The Darkside of Japan’s Cute Bento Box Craze
Op-ed by Heather Callaghan
Are “cute” bento Box lunches driving Japanese women haggard?
Once, I impulsively stated that everything about the Japanese culture is cute. This was before the kawaii craze (meaning “all things cute” – sometimes to a disturbing degree). Someone replied to my assertion with this single phrase: hari kari. Okay…agreed. Honor suicides are not “cute.”
Dying at the workplace is not cute either. That’s a phenomenon that is an offshoot from WW2 when Japan focused on virtually nothing else but rebuilding. People there are driving themselves to death. Apparently, Japan wants women back in the hardcore workforce, but the majority never return after having children. However, the biggest craze sweeping up Japanese homemakers is not a corporate drive, but the drive to spend hours making intricate bento boxes to appease an invisible bento god.
Bento Box Lunches
Bento simply means a takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese meals, that is often a box or tin containing compartments that offer one side each. A traditional bento holds rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables often in removable compartments. Thanks to the widespread craze, they now come in technicolor themes, with characters and even public figures. Many blog sites and Pinterest boards are devoted to them, which, granted, are fun to look at.
NPR explains why the trend has become out of control:
The moms say they don’t do it every day, but on mornings they make kyaraben, they block out as much as 90 minutes to make lunch. And not every Japanese parent wants to do this — but the cultural pressure is high, because it’s hard to be the parent whose kid has a lame lunch.
Don’t get me wrong, they are so cute and artful, and Japan has an unparalleled reverence for presentation and excellence. Making food at home is valuable. Plus, children really could use some aesthetics and the appreciation for them. Frankly, America placed great emphasis on these values at one point, too. My great-grandmother used to say, “If it doesn’t look good, how do you expect anyone to want to eat it?” She also meant, that you don’t serve food on a plate like it’s slop. But, people could spend more time with culinary skills before a ravaged economy made it necessary for parents to struggle and find low-wage jobs to survive. The stressors on parents are much greater now, and on bodies that are more taxed than ever in a world that is hurdling at break-neck speed. In other words, introducing one more societal pressure just isn’t warranted.
You can see on the Japanese women’s faces that spending hours making bento boxes just to satisfy a cultural pressure isn’t exactly fulfilling. Notice the children in this video, too. Are they in awe of their mothers’ creations?
After the video, see some examples of bentos:
Photo credit: [email protected] via Visualhunt / CC BY
Photo credit: luckysundae via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: leafar. via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: AikoVenus via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA
In the membrane…
As a parent who struggles with lunch prep on a daily basis, the idea of taking culinary aesthetics to this level baffles me. Whom do the mothers think is judging them? Surely not the children, as their brief moments of jealous comparison would dissipate in the few seconds it takes to eat that piece of cute molded sushi, no matter that it took their mother twenty minutes to make. Are there parent volunteers hovering in the classroom who take note of whose creation is most intricate, or snooty teachers giving grades?
Furthermore, many of the women don’t seem to want to create bentos, but they take classes so they can become good at it. After perusing some bentos I came to the same conclusion as the Treehugger author – what’s wrong with a handwritten note?
Some things should be thrown overboard to adjust your course in a stormy, chaotic world. Cultural and societal pressures should be the first load to go, as they are often the heaviest. That said, if adult coloring books or bento boxes are cathartic and meaningful, then the time to do them should be sacred. But there’s a difference between pursuing art for art’s sake, reducing stress or valuing presentation and doing it for fear of what happens if you don’t. To put it another way – there’s a difference between reducing stress and adding to it. Art reduces stress and why shouldn’t it be edible? But many of the women of Japan are forcing themselves to do it and that’s never fun.
Motives count when it comes to whatever you do even if it’s health, fitness or meditation – because your body hears your motives and gets the message loud and clear. Children do too, and they are often unimpressed (and inadvertently ungrateful) at our attempts to one-up the Jones’.
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