Kazuyo Matsumoto remembers all too clearly how her son’s kindergarten sports day used to prey on her mind weeks before the event. She’d worry, not about whether her son would stumble in last, but about the “bare all” contest she would be forced to participate in at lunchtime. The judges were not the city hall officials standing under the shade of the marquee, but the mothers of her son’s classmates.
“He had run his race, and now it was my turn to be judged,” explains the 31-year-old waitress.
She’d open the Pokemon bento (lunch box) she had slaved over since 5:30 a.m. and slowly hand it to her son, guaranteeing all the surrounding mothers a good look at the elaborate contents. “I had told him to offer his food around because I wanted the other mothers to see I was taking care of my child,” she says.
Housewife Mayumi Horikoshi, 37, also agonizes over the occasions when all the mothers gather at her son’s kindergarten. “On an ordinary day, I’ll put a wiener, salad, egg, spaghetti and rice in his bento. But if the other mothers are going to be around, I’ll add fried shrimp, chicken, and put everything in a nicer box,” says the mother of two.
The Japanese school bento has never been regarded as a mere lunch box, such as the Western standard of a sandwich, cookie and apple in a brown paper bag. Laden with an eye-catching array of seasonally selected meats, fish, salads, rice, pickles, vegetables and other foods, the child’s bento is not only a branch of the bento culinary tradition, but an enduring symbol — and a measure — of a mother’s devotion to her child.
Modern Japan remains a long way from recognizing gender equality — even though 51.8 percent of Japanese women with children under the age of 18 work outside the home, according to a 2001 government report. In a society where a child’s academic success or failure is seen as correlating to the mother’s support (or lack thereof), the bento is another gender-specific pressure on the mother to prove her dedication as a parent.
“In Japan, the child is regarded as sacred and people are strongly aware of the mother’s responsibility,” says Dr. Midori Otake, who teaches home economics at Tokyo Gakugei University.
The Japanese mother’s commitment to her child is assessed through many criteria, such as her devotion to cram schools and school clubs, sewing bags to be used for carrying indoor shoes, eating utensils and toothbrush cases to and from school, and so on.
The bento, however, is more than merely a duty for the mother. “The kindergarten bento is important for the education of the young mother,” explains Misa Ishii, a retired professor of preschool education at Ogaki Girls College, in Gifu Prefecture. According to advice given by kindergarten teachers to parents, the obento should be attractive to the eye, as well as homemade, fresh, varied, nutritious and with bite-size contents.
While colorful and artistic bentos are a useful ploy in enticing children to eat a wider variety of food (the encouraging message printed on the lid of a Mister Donut’s bento box reads “Munch munch, I can even eat carrots and peppers!”), the Japanese obsession with all things cute has been blamed for fostering an atmosphere of competitiveness inside the classroom at lunchtime.
As Otake notes: “Kindergarten children want to draw the teacher’s attention and be told ‘your bento is nice.’ This puts pressure on mothers to produce attractive bento.”
There are penalties for mothers who dare to prepare a normal lunch. “When my eldest daughter went to kindergarten picnics, she never ate the sandwiches I made for her,” recalls housewife Naomi Minamoto. “She said that the other children’s bento were better, and that her friends boasted about how their nice moms could make anything.”
While bento duty is generally labeled as “bothersome” and “tiring,” guilt and the fear of exclusion are effective tools in ensuring conformity. As Mutsuko Tendo, sociologist at Tokyo Women’s Christian University, explains: “Bento making is an oppressive choice. If mothers want to show that they love their kids, a beautiful bento is the set way to do it.”
The nation’s “education mamas” — housewives hell-bent on marshaling their children though elite schools, cram schools and prestigious universities — use the bento to promote their images. As Tendo comments: “When these women used to work, they had their own identities, but now as housewives they evaluate their lives through their kids.”
The bento tradition is not, however, without its benefits. In today’s climate of convenience food, the high standards demanded by obento preparation are praised for teaching the value of home-cooked cuisine to mums and children.
Retired school counselor Michiko Akita, 50, extols the lifelong lessons she has learned. “I was able to get my two kids eating a wide range of food early on.”
The child’s bento is a creative outlet, where cooks are free to imprint their individuality. Parents can form an important bond with their children by engaging through food. “I help Mom draw a ketchup face on my omelet and eat anything she makes,” chirps 7-year-old Risa Matsui. American mother Kim Sano uses the bento box to introduce American cuisine to her daughter’s elementary school friends. “I won’t wrap the box as is traditional; instead I use interesting picnic ware.”
Despite the traditional preference for “home cooked,” the food industry is catering toward the needs of working mothers. Essential kitchen assistants for modern moms include: a range of “heat and assort” frozen foods, quality convenience-store bento and hundreds of bento publications, containing easy recipes for assembling the picture-perfect lunch.
Realistically, the anxieties felt by mothers — as their children take that vital step into their new social group — will only lessen when Japanese society abandons the image of the self-sacrificing house mom and addresses the needs of working mothers. But as Otake warns: “The view that working women should also be perfect housewives will not change so easily in Japanese society.”
And for that matter, neither will the bento.