The “sad desk lunch” has become cultural shorthand for a work culture that increasingly feels unable to give people a normal, healthy lunch break. Sad desk lunches aren’t necessarily eaten at a desk; they’re an entire culinary subset of soggy sandwiches, Tupperwares filled with two-day-old leftovers, or unfulfilling salads acquired from an undistinguishable chain.
The Japanese show Lunch On!, produced by public television channel NHK (and available to stream in the U.S. via NHK’s Roku channel), serves as an antidote to that culture. The program is mostly focused on the country’s devoted working class — their stories are told through the lens of food. Each episode usually has a segment dedicated to one specific job, introducing several people who work there (and what they’re eating for lunch). By watching the show, I’ve learned about the working lives of everyone from panda keepers to taxi drivers to parade float-builders, not to mention jobs I’m not sure I even knew existed (like the weather forecaster responsible for predicting the annual blooming of the cherry blossoms).
Lunch On! drives home the impressive work ethic of the people who are featured, and that’s also apparent by the dedication put into their lunches as well. Episodes have shown meticulously prepared lunch boxes in zany segments like “Let’s Go See a Bento!” where Lunch On!’s intrepid photographer travels to factories and farm fields and asks unsuspecting folks if he can photograph their impressive lunches. (The segment has featured everything from homemade rice balls to cartoon characters fashioned from ingredients like nori and hot dogs.) I get a little misty-eyed during segments like “The Lunch (S)He Loved So Dearly,” where restaurant owners talk about famous deceased regulars and their go-to lunch orders. And since I’m a remote worker eating leftovers in front of my computer each day, I’m continually jealous of the segments featuring company cafeterias serving delicious miso soups and fried tempura dishes for free or reduced prices to their team members daily.
Watching Lunch On! isn’t without its annoyances. The host has the most sing-song delivery I’ve ever heard, and it’s hard not to rail at the patriarchy when it’s continually implied that bento-making is the wife’s job in the household. But if you can get past those issues, you too can spend your evenings watching Japan’s self-defense forces compete against each other in epic curry-making competitions, or see office workers draw messy whiteboard pictures of the lunch they just ate during Man on the Street-style segments. The show will convince you that sad desk lunches are a whole lot more prevalent in the U.S. than they appear to be in Japan.