NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

Bento-ing from: somewhere › France
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There’s an interesting post on the New York Times Room For Debate blog today (link).

The main question they asked of some designer and artist types:

What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest about the culture? Why is such value placed on aesthetics in everyday life in Japan?

I have some thoughts about this, but I thought I’d open it up to debate first. What do you think about that question, and what about the responses?


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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan
maki wrote:

What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest about the culture? Why is such value placed on aesthetics in everyday life in Japan?

My thoughts on bento since I started making them are thus:

I now eat a much more vaired and healthier diet
I no longer depend on buying low quality cheap fast food for lunch, my body says thank you for this!
Opening my bento is the one moment of calm in my other wise busy workday, where I sit and take time to eat and enjoy all the little morsels of food I have prepared.
I use it for my daughter as a way of expressing to her how much I care. If I didn't I'd let her eat in the school cafeteria or pack chocolate and crisps.

My favourite quote from the article comments was this

"Such a simple way to add love and care to a lunch. And, it costs only a little extra time"

I think it sums it all up nicely!



Bento-ing from: London › UK
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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

Hi, Loretta's husband here,
I didn't have time to read all of the comments posted in the NY Times blog (there were 56 when I looked) but I just wanted to say a few points.

Firstly, before we go in to aesthetics, the modern day bento box is an off shoot of some of the ways in which food was presented for consumption historically. In the late part of the 20th century it so happens that the traditional "bento" became compatible with modern materials and the catering industry. Some of the main features of bento boxes ( I have in mind a convenience store offering for this) such as the different compartments are there for practical reasons. Some food don't mix well together, not just in taste but they can speed up the process of the food going off. As for the umeboshi in the middle of your white rice, it may look like the Japanese flag but it is so because it is widely believed to make the rice last longer (i.e not go off before lunch time!).

Modern materials and processes have also provided almost perfect replacements for their traditional counter parts - plastic has turned out to be a very good alternative material to urushi (Japanese lacquer always red or black), just as plastic "leaves" have come to replace bamboo leaves which would have been used in the past to keep certain food away from each other.

In terms of lots of different types of dishes being presented, this again can be found in day to day and traditional ways of eating food at home - a Japanese meal will consist of lots of okazu with your rice and soup. I would argue that it is logical to suggest that the bento okazu is purely a miniaturisation of this. Of course, when you change the scale, it changes the aesthetic, the balance of flavours and as such you do have to think slightly differently to when you prepare normal okazu (- damn those asaparagus look big!)

So in a way the "design" of the bento follows some structure that is practical. Of course, you could make a "man" bento and shove everything in a box but presumably the maker of the man bento is less concerned with the finer points of the art, either becasue it will be eaten at such a pace as to make any finery irrelevant, or are not too worried about a bit of food past it's prime (for those in Japan there is always Seilogan - the first aid for upset stomachs!)

Just before I shut up, I wanted to mention the home made bento and the effort and time people spend on this, and to me this represents an interesting shift that I would describe as folk art.

In terms of the variety of products available for bento makers, it is a market (the Japanese jumped on food related items as a prime market years ago, after all we all have to eat!) and it is propelled forward by consumer desires. It's not really controlled and as much as it's nice to imagine that there is some wonderful cohesive Japanese aesthetic movement, in reality they are like T-shirts, there are lots out there and there are some very nice designs as well as the opposite.

Is something made in Japan going to be inherently different? I would say yes because anything made anywhere by anybody will carry its own inherent context, usually quite broad and too complex to try and map out but they are there! Has anybody tried fish and chips in Japan? They just can't shove the chips (fries) in the paper cone in that wonderfully carefree and practised way that any chippy will do in the UK!

Well, let's enjoy the popularity that Japanese culture has received in recent years, because I am sure we will fall from grace soon and the memory of japanese food in the west will be bad sushi (raw untreated cucumber sitting on refrigerated rice!)

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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

How lovely to hear from you Loretta's husband (and father of the so-very-cute new baby, I hope she is letting you get some sleep).

Being a totally non-Japanese person, and therefore pretty damned ignorant, I'd have also said that the aesthetics of bento are really an extension of Japanese aesthetics in general. I.e. making your immediate surroundings a small oasis of calm beauty as a sort of respite from a very crowded life in a crowded country. Does that make any sense at all or am I talking through my non-Japanese hat?



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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

Hello, Loretta's husband again, I'm Kenji by the way.
Thank you for your comment and the baby is very well behaved so I get my 6 hours sleep (down from about 8).

I think bentos do reflect Japanese aesthetics in general and I think in Japan, certainly if you work in an office with it's finely tuned balance between conformity and individualism, a well presented bento does work in your favour.

Of course strictly speaking bento just means lunch box so it could be anything and actually, one of the earlier forms of making food portable was to make some onigiris (usually with umeboshi in the middle to make it last longer and lots of salt in the rice) and wrap them in bamboo leaves. Just as a note, soldiers from the past used to carry dried rice cakes with them and they could be soaked in hot water to make them more appealing.

I personally consider tupperware with last nights left over thrown in a bento. The presentation aspect is optional, but like I mentioned earlier people do push this to an art form. There was an article years back in the late 80's about how mothers were struggling with the increased pressure to come up with amazing bento designs for their daughters as they were all competing with each other at lunch times.

I was about to say, Google image "bento" and see if you can guess which ones are Japanese but I couldn't tell any more! - however I was surprised to see that some of the Kyara-ben you see must taste awful (because they've chosen ingredients that work for colour and composition but not for taste)!

Just to tie in the above, I do think that kyara-ben is the exception of the form, just like Xmas decoration that turns in to an art installation costing thousands, customizing cars, quilting, cake decoration etc.

Of course if members of this forum are into the folk art side of bento, I think that's great but remember you can make some funky looking sandwiches too and it doesn't have to be Japanese in anyway.

Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

Thanks for linking to that article. I found it vary interesting.

I cannot speculate on the motives of Japanese people (being completely ignorant of them, myself). But I will say that I find by taking the time to make what I am eating visually appealing, I am satisfied with less. I agree with the "making more out of less" idea. I spend very little money on my lunches, but they are a highlight (for myself and others) and I find I slow down to enjoy them more, and don't crave large portions. A little bit of many things is much more satisfying than the lunches I packed before I began bento-ing. :)

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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

Well... I am not japanese and, even though i know a few things about the culture, i just can't say something that would be remotely accurate. Anyway, from my occidental point of view, I compare my bentos with my partner's tupperware food and I find mine cute and more appealing, just because it is well packed. Most people just throw their food in a tupper and then heat it and eat it.

I think japanese people have developed a sense for delicacy and exquisiteness that is not a common thing in the West. Here, when you eat something in a restaurant that is remotely well arranged, you'll be paying a lot for the whole dish, and call it "nouvelle cuisine".

And of course the loving concept of the wife prepairing bentos for her family. I've always been told that public affect demonstrations are rather badly seen in Japan, so maybe these loving bentos are a "correct" way to publicly say "i love you"! :D

Very interesting topic :)


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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I'm not Japanese but these are my views on the question.

To me, the care and effort put into visual details of a bento suggest that the Japanese have a greater appreciation of art in general. In a culture where everyone works so hard, why would you waste the extra time to make your lunch (or your child's) beautiful? I know you can make bentos fairly fast but it's not like slapping a piece of bologna between two slices and bread and tossing it into a bag. I don't think there is that much difference in what people want really. I mean the kid that gets the sandwich will still be bored by it and the one who gets the colorful display will be entertained. It's that the Japanese realize that you need some aesthetics to make things more worthwhile and they make the extra effort to insure that they get it.

Bento-ing from: London › UK
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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

(back to posting as myself)
I just had a chance to read through those comments today. I can't help but bridle at many of them as so many inherent prejudices and accepted stereotypes are exposed.

I like my spouse's comment "in reality they are like T-shirts, there are lots out there and there are some very nice designs as well as the opposite". And this is certainly my impression also, especially now when you can pick up bento for 300yen (less than a burger and fries).
But the reactions focus on narrow perceptions of bento - that they are all beautiful, or that they are all charaben, or that they are all home 'crafted', or that they are all excessively fussed over or the food inside over-processed. Basically, the bento style commented on is whichever coincides closest to the poster's impression of Japan and Japanese society.

Stroll through a Tokyo business district at lunch time and you'll immediately see what kind of cut-throat competition for business any caterer has to contend with. With so much choice at every price point local retailers and restaurants and those who set up stalls on the sidewalks have to work hard to entice custom. As well as 'conventional' Japanese choices one can pick up bento made up of Indian meals, or with Thai or Lebanese food or with healthier whole grain and unprocessed ingredients. If the bento boxes aren't appetising and attractive the makers don't stay in business - there's an arms race when it comes to bento 'style' and the market is ruthless!
So who makes bento when you can buy one for 300 or even 250yen? Unless you make up a batch for a whole family, the only way a single person can put together something cheaper is with leftovers. This means that adults in urban areas who make their own bento (or who prepare them for their partners) may have other motives for preparing them rather than just a way to fill a stomach and so extra care might be taken in making them.

One commentator quote sparse resources as being responsible for the contents of a bento, but that doesn't explain why the nutritious bran from the rice is typically discarded or why sandwiches with their crusts removed are the most popular. Another poster sets him/herself as an expert on things Japanese and rails against an excess of expensive ginko/ginnan nuts being used in a photo that shows pasta shells and edamame/soy beans.

Most of all what strikes me by those who try to explain "What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest about the culture?" is how much of the culture they are prepared to pare down and simplify so that it fits conveniently in a snug little bento box of their own.

Bento-ing from: Signal Mountain › Tennessee › USA
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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I am an every day reader of the NYTimes (the newspaper I love to hate) and a reader of this blog - many of the comments to the NYT article are an accurate barometer of a large fraction of the readership of that legendary paper. Yes, they know it all - as seen in the comments, if you don't believe it - just ask them. I thought the recent NYT food section article on Bentos was well crafted article [Maki and this blog was the first mentioned.] I came away from this with a less positive feeling. On the other hand, and to be fair, this is from a section of the paper that solicits opinions.




Bento-ing from: Sioux Falls › South Dakota › USA
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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

From my "American mom loves Japan" point of view I think there's a few aspects to look at:
- In Japan to "look it" is to "be it" and presentation is very important. I think bentos have often been thought of as a bit of homemade love from home. To show this love to their kids, bento making moms may be going the extra mile with presentation. (Though it's down right fun to do the presentation stuff too!)
- It's also thought that kids will be more likely to eat something they like the looks of. (My little ones will pick the food with the cute face on it, specially cut or put on a little kabob stick over something plain.)

I have to agree with Nick Currie who said, "I’m convinced that Japan is far ahead when it comes to the aesthetics of everyday life. " I personally think presentation is such an integral part of Japanese culture that it seems to be infused in every aspect of life.


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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I'm not Japanese, but I am Asian and grew up in a Korean household. At my house, food was always a priority and a means of communication and celebration. To this day, my mother still ends every phone conversation with "have you eaten yet" and "what did you have?" Any milestone was rewarded with special meals and, as a kid, she would always place my favorite or choice pieces of food in my rice bowl for me...making sure I'd sampled a little of everything on the table and reminding me if I had not taken enough of a forgotten banchan (side dish) or two.

While I know that Japan is not Korea, I can't help but wonder if the similarities between the two cultures can help explain their fascination with aesthetically pleasing lunches. If I remember correctly, back in the day of the samurai, wealth was measured by rice and rice production (koku). My own mother would be horrified to see rice go to waste in our house and Korea has many recipes for transforming hardened and even burnt rice into nourishing food and drink. Clothing, accessories, and even recipes could denote one's cultural and political hierarchy. Add that to Japan's desire for organization and structure and their love of beauty, color, and natural complements...and the bento was guaranteed to be born.

The gorgeously manicured Japanese gardens, the elegant kimono with it's simplistic look but intricate execution, the pictures of hundreds of Japanese families turning out to see a flurry of cherry blossoms fall from delicately pruned and rowed trees. In all of these passions, I see elements reflected into the bento. The bento lunch can be a status symbol, but I see it more as a symbol of love. A little Hallmark card each day to let you know someone cares, someone values you...even if that someone is yourself.

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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

Hi all:

For one thing, life for the average Japanese student is a bit more intense than that of an American student. They spend more time in school, after school, in cram school. And they have a lot of homework. So lunch time is an important time to not only rest, enjoy and chill out, but for a parent to make contact with her or his busy child. I remember making lunches for my daughter and I didn't know about bento boxes. I often put cartoon drawings and messages in the box, with a little creativity in the food. I guess I intuitively related to the concept.

So, then, why did I do it? I wanted to keep the bond with my daughter while she was away and send a little love. I wanted to cheer her up in her struggles. It made me feel like I was giving to her a bit more, because she had to go to afterschool programs so I could work.

And of course, it satisfied a creative need in me - who now had to run from school bus to work to pick her up at afterschool - and make dinner, clean up, do laundry, prepare for the next day and then collapse. The lunch box was a moment to have a bit of fun.

For a parent in Japan, who has learned to appreciate the beauty of presentation, especially a parent who has little time to get into his or her own creativity during this rough economic time -- making the bento is as pleasurable as receiving it. It's just plain creatively satisfying.

Though I think sending your child off with a beautiful lunch box is fun, I think there is some controversy. I've read lately that some schools practically ban the bento box in Japan because some parents cannot take the time or have the money to make such fancy, creative lunches. Like a farm scene with cauliflower lambs. And so some children feel ostracized. And it causes clicks and attitudes - whose got the best bento? Whose parents don't have money or time? Etc.

So I think, as usual, there is a middle path. sending your child off with a fun bento may not need you to create faces and dolls. The focus could be more on health and nutrition, which has it's own presentation of beauty. Also, what' s OESHI (delicious) certainly rates higher in most of our books than what is just KAWAII (cute).

Also, I don't agree with all the throw away chatkas (okay, material) in the boxes. Bentos can be quite GREEN - if we leave off the paper and plastic throwaway stuff. Reusable is better.

Saying all that, though, ain't it fun to make cool bentos? Now that my daughter is grown up -- I wish I had those vegetable cutters way back when. But I make sure to use these decorations on feeding adults. They love it.


Hey Maki: I wasn't sure where to send a GET WELL message when we first heard you were in the hospital. I guess you are getting well. I await your book; and look forward to all your adventures. You're a good kid. Thanks for everything. And much sincere wishes for your good health.
Regards, Diane in New York City

Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I also think this trait in Japan developed for purely practical reasons: Japan is a crowded place and people don't have a lot of personal space, so they carve out solitude by focusing on detail. I think Japan's elaborate social rituals also make it easier for so many people to live in such close proximity to each other. As America gets more crowded we can learn from that.

Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I briefly visited Japan and had the same impression as #13. There is infinite space in smallness. We could learn a something from Japan.

Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I would not have said this before this morning, but an interesting comment from my husband intersected with me reading this article.

I think it's more about relationships than about the pretty. (Bear with me. I know this sounds weird off the top of my head).

From my limited foreigner point of view (I've never lived in Japan, only read about the culture), it seems to me that a lot of Japanese culture seems to be about interpersonal and group relationships before almost anything else. Of course, I could be completely off-base, but that's how it looks to me on the surface.

So relating it to bento? The care you put into the visual appeal of the bento is part of the whole package about how you care for the individual for whom you're making it. Thing is, I can't say that I consider the concept uniquely Japanese.

I was making my husband's bento this morning, and as he sat drinking coffee and watching me do it, he commented, "I know it sounds weird, but getting this is like getting a hug in the middle of the day." Now this was a fairly quick bento. Even so, as I was making it I choose, as I habitually do, colorful food and arranged it nicely in the box without going overboard with the cute. Call it less than 10 minutes worth of effort for the whole thing. For me, it seems like a trivial effort, but I know that when I've been served a lovely meal with good presentation that's been made especially for me, I do feel cared for. I was involved with a chef for a long time and I certainly did feel cared for when he made dinner. He habitually paid attention to the attractiveness of the presentation as much as he did the tastiness and quality of the food.

I do think that attention to detail in general seems to be a strong Japanese value, so of course how it LOOKS will be included in the whole package.

Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I think we've lost our aesthetic sense about the every day and mundane and Japan has not.

I had a chance to go through a museum in Frankfurt, Germany that was dedicated to household thing; furniture, utensils, appliances, etc.

There were some fabulously beautiful everyday objects.

Why don't we see those anymore?

Well, because plain and cheap is...cheap. And why bother to make something beautiful that is destined to last a short time and be thrown away. We are a garbage society. We don't build to last and we replace instead of repair.

Perhaps if we made beautiful everyday things we'd be less wasteful.

I also think we have lost our appreciation of beauty in the every day. Unless it's a wedding or a birthday, our cakes are plain if we have cake at all. You wear a beautiful gown for a wedding or prom, but otherwise it sits untouched in the closet. Our everyday clothes lack the quality of fabric or workmanship, yet that is what we wear daily.

I needed a new bicycle because I couldn't physically ride my old 12 speed anymore. I needed an old lady cruiser. My new bicycle is yellow with red tulips. I'm sewing a liner for my basket that's green with red and yellow polka dots. I'll make a matching cover for my helmet.

A pretty bento lunch makes you smile. Isn't that enough reason?

Bento-ing from: somewhere › France
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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

I just wanted to say, that the comments here are way more thoughtful than the majority of the ones over on the NY Times :) Yay for Just Bento readers! :)

Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

Yeah, I agree. Some of those NYT comments were downright rude.
Also, the person who posted #2 must have assumed that all o-bento were kawaii-ben. Then there was that last guy they interviewed, Denis-something.
That guy wouldn't understand art if it fell on him. Art is the essence of its creator's heart and soul at the time of creation. My own works may not be perfect, but what is required for art is not perfection, but rather effort and vision. My own mother can only cook a few things well. While her lunches were not sophisticated, she put a lot of love and effort into them. They were simple and yet beautiful. A grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup on the side and her sweet tea. The care taken was what made it art.


Bento-ing from: New York › New York › USA
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Re: NY Times blog post on bento box aesthetics in Japan

although the bento subculture is less common than, lets say interior design, people do it because they enjoy it and can see the finished product with their own eyes...the process of putting together and assembling anything creates a sense of accomplishment whether its a bento box, car, house, etc...people know that presentation is a very important thing in cuisine, why wouldn't that apply to bentos?

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