Why I’d never make it as a Japanese mother

These were NOT my children’s lunch boxes!

When my kidlets Ben and Larissa were very little, I taught them how to plan and pack their own school lunches each morning. As I explained earlier here, I began by sticking a colourful poster of the 1982 Canada’s Food Guide on the fridge door. My two kidlets prepared their own packed lunches, having been well-trained that on every school morning, they’d need to consult the fridge poster to make sure their lunch boxes contained at least one fruit, one veggie, one protein, etc. I couldn’t care less what kind of fruit/veggie/protein they chose as long as it all added up, and if they wanted to pack exactly the same favourite lunch day after day after day, that was fine with me, too.

And, let’s face it: controlling their own lunch menus also reduced the temptation to trade Mum’s über-healthy homemade Tofu Surprise lunch for a classmate’s marshmallow creme-on-white bread sandwich in the schoolyard. I’d sometimes sneak in little surprise notes (“Have fun on your class trip today! love, Mum XOXO”) but otherwise, what they put in was what they found later on.  I always figured that teaching them to pack their own school lunches would help them to become independent and self-reliant.

This child-rearing attitude is apparently just one of the character traits that sets me apart from many Japanese mothers, according to Dr. Anne Allison, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University.  

In her Anthropological Quarterly journal article called The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus*, Dr. Allison studied a unique sociological concept in Japan called obento, which is the super-fancy school lunch prepared by super-keen mothers for their super-cute kindergarten children.

In fact, compared to those Japanese mothers who have perfected the packed lunch art of obento, was I being a cruel and uncaring Mum for forcing my poor tiny kidlets to pack their own lunches?  When I emailed some over-the-top obento pictures today to my now-grown-up daughter Larissa, her reply was:

“What a lucky little girl . . . I wish my Mama had made my lunch when I was little.”

Oh, sure, twist the knife in my heart. I think she was kidding, anyway. (Wasn’t she?)

One blogger based in Japan, on her Watashi to Tokyo site, recently praised the photos featured on a popular Japanese-language obento website:

“Her obento for her four-year old daughter is made to look like cute characters. I was so impressed by her creativity and ingenuity. All the ingredients she uses are edible. For black parts she uses nori, and for pink parts shes uses denbu, which is a pink-colored cod fish powder used in sushi.

“The main reason I am so impressed with this obento is that each of this mother’s beautiful creations are loaded with so much love for her daughter.”

Hmmmmmm . . . What’s the unspoken implication in this type of gushing praise? Perhaps that if you don’t make “beautiful creations” for your child’s obento, you don’t have quite as much parental love as you ought to?  Okay, now I’m really starting to feel guilty.

Dr. Allison made this observation about those beautiful creations”:

“As one looks at a typical child’s obento  – a small box packaged with a five or six-course miniaturized meal whose pieces and parts are artistically arranged, perfectly cut, and neatly arranged – it’s apparent that no food is ‘just’ food in Japan.

“What is not so immediately apparent, however, is why a small child with limited appetite and perhaps scant interest in food is the recipient of a meal as elaborate and as elaborately prepared as any made for an entire family or invited guests?”

Dr. Allison described the Japanese educational system as “highly centralized”. When Japanese children first start nursery school, these concepts were considered most important:

  • the ability to transition from home life to the public sphere of a bureaucratic state institution
  • socialization into norms of group life
  • cooperation and emphasis on the collective rather than the individual

She described how the obento fits into this tradition of transition and socialization:

“The obento was seen as an important element of this process. It was a token of home, and more specifically, of mother. This obento from home generally stops once the child enters first grade.

“The willingness to make an elaborate, creative obento was also used as a measure of a woman’s commitment to the mothering role.

“These lunches could be very time- and labor-intensive to make. On average, mothers spend up to 45 minutes every morning cooking, preparing, and assembling the contents of one obento  for one nursery school-aged child. In addition, the previous day they have planned, shopped, and often organized a supper meal with leftovers in mind for the next day’s obento.

“Tips for making obento were a frequent topic of conversation among young mothers, and whole magazines were devoted to the topic. Stores sell a range of obento items, including containers, decorations, molds and stamps to cut foods into various fun shapes, and also, increasingly, pre-made food.”

Nursery schools, she found, carefully oversaw the children’s school lunch. The entire obento must be eaten, and everyone had to wait until every child had finished – an important lesson in the importance of the collective over the individual.

Thus, part of the mother’s job was to make the food appealing and easy to consume in an effort to encourage her child to eat and avoid the embarrassment of holding up the rest of the class from after-lunch recess. Making food brightly-coloured, in various shapes, and in small portions helped with this process.

“If a child failed to eat the entire lunch, or ate slowly, both the child and mother were held accountable. More than just a lunch, then, the obento served as a form of socialization into ideas of what it meant to be Japanese, particularly the emphasis on the collective and the importance of meeting expectations.”

Obento at a Japanese kindergarten

Interviewing Japanese mothers, and also making obento lunches  for her own young son in kindergarten, Dr. Allison found that designing the obento was often viewed by mothers as a creative outlet, a way to express themselves and their love for their child. The group she interviewed generally described it as a fulfilling part of motherhood.

But the stakes were also high, since making a sub-par or merely utilitarian obento could stigmatize these young women as bad mothers. The quality of a mother’s obento thus became a symbol of the quality of her mothering and her commitment to her child’s educational success.

Dr. Allison further surmised that if a Japanese child succeeds in school (and in life), a mother is complimented. But if the child fails, a mother is blamed.

“Thus at the nursery school level, the mother starts her own preparation for this upcoming role.”

Of course, this served to institutionalize a form of intensive mothering that is difficult to balance with work life or outside interests. The women she interviewed generally could not hold even part-time jobs and still fulfill the expectations placed upon them.

In fact, a 2007 Japan Today article reported that 70% of Japanese women leave the paid labour force when they have a child.

Dr. Allison observed that the “aestheticization of the obento” was, for a cultural anthropologist, by far its most intriguing aspect to ponder. She described obento foods, for example, as:

  • many, but petite
  • kept segmented and opposed
  • manipulated intensively to achieve an appearance that often changes or disguises the food

She also added her own perspective as a mother of a kindergarten child while living in Japan:

“As one mother insisted to me, the creation of a bear out of miniature hamburgers and rice, or a flower from an apple or peach, is meant to sustain a child’s interest in the underlying food. Yet my child, at least, rarely noticed or appreciated the art I had so laboriously contrived. As for other children, I observed that even for those who ate with no obvious ‘fussiness’, mothers’ efforts to create food as style continued all year long.

“Thus, much of a woman’s labor over obento stems from some agenda other than that of getting the child to eat an entire lunch. The latter is certainly a consideration, and it is the rationale – as well as cover – for women being scrutinized by the school’s authority figure – the teacher.”

How your teenagers will turn out after too much obento

Now here’s an aside question for anthropologists like Dr. Anne Allison: could there possibly be a link between eating one too many cutesy-poo obento lunches and then growing up to embrace the cutesy-poo Japanese style cult called decora or Harajuku fashion? I happen to live in a beautiful West Coast Canadian city that’s very popular with overseas students who come here to learn English or attend university. When we go downtown, it’s impossible not to notice how wandering mobs of giggling Japanese teenagers (and sometimes even grown women) are dressing. Decora is apparently a style typified by All Things Cute and Childlike.  Think Hello Kitty meets Pokemon, wearing 16 bows in perky pigtails, mountains of cheap plastic jewelry, and many pairs of hot pink socks, all at once. This infantile look would be adorable for pre-schoolers, but for 19-year olds, it just looks like the dress-up box has exploded.

It’s also a look made famous internationally by singer Gwen Stefani and her entourage of Harajuku Girls – a look criticized by some (like comedian Margaret Cho, who calls Stefani’s Harajuku Girls a minstrel show that reinforces negative ethnic stereotypes of Asian women.”)

In Japan, cute sells. Bloomberg Business Week described Japanese cute – sometimes called kawaii – as not only a marketing gimic, but also a concept embedded in the culture.

“Cute isn’t just a fashion statement – pink lipstick, butterfly hair bands, pastel colours – it’s also a mode of behaviour. Cute girls often act silly, affect squeaky voices, pout and stamp their feet when angry.”

According to a report on this Japanese phenomenon of cute by Reuters’ Jessie Cohen:

“Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap.”

By the way, the princess of cute, the iconic Japanese character called Hello Kitty and her tie-ins alone generate over $3 billion for creator Sanrio Corporation annually.

But I digress. Back to the obento phenomenon: an article by Makiko Itoh in Japan Times last April called “The Best Kindergarten Lessons Are at Lunch Time” elaborated on obento lunches:

“Young mothers generally take great care over the contents of the small bento boxes they fill every day. The charaben or character obento phenomenon of decorative, occasionally inedible, bento boxes that have caught the imagination of people worldwide via the Internet, was apparently born from one mother’s desire to get her young child – a picky eater – to eat his lunch.

“While making the contents of an obento attractive and appetizing is very important, a kid’s obento is much more than just a pretty lunch.”

The article describes Shin Yoshida Kindergarten in suburban Yokohama, about 20 minutes from central Tokyo, where all the children bring an obento from home, lovingly packed by their mothers (and in a few cases, by their fathers or grandparents). The teachers bring their own bento boxes too, which they eat during the break with the kidlets.

“Lunchtime at the Shin Yoshida Kindergarten is used as a teaching opportunity, as much as an arts and crafts period or structured play time. First, the children learn about proper hygiene by trooping to the sinks to wash their hands. (Japanese schools and kindergartens usually have hand-washing facilities all over the place, not just in the bathrooms.)

“Then they gather in groups, sit down on the floor and recite after their teacher words of gratitude for being able to have lunch together and thanks to their parents, farmers and others for making their lunches possible. Then they sing a song — one that even I used to sing when I was in kindergarten decades ago: “Obento Obento Ureshiina” (Obento, Obento, I’m so Happy). It goes something like this:

“Obento, obento, I’m so happy
My hands are nice and clean
Let’s all say together

Itadakimasu is a Japanese phrase that is difficult to directly translate. It’s said out loud just before eating and means something like “I am honoured to begin eating this meal.” After a boisterous ‘Itadakimasu!’ exclaimed in unison, the children tuck into their obento lunch.”

Are you kidding me?

While Japanese supermarkets are full of convenient ready-made bento items, such as breaded and deep-fried potato cakes, Itoh explains that most of the Shin Yoshida Kindergarten lunch food is homemade from scratch. The children who have cleaned out their obento take the empty boxes and show them proudly to the teacher. 

But spending hours planning, shopping for, cooking and then assembling an elaborate obento for your child is not apparently universal throughout Japan. Lauren Shindo left this comment on a related blog:

“I have lived in Japan for the past eight years, and while the fancy obento magazines and tools are popular, I can assure you the actual obento is pretty rare, at least in my area of Tokyo. I have made a few fancy obentos for birthdays and special holidays, and every time the teacher has made a point of mentioning how surprised she was, which suggests that it is not that common. And in my informal survey of the local kindergarten and daycare (all stay-at-home moms), no one said that they made the fancy “charaben” (obento characters).

“I would be willing to bet that the obento lunch was more common in the 1980s when the economy was booming and there was a more conspicuous display of wealth (and leisure time).”

As Makiko Itoh concludes, in the Japan Times piece:

“When a busy middle-aged salaryman tucks into his own bento lunch at midday, somewhere in the back of his mind he is probably thinking of his hardworking mother, who likely packed his school obento when he was a little boy.”

Check out these other examples of over-the-top obento art here and here


*  Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus. Anne Allison. Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4, Gender and the State in Japan. (Oct., 1991), pp. 195-208.


4 thoughts on “Why I’d never make it as a Japanese mother

  1. Boy, the power of cultural expectations and fear of judgment by our peers! I’d be with you in the “I’d never make it” group. Sheesh!

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