Despite the devastation of the earthquake and tsunami in the northeastern part of Honshu, in most of Japan, life has to go on as usual.
April marks the start of the new school year, which means that parents all over the country are cranking up their morning lunch-making routines. In Japan a packed lunch is always called a “bento” (literally meaning “box”) or “obento” to be more polite, whether it’s stored in the quintessential lunchbox or not.
While most elementary schools and many junior high schools have lunch programs, kindergartens and high schools tend not to, so young mothers with toddlers generally take great care over the contents of the small bento boxes they fill every day. The charaben or character bento phenomenon of decorative, occasionally inedible, bento boxes that have caught the imagination of people worldwide via the Internet, was born from a mother’s desire to get her child, a picky eater, to eat his lunch. While making the contents of a bento attractive and appetizing is very important, a kid’s bento is much more than just a pretty lunch.
At Shin Yoshida Kindergarten in suburban Yokohama, about 20 minutes from central Tokyo, all the children bring lunch bento from home, lovingly packed by their mothers (and in a few cases their fathers or grandparents). The teachers bring their own bento too, which they eat during the break with the kids.
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 honored to begin eating this meal.” After a boisterous “Itadakimasu!” exclaimed in unison, the children tuck into their bento boxes.
Peeking into their boxes reveals quite a variety of lunch styles. There are typically a few cute decorative charaben, with onigiri (rice balls) bearing smiley faces and tiny sausages cut to resemble octopuses, but the majority contain just plain, nutritious foods put together with care.
All appear very balanced too: There’s always at least one kind of vegetable and some protein, usually in the form of eggs or meat (it seems even in Japan little kids don’t really go for fish that much, unless it’s processed into something like kamaboko fish cake). And while Japanese supermarkets, including the huge Aeon one right by the kindergarten, are full of convenient ready-made bento items, such as korokke (breaded and deep-fried potato cakes), most of the food is homemade from scratch.
According to Japanese bento bloggers who write about the bento they make for their kids, they typically spend 20 to 30 minutes each morning to pack bento. This is done by cleverly combining re-purposed leftovers from dinner, premaking some foods in advance and storing them in the freezer or fridge, and making quick dishes such as tamagoyaki, a slightly sweet rolled omelet that is a bento standard and can be made in a couple of minutes.
The kids who have cleaned out their bento take the empty boxes and show them proudly to the teacher. The few who can’t finish aren’t made to feel bad about it, though the teachers keep an eye on the ones who regularly have trouble finishing — just in case.
When everyone is finished, the children shout out an enthusiastic “Goshisosamadeshita!” — the traditional after-meal statement of appreciation “thank you for that feast” and head off to brush their teeth. Once their teeth are brushed, the toothbrushes, cups and empty bento boxes put away, the kids run off to play.
In 2005 the Shokuiku Kihon Hou, the Basic Law on Nutritional Education, was established by 12 central government ministries including the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Presently the term “shokuiku” has come to mean educating yourself by being aware of what you eat — from learning about nutrition and where ingredients come from, to understanding the cultural history of food and more.
According to the outgoing principal of Shin Yoshida Kindergarten, Sumie Kato, shokuiku is a critical part of a child’s early education.
“It really isn’t just about eating a nutritious lunch, though that is very important of course,” says Kato. “The children learn about appreciating their parents for providing and preparing food they are given. They learn basic etiquette, such as saying itadakimasu and goshisosama properly. And most of all, they get to experience how fun mealtimes can be.”
Kato goes on to say that a few of the kids at the kindergarten do not come from particularly happy homes, but even they can experience a cheerful, happy lunchtime with their friends and teachers. She firmly believes that these small life lessons will serve the children well throughout their lives.
It should be noted that these days, not all kindergartens in Japan view such life lessons as integral to a child’s education. More and more kindergartens, especially in urban areas, are more concerned with being highly competitive academic institutions. Such schools, which even demand stringent entrance prerequisites, have busy curricula that focus on English immersion classes and basic math; and their goal is to get the kids into the best elementary schools, which in turn should lead to places in the best high schools and universities.
These academically focused kindergartens usually have long waiting lists of parents anxious to give their children the best of education. But which kids really do get a better start in life? Those whose heads are crammed full with facts from an early age, or the easy-going ones who learn to appreciate the value of life lessons at more relaxed schools.
Whichever, the strong connection between bento and familial love, which is established from an early age, continues throughout a Japanese person’s lifetime. When a busy middle-aged salaryman tucks into his bento lunch at midday, somewhere in the back of his mind he is probably thinking of his hardworking mother, who likely packed his school bento when he was little.