Panda-shaped rice balls. A nori-whiskered Hello Kitty. Creatures made from hard-boiled eggs. When prepared for schoolchildren, praiseworthy bento boxes combine healthy ingredients with adorable designs.
Said to have evolved centuries ago among the Japanese elite, bento has attained worldwide popularity in recent years, and its rise in popular culture has resulted in a type of fanaticism epitomized by international competitions, vegan bento box blogs, and a never-ending flurry of photos cultivated by proud moms (and dads) on social media.
In Japanese society, where much emphasis is placed on the collective, and fitting into the group is widely encouraged, it’s extremely important to adhere to the ritual of bento. For women especially, the risk of a lackluster lunch goes a bit beyond disappointing their four-year-old—a child’s bento box is a reflection of a mother’s love and even a representation of the mother herself; as such, a beautiful and nutritious presentation is crucial. Anything less, unfortunately, is just admittance of poor parenting.
Indeed, preparing bento for schoolchildren is serious business in Japan. Taking anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, it involves shaping rice, egg, meat, and fruits and vegetables into colorful patterns within single-portion containers. Women can spend hours pouring over specialized magazines and shopping for the tools needed to create beautiful lunches for their children.
One facet of bento, called charaben (kyaraben) or character bento, has grown increasingly popular within Japanese society. “… [M]any moms compete on the creativity of the bento boxes they send to school with their kids by arranging them into bunny rabbits, Hello Kitty, and even video game characters,” reports Ibuki magazine.
Pokémon bento, anyone?
Or do you want to build a snowman, complete with snowflake sausages and heart-shaped omelettes?
While it may look like all fun and games, some believe this practice has evolved into a narcissistic cult-culture, one in which circles of mothers prepare exquisite bento boxes to outdo each other and receive validation online. Ruriko Tomita, a 43-year-old Japanese woman with two young children, says that she knows mothers who “get up at like four o’clock or five o’clock, cutting seaweed with scissors,” adding that “these days there is the Internet, Facebook … so they want to show their friends and want to get compliments.”
However, the competitive nature of bento may be rooted in a deeper societal impulse than simply gaining followers on social media. Makiko Itoh, author of The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches to Go, says that bento is a reflection of a certain competitiveness that exists for parents with small children.
“A lot of it is caused by the fact that many parents want to get their kids into a good kindergarten, and for that, they have to pass the test,” Itoh says. The better the parents perform in their parental duties, like bento, the more likely their children will be accepted by good schools and receive a better education, she explains.
In addition to the parents, the children are being judged, too, according to Anne Allison, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University who has lived in Japan and specializes in the country. They’re expected to consume their lunch quickly and in its entirety or risk school reprimand.
For foreigners who’ve settled in Japan with their families, acclimating to the elaborate ritual of bento can be an especially difficult transition. Griseldis Kirsch, a lecturer in contemporary Japanese culture with the University of London, found herself struggling when she enrolled her son in a nursery school in Japan in 2005. The nursery had set bento standards in place that encouraged Kirsch to conform—or be at risk of looking like a bad mother.
Despite her efforts to create beautiful and nourishing lunches for her son, Kirsch quickly realized her bento skills were not up to school par. One day, she recalls, “[My son] came home and said, ‘The teacher said this to me: “Your bento, it doesn’t look good.” And she’s going to tell you.’ By that time, I had already had my call, saying that the bento hadn’t looked very nice.”
Patricia Morghetti, a Brazilian living in Japan, still feels pressure when it comes to preparing bento for her kindergarten-age children each week. Inherently aware of her label as an outsider, Morghetti frequently questions her ability to make bento boxes in the same league as other students’.
Morghetti tries to avoid giving their classmates another reason to mark her blonde, light-eyed children as different. So she dedicates herself to watching long strings of YouTube tutorials in order to perfect her bento technique. “I need to be able to make the rice look like a panda … because if I don’t, for sure, my daughter’s friends will make fun [of her],” Morghetti says.
While some native Japanese mothers insist that bento culture doesn’t subject their families to any sort of societal pressure or bullying, others contest that they have—and continue to—serve as a source of real struggle for locals as much as for foreigners. Kyoko Sudo, a 36-year-old-Japanese woman, describes the experience of being bullied over bento during her school years as “awful.”
“Kids started complaining about what my mother made: ‘Maybe Kyoko’s family is very poor because she has only has one egg and one sausage!’” she recalls. “They judged me, and my family, you know. It’s so annoying! Not only charaben—it’s just [the] traditional dark side of bento history.”
Decades later, bento continues to be a societal issue, Sudo says. Friends of hers with children enrolled in school complain that the rocketing trend of charaben has made many kids envious, and mothers are stressed out because it’s getting too competitive.
Still, a number of them continue creating elaborate bento to uphold their children’s stature.
“In Japan, it’s so totally different from the States, from the rest of the world,” Sudo says. “If the kids behave in such a different way, or oppositely from the rest of the students, we kind of … [assume] some bad things are happening in the family. So that’s really difficult.”
Regardless of this pressure to conform, Sudo says when she has kids, they will not have bento.
Liz Unger is a National Geographic Young Explorer, photojournalist, and filmmaker from New York, where she is pursuing her Masters degree in Food Studies at NYU. Follow her on Twitter @ewu5191 and Instagram @ewu5191, and explore her work at www.lizunger.com.