Bento – the pride or bane of Japanese mums
Updated: Feb 2, 2022
School lunches are a fond memory from my past. I grew up in Australia where you either brought a lunch box with you, or you ordered lunch from the tuckshop. I loved it when my Mum made me a lunch box to bring to school. My demands were very simple – a sandwich made preferably with squishy white bread, a cheese stick, maybe some fruit like grapes or apple slices and a prized pot of chocolate pudding. My friends and I would sometimes trade things between ourselves. I never liked boxed sultanas so they were traded for something I liked better.
But we never looked at each other's lunchboxes to compare how beautifully they’d been made by our mums. We didn’t, but elsewhere in the world they did.
This is the norm in Japan.
I graduated from university in 1990 and was ready for a change. I wanted to go and explore the world. First stop – Japan! It was easy money if you had a university degree. At the beginning of the 90’s the Japanese economy was booming. Australia had a special working holiday visa agreement with Japan where you could work for 6 months at a time, with the option to renew it twice.
This was the perfect plan for me – make some money and then head to London, as every second university graduate in all of Australia was doing at that time.
Jobs were easy to find if you were prepared to work as an English teacher. With no effort, I found a job in an English school teaching both children and adults. They quickly realised that I had special rapport with young children, so I was assigned the kindergarten class. These little ones were no more than two or three years old and just the cutest children you could imagine with their big brown eyes and chubby cheeks. I loved working with them and they loved me back.
Even though they were such a tender age, these little ones had such good manners. They would take off their shoes and put them away neatly before putting on their indoor slippers. They would sit quietly and not disturb others when they were working and would all help tidy up after playtime.
When lunchtime came around, they impressed me with their impeccable table manners. Each child would take their little bento box and bring it quietly to the table.
Bento is a lunch box that traditionally, Japanese mothers and wives prepared for their loved ones to take with them to school or work. They usually consist of rice, some meat or eggs, pickles, a couple of salads and some fruit. They are nutritionally well balanced and very tasty.
Once they were seated with their bentos in front of them, the children would all sing in unison “ITADAKIMASU!”, which loosely means “I give thanks for receiving (this meal)!”. The lids would be lifted from the boxes and each and every child's eyes grew with the “big reveal”.
I’ll never forget the assortment of dainty treats lovingly made with consideration and care. They were not only a feast for their tummies, but also for their eyes. Cartoon characters – known as “charaben” – fashioned out of rice, nori sheets, cherry tomatoes and corn. Carrots shaped like flowers and eggs artfully formed into chicks sitting on a bed of spinach grass. “Kawaii-iii!” could be heard from left and right, the now familiar Japanese term meaning “Cuuuute!”.
I never once took into consideration the time and effort it took for the mothers that made these miniature culinary works of art five days a week. The mums produced healthy, satisfying meals for their little ones with the additional challenge of making sure their child would be proud to show it off to their friends and teachers.
Those mums that were blessed with artistic talent thrived, basking in the glory of bento admiration as the word spread through the school all the way to the ears of the other mothers of their creativity.
But pity the mums that dreaded having to come up with new ideas every morning to make sure their child wouldn’t be singled out for their bentos being too “brown and white” (a bento no-no in Japanese eyes). At best, their children may become a victim of bento-shaming. At worst, they could be properly bullied.
Bento-stress is real. It really exists. Can you imagine having to come up with original ideas to out-cute the lunch boxes of your child's peers every day? I’m sure I would go through the day thinking of bentos, go to sleep thinking of bentos and dream of bentos in a never-ending cycle of bento-stress.
Having an “Instagram” worthy bento can be a component of a bigger, darker picture. In Japan, the pressure to get your child into the right kindergarten starts from birth. Being in the right kindergarten can consequently result in your child getting into the right primary school, and so on. The pursuit of getting into the right institutions continues all the way through a child's education and can have lasting effects.
Schools have been known to actually notify a mother to tell her that their child’s bento is not up to the school standard. One black spot next to your child’s name in the books. Too many of these black spots and your child’s prospects of going to the prestigious primary school down the road quickly fade.
I’m not saying that it’s poor bento quality that decides your child’s education path. But it can certainly indicate the dedication that a family shows in making sure that their child gets the right education. That is another story that I should write about!
I think back to my school lunch boxes and know for sure that my mum made it with just as much love and care as the mums in Japan did for their little ones. But I am also thankful that my mum didn’t have to face the possibility of bento-burnout every time she took my lunch box out of the kitchen cupboard.
What was your personal experience with school lunches? Leave a comment! I’d love to hear how it was for you in your part of the world.