Why Do Japanese Mothers Spend So Much Time on Their Kids' Lunch Boxes?

Bento Lunch Box with Baby Lambs
A winning bento box creation shows the tremendous detail that goes into these packed lunches.

Tomomi Maruo / obento4kids / YouTube

There was a time when I thought packing school lunches was a real pain, but then I learned about character bento boxes and realized that I have nothing to complain about. My chore is not nearly as oppressive as that of countless Japanese mothers. While I pull together a pita with hummus, some carrot sticks, an apple, and a cookie, my well-meaning Japanese counterparts are sitting at a table carefully shaping the contents of their child’s bento box into a masterful work of edible art.

The Art of Japanese Kyaraben

Character bentos, or kyaraben, as they’re called, are apparently common throughout Japan. These bento boxes are filled with food that has been carved into ornate flowers and animals, characters like Hello Kitty, Pokémon and superheroes, faces, and landscapes. The work is done by stay-at-home mothers, who view these character bentos as a way to build and maintain a reputation. There is considerable societal pressure, according to an article in NPR, for these mothers to produce cute food creations.

NPR’s The Salt blog reports:

“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.”

Mothers can sign up for weekly classes where they learn new ways of cutting nori and carving vegetables into piglets and roses. Many follow blogs with detailed instructions for creating “A Day at the Farm,” “Sleeping Fox & Rabbit Rice Balls,” and “Christmas bentos that bring good cheer to lunch.” There are bento-themed iPhone apps. Depending on how good one gets, there are even national kyaraben-making competitions, the most famous of which is the Sanrio.

Does Kyaraben Exacerbate Sexism?

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? Mothers have admitted they feel pressure while sitting next to other mothers, practicing techniques - but I want to ask them, why bother in the first place?

I realize that Japan is home to a beautiful and unique culture that places tremendous value on presentation and that I will never understand it from the inside, but something about this practice bothers me. I’m all for encouraging people to prepare food at home and to eat nutritiously, but I am not a fan of any custom that makes it more challenging to make everyday food from scratch or get a meal on the table quickly. I’m uncomfortable, too, with the unspoken message sent to the children who receive these character bentos – that their mothers have nothing better to do than sit carving radishes to amuse them at lunch.

The words of the Angry Chef come to mind. He writes about convenience foods, but the message about the unfair burden of food preparation being dumped on women is relevant to this topic of character bentos:

"There are calls to reengage with food, to spend hours scouring markets for perfect produce, to lovingly prepare and cook nutritious meals. But these calls ignore the labour and time demands required to do this. They ignore the cognitive demands on the many people who are stressed, tired and just do not enjoy cooking that much. We attach powerful emotions to family eating, we place a nourishing scratch cooked meal around the table as being the centre of all that is moral and good. Driven by class and generational divides, our criticism of the decline in this occasion is a criticism of women’s decision to enter the workplace. In shaming the rise of convenience foods we are blaming women for the moral decline of society."

This comes at a time when Japan is frantically trying to get more women into the workforce since currently 70 percent of women quit their jobs after having children and do not go back.