Lifting the lid on Japan’s amazing bento boxes
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Working mums have it tough in Japan – creating Instagram-worthy, healthy lunches is one of many pressures they say they face
By Mariko Oi
16th October 2019
Each year, five billion lunch boxes are made at home in Japan.
That’s correct: Five BILLION.
Known both in Japan and abroad as bento boxes, they’re the famous, compartmentalised containers filled with rice, vegetables, meat and more, eaten by kids and grownups alike. In fact, over 70% of that five billion is for adults, as bento offer a cheaper and healthier option for many workers, as opposed to quick takeaway meals.
But it’s the expectation that falls on mothers to fashion stunning bento for their kids every day that builds stress and pressure – especially when those mums are working ones.
Miki Okamura describes the duty of making lunch boxes as “the most important job as a mother” (Credit: Miki Okamura)
Japanese lunch boxes are not like the rest of the world’s “leftovers from last night”, either. There’s a much bigger emphasis on food presentation. Even as a child, I remember my mother getting stressed out about my lunch box being too “brown and white” (meat and rice).
What tends to grab news headlines internationally is “character bento” for children – known as chara-ben – packed lunches made to look like pandas, teddy bears or even real people. Chara-ben is far from the norm, but it captures just how much time mums put into making bento for their children.
Bento boxes are expressions of a mother’s love for her child
“Bento boxes are expressions of a mother’s love for her child, through the commitment of time and thought to creating healthy, innovative, beautiful lunch boxes,” says Barbara Holthus, deputy director for the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo. “Mothers – and children – are socialised into this view.”
My school friend Miki Okamura, who is a mother of two, is a keen chara-ben maker who often posts her creations on social media.
“I started making them because my daughter was a fussy eater, so I thought that if I made them look pretty, it might encourage her to eat more,” she tells me.
“Once I started making them for both kids, they started looking forward to it, and her friends and teachers also started asking ‘what’s your chara-ben today?’ so I continued for two years,” says Okamura. “They are now at a primary school which serves lunch, but once they go to junior high, I’ll have to start making them again every day.”
Okamura doesn’t think she will make chara-ben now the kids are older, but she describes the duty of making lunch boxes as “the most important job as a mother”.
“Not only can you make sure they eat healthy food, but you can also express your love to the children,” she says.
During the Edo Period from around 1600 to 1830, people would bring bento to the theatre and other outings (Credit: Alamy)
The word “bento” is thought to have been first coined during the Edo Period which lasted from around 1600 to 1867. Elaborately decorated lacquer food containers were brought to the theatre and other leisure outings such as picnics. At that time, bento became a symbol of wealth and status.
And in modern Japan, there is still an emphasis on getting the aesthetic of bento right, albeit against the backdrop of a much more fast-paced and high-pressure society.
Nowadays, it is supposed to be colourful and fun, to get fussy children eat vegetables. And a whole industry involving cute containers, food picks and other food tools has sprung up to facilitate this.
My personal rule is to include five colours: red, yellow, green, black and white
Another mother, Risako Kasahara, also posts pictures of her daughter’s lunch box (while her son goes to a school that serves hot food). “It was stressful at the beginning,” she says. “But I’ve learned some tricks along the way. If I forget to cook rice, I will quickly boil noodles or pasta, for example.”
“My personal rule is to include five colours: red, yellow, green, black and white, because if you’re not careful, a lot of the dishes tend to be brown.”
“I tried making chara-ben when the kids were younger, but apparently it is hard to eat. They once came home without touching the food because they didn’t want to eat the characters, so I stopped making them,” she laughs.
Chara-ben is a relatively new phenomenon that gained momentum in 2000s. But even when I was growing up, if you brought a sandwich that was purchased at a store, your teachers would ask if your mother was ill.
While Miki Okamura says no matter what, it is an absolute no-no to let the children bring store-bought food to school, Risako Kasahara says that “what’s important is to pack them nicely, because if the kids bring the food as you bought them at a store, we get told off by the school.”
To create a bento box that pops, Risako Kasahara's personal rule is to include five colours: red, yellow, green, black and white (Credit: @kicharaben)
As with many things, the pressure today is on a different scale, particularly with social media.
Celebrities, known as “mama talent”, like Nozomi Tsuji and Yuko Ogura, have hundreds of thousands of followers share their home-cooked lunch boxes.
But social media can be mercilessly unforgiving. One comedian known as Highheel Momoko discovered this the hard way after she was jokingly ‘bento-shamed’ that the “girl in a pink dress” or the bear she posted looked a bit like… dead bodies.
Joking aside, being judged by others is something many people care and worry about in Japan – be it bento-shaming or something else. “The pressure that my bento must be judged by the teachers makes it even more stressful,” Romi told me on Twitter.
I remember reading Eat Pray Love, which said that there should be one word to describe yourself and your city, and I thought to myself: “my word for Japan is ‘reputation’.” How am I viewed? Did my child feel embarrassed because of me (and in this case, because of my not-so-pretty lunch box)?
After posting some not-so-polished designs, one comedian attracted some joking 'bento-shaming' on social media (Credit: @highheel_momoko)
The fear of being ostracised or just standing out is greater in Japan
It is easy for a non-Japanese person to shrug off this societal or cultural pressure, but it is something that stayed with me all my life, even though I have lived abroad for half of it. Take American anthropologist Ruth Benedict, for example. She described Japan as a “shame society” in her 1946 book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, as opposed to America’s “guilt society”.
While there are many criticisms of her characterisations, I tend to agree that the fear of being ostracised or just standing out is greater in Japan. And many historians believe the reason goes back to the Edo Period, when villagers were divided into groups of five households. They were expected to help each other, but they were also responsible for the behaviour of others in the group – so if one person broke a rule, everyone in the group could be punished.
A whole industry has sprung up around the colourful bento aesthetic (Credit: Alamy)
A tool of communication
The issue is: lunch boxes are not just for young children in Japan. According to a recent survey, many senior high school students (aged 15 to 18) still bring home-cooked lunch boxes to school, and the majority of them are made by their mothers.
But according to Risako, who has been making bento for 10 years and plans to continue making them until her daughter is 18, it’s about building the relationship between mothers and children.
“When rebellious teenagers often stop talking to their parents, by eating their mothers’ food, they still feel the love and be grateful,” she says. “I also ask my daughter what she liked most in the lunch box, so it’s a communication tool.”
There is widespread consensus in Japan that home-cooked food is healthier than store-bought – another reason why Japanese mothers still prepare their teenage children’s lunch boxes.
Fathers aren’t under the same pressure as mothers to make the perfect bento
I don’t think I will forget the look on my friend’s face when I gave my then three-year-old daughter a rice ball I had bought from a convenience store.
“Do you know how many food preservatives are in there?” she asked.
Research shows that in Japan the majority of housework still falls on women but the stressful task of preparing lunch boxes is increasingly shared by fathers: Hiroto Okada has been in charge of making lunch boxes for his 10-year-old son for the last six months. He plans to continue making them until his son is 18. And while he doesn’t personally feel the weight of judgement about whether his son brings store-bought food or an immaculately made chara-ben, he does worry about food preservatives.
“I told my son there was no chance I could make chara-ben, so he came home with this pre-cut seaweed,” he tweeted to me (though he later said it didn’t taste too nice and it got soggy too quickly).
Japan's new 'ikumen' actively take part in childcare (credit: Hristo Rusev/NurPhoto)
While popular culture is championing “ikumen” – desirable dads who happily do housework – as a way of promoting paternal involvement in family life, when it comes to feeding their children, I would argue that fathers aren’t under the same pressure as mothers to make the perfect bento.
But at least one Twitter follower told me things are starting to change.
“At my child’s school, working mothers are not expected to make amazing lunch boxes. At one point, doughnuts from a store became ‘the cool thing to bring to school’ and teachers and other children shared some snacks, too.”
At the heart of it, this isn’t just about making colourful lunch boxes. It is about all the pressures around “perfect” motherhood.
As the country struggles with a falling birth rate, it might be time to address this kind of societal pressure – especially as women in their 20s still want to become stay-at-home mums, even when older generations chose careers.
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