I love to make bento box lunches for, and with, my daughter when I have the time. It is fun and strangely satisfying, to put together a cute and edible creation which tastes yummy and looks super appealing. When I am able, it is for fun, and she likes to show her school friends what we have made. In Australia, it is pretty much guaranteed the she will be the only person in her class with a bento.
This is not the case in Japan, where everyone takes bento boxes to nursery school and kindergarten, and the contents and visual appeal, as well as the nutritional balance, have become a source of extreme competitiveness and a reflection of the societal pressure in general. Some mothers begin preparing their children’s lunch at 5am. This pressure to conform, which is indicative of Japanese culture in general, and the undercurrent of “mummy friend bullying” is becoming more and more of an issue.
Historically, bento boxes have been enjoyed by the Japanese for around 800 years, in some form, with suggestion that they may have been used as early as the 5th century. The term bento was possibly coined by my favourite daimyo, Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), the first military commander to begin the unification of Japan. Bento became increasingly popular during the Edo Period (1600-1868) and were regarded as an essential accompaniment for travel and outings to the theatre. By the Meiji Period (1868-1912) with the emergence of train travel, ekiben (station bento) became popular and remain a delightful ritual for shinkansen (bullet train) travel.
Sadly, bento have now become the root of much anxiety for some mothers, and are often looked upon as a measure of a mother’s dedication. Some nursery school’s have set minimum standards for children’s bento boxes and the pressure to deliver is real. Mothers politely told their bento is not nutritious or appealing enough.
Social media sites are abuzz with photos of bento creations. Instagram has nearly 2 million hash tagged posts of bento. YouTube has thousands of how-to videos and Pinterest has a gazillion pins of beautiful boxes of delicious, cute food. Kyaraben (character bento) are made using the popular characters from anime, manga and Sanrio, as well as video games and movies. The amount of work which goes into some of these creations is amazing and obvious. I love looking at the photos and can appreciate that for me, they do not represent any pressure, only appreciation. I am glad I am the only mum at school that makes the occasional creation.
Ps. Bijinjapan, as you are in the trenches, I would love to hear of your experiences….
By luckysundae – http://www.flickr.com/photos/cuteobento/1593376780/sizes/o/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4944964