my part.
Madoka Kaname (Puella Madoka Magica)
The second reason is because compulsory education (or gimu kyoiku) in Japan is up to 9th grade, the end of junior high, students are under strict supervision even when going home. That includes not being allowed to use vending machines, hanging out at McDonald’s, or buying food at convenience stores (of course this rule is exempted if a parent is with them). In the case of public schools in Japan, the city’s board of education provides lunches called kyushoku (which I do not recall seeing in any anime, if there is anime where students eat kyushoku and not bento, please leave a comment).
The lunches that are provided tend to be healthy for a growing body, and also educates students about nutrition. Even teachers and administrative staff eat the same lunches as the students. The students eat together in their own classroom and help each other distribute the kyushoku. This also promotes harmony and equality within the environment where everybody eats the same food.
As for private elementary and junior high schools, that tend to be different, I have no personal experiences in teaching private elementary and junior high, but they have different rules. I do have one friend who taught at a private junior high school and she told me the rules are more relaxed compared to public schools. Like in Prince of Tennis where Seishun Gakuen is a private junior high school, students are free to bring their own money and bentos to school, and the school also has vending machines (while public junior highs will not).
Last, when a student is seen eating or drinking on his way home, it tells the community that the school is not providing the student with quality nutrition. Most of the time, students are discouraged from actually having money unless it is to pay for something school related such as textbooks or uniforms. Even on field trips they cannot purchase drinks from vending machines.
However, because high school is optional in Japan, high schools tend to have more relaxed rules. Japanese high schools in my experience will not have rules about not attending restaurants or going to convenience stores during after school hours. Plus, students are free to bring their own lunches or buy their lunch at a cafeteria, as well as them being free to eat outside their homeroom classroom like what you might see in History’s Strongest Disciple Kenichi!
I once taught at a girl’s high school (the stories I have working there can be a series of its own) where nobody minded if they walked from the cafeteria back to their classrooms while eating ice cream. Still, the school had an incident where a girl was eating ice cream while walking and she bumped into another student ruining each other’s uniforms. Due to this accident, the school briefly banned students walking while eating for this reason, but they relaxed the rules when things calmed down.
The Reasons Why
Due to these different reasons provided by me and my friend, in the English teaching world of Japan, English teachers have a saying called, "every situation is different." In my friend’s situation, he just did what he was told for the sake of it. In compulsory education, it is about full-circle respect. In high school, it is about being careful of your surroundings. I am positive those in the education industry in Japan have experienced this and may have heard various reasons on why something is done or isn't done in a certain way.
Other places in Japan will address the problem in different ways but in the end, as in western animation like The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-Head, Japanese animation is also free to break social norms. To some non-Japanese people, they probably were thinking that a schoolgirl running late to school with a slice of toast is an everyday occurrence.
Until my encounter with something minuscule to what happens in anime, I wanted to believe it, too. To the Japanese, running with a slice of toast in your mouth is about as a big deal to them as saying eat my shorts was to some American PTA groups in the 1990s.
As a foreigner living and working in Japan, you are just told to do and not do certain things no matter how trivial it is for the sake of harmony (and in most instances, you unknowingly break cultural norms). In many occasions, you will not be told why because the harmony is their way of communicating and they like to do things in a vague sense. Some Japanese nationals with western experiences are able to openly share this information in more depth.
Ultimately, the reasons my co-worker in Saitama shared with me makes perfect sense on why school girls running with a slice of toast in their mouth never occurs in real life. I will confess, I break sometimes break this rule a lot on my private time. I always enjoy a Coca Cola after a long train ride home, and when hungry, why wait when I can grab a Snickers.
Rei Ayanami (Evangelion)
So if you find yourself in Japan, don’t be surprised if you get strange looks if you walk while eating with a slice of toast, or anything else for that matter. It is better to educate yourself about the different cultures around you. When you have a good understanding of the lifestyle, the standards and the people in said culture, the better image you present for yourself and the country you represent.
I hope this was informative to some of you anime viewers who have not yet experienced Japan first hand. After experiencing Japan, I believe people’s perceptions of anime can change and I hope to share more in the future.