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Itadakimasu: Thank You Nature For This Meal

Author: Yoshimasa Machida, Issue: April 2005, Topic: Japanese Culture

The following is a speech from a member of the Tsukuba Toastmaster's Club.

"Itadakimasu!" All the children in the classroom chanted in unison before eating school lunch when I visited a nearby school with an American friend of mine the other day. "What did they say?" my friend asked. "They said 'Itadakimasu.' It's our custom to say that before eating," I replied. After coming home I checked my dictionary to look for a translation of itadakimasu, but it only said, "There is no English equivalent for this phrase."

Itadakimasu is one of those phrases that are hard to translate into English because of their vague meaning. But I feel that sometimes these vague Japanese phrases express the true heart of the Japanese people.

So, what does itadakimasu mean? It literally means, "I shall take," and is used to say, "Thank you for this meal." But I was surprised to hear the news recently that one parent had voiced an opinion, saying, "It's wrong for the school to force our children to say 'Itadakimasu' because we parents are paying for the meal. There is no need for our children to thank the school or the teacher."

I was appalled at this mother's opinion because she didn't understand our own Japanese culture at all. But this news led me to think deeper into the meaning of itadakimasu. And today I would like to share my understanding of this phrase with you.

As I said the literal meaning of itadakimasu is "I shall take." But take what? According to my childhood memory of what I heard from my father and teachers, I shall take means: "I shall take the lives of others." This is my understanding of the phrase. It may sound gruesome to you, but let's face it. We consume food to live; and the food is made of living organisms like plants and animals. We sacrifice the lives of plants and animals for consumption.

Then, who provides us with these lives? The answer is two-fold; 1) our benevolent Mother Nature and 2) the farmers who work very hard for us.

So, itadakimasu means "I shall take the lives. Thank you, Mother Nature and farmers!" I think this is the true meaning of itadakimasu. And I believe that in this expression lies the heart of the Japanese people; the heart of appreciation.

Itadakimasu may be translated as "Thank you for this meal." But "thank you" in this case does not mean to thank only the person in front of you, but rather to thank our benevolent Mother Nature and all the people that make our life possible. So, unfortunately, the mother that lodged the protest was completely mistaken. She thought that the children were forced to say, "Thank you, Teacher; thank you, School," but simply that wasn't the case.

In recent years, cruel, juvenile crimes are on the rise. The natural environment is being destroyed at this very moment when we are talking about climate change or protection of endangered fauna and flora. Critics are suggesting various ways to stop these vicious trends. But I believe the key to the solution lies in the simple phrase of itadakimasu because it can extend our thoughts to Nature and the people around us. It fosters the heart of appreciation.

Therefore, I would like to advocate promoting the itadakimasu spirit. Let's remember the true meaning of itadakimasu; let's teach our children the true value of itadakimasu; and let's say "Itadakimasu!" every time before we eat!

I sincerely hope that this old Japanese phrase will work for the betterment of our modern society.

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