What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute charaben

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A regular family outing bento (photo by Michiko Ebina)

(Note: This is in part a belated response to the New York Times blog post about bento boxes that appeared in September. I had started it some weeks ago but didn’t have the time to finish, until now. Please also read the very thoughtful forum discussion about the post.)

The New York Times blog post about Beauty and the Bento Box was, after the recent balanced article about bento boxes that appeared in the same publication, was rather disappointing. To see yet another piece in the mainstream media focusing just on the aesthetics of bentos, and specifically on charaben, gives me a “What, again?” sort of resigned feeling. The question that they posed to a group of experts (only one of whom is Japanese…I wonder how many have even had a homemade bento for lunch?) was a leading question if there ever was one: “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’ve repeated this many times on this site already, but the basic definition of a bento box is “a meal in a box”, as the subtitle of this site says. Bentos can be for any meal. They can be made by and for anyone. They are often portable, but not always (as for bento box lunches served at sit-down restaurants). In short, bentos are just part of everyday life for most Japanese people. Charaben are just one category of bentos.

A more realistic view of charaben in Japan

In Japan, cute charaben are ostensibly made to overcome the eating habits of small preschool or kindergarten aged children. At least, that is the reason given by many charaben bloggers and book authors as to why they started making charaben.

However, charaben has evolved to the point where it is now a hobby and an industry. I liken it to any other creative hobby, like knitting or crochet or painting. It may be food for kids, but it exists just as much, if not more, as a creative outlet for their moms (and the occasional dad). Kids are not the ones buying up nori punches and egg molds and Rirakkuma shaped onigiri shapers; it’s their moms. There are charaben contests on a national scale, often sponsored by makers of charaben goods (such as Sanyo) or bento-related foods (such as Ajinomoto, who also pay well known charaben bloggers to come up with cute bentos featuring their frozen shuumai dumplings and such).

The daily opening of the bento box at kindergarten has come to be regarded as a sort of local competition between charaben-creating moms. Recently there’s been a backlash against this - some mothers are complaining that they don’t have the time to make such elaborate cute bentos, and that their kids are made to feel inferior, or teased and even bullied, because of this. As a result, some preschools and kindergartens have started to ban charaben. Some Japanese charaben bloggers have written about how they have had to restrict their creative efforts to lunches served at home.

Since most elementary/primary schools serve school lunches, mothers are relieved of their bento making duties once their kids are older. Even if the kids still need bentos, as they get older they - especially boys - start to reject charaben, as being childish (kodomoppoi) and embarassing (hazukashii).

My sister’s take on charaben, from a Japanese mom’s point of view

My sister Mayumi, who lives in the Tokyo area, is the mother of two kids. They are both in elementary school now, but when they were in kindergarten she made bentos for them every day. She said that she just avoided the charaben ‘senso’ (wars) by not making charabens at all, since she didn’t have the time or inclination. Her children fortunately didn’t get teased or anything for their not-cute ‘plain’ bentos. But she says it was a relief in many ways when her youngest graduated from kindergarten. She, and the kids, love school lunch.

Mayumi also related the competitiveness of charaben to the peculiar Japanese social phenomenon called “Playground Debut”. When you are in a new neighborhood, your child’s first appearance at the local playground (or debut) is a very big deal. If you as the parent, and your kids, do not get accepted by the existing clique there, you are doomed to playing on your own, or seeking out another playground. Japanese society can be very stressful and competitive for kids and their mothers. (I found this article on Salon from 1999 that conveys this kind of competitive and stressful situation quite well, from an expatriate American mother’s point of view.)

Looking at the current bento book bestsellers in Japan

A breakdown of the of the 50 bestselling bento books on Amazon Japan as of this writing, might provide a snapshot of the state of the interest in bentos in Japan:

  • 14 books about everyday bentos for everyone
  • 8 books about make-ahead bento recipes, freezing, speedy bento (under 10-15 minutes in the morning), etc.
  • 8 books about charaben techniques
  • 7 books about vegetarian/vegan/macrobiotic or weight loss bentos
  • 6 books about everyday bentos for kids (mainly kindergarten and nursery school age)
  • 4 bento essay books - ones that extol the virtues of homemade bentos (the topselling bento book fits in this category)
  • 3 books about bento for (and made by) men

Unfortunately, since charaben are so visually striking, most of the attention paid to bentos from outside Japan focuses on this small segment, and, like the New York Times blog post, tries to draw some conclusions about Japanese society in general from that.

It’s understandable that this happens. It’s still rather frustrating though, and it’s not really the whole picture at all.

It’s interesting to see that books extolling the virtues of homemade bentos are amongst the top sellers in this category. As in most societies, more and more people in Japan are eating fast food, especially from the ubiquitous konbini or convenience stores, which stock every kind of grab-and-eat food that you can think of, including readymade bentos. Those readymade bentos are often not that healthy, filled with lots of cheap carbohydrates and deep fried food.

My take on charaben and bentos in general

I admire the creativity of skilled charaben artists. I am not that skilled, but I dabble a little in decorated bentos myself. However, I don’t think that charaben are something anyone can make every day. Even the most dedicated charaben-oriented mothers in Japan don’t.

I do believe that a little time taken to make sure a bento box is attractively presented is a great thing. What can be possibly wrong about food that looks as appetizing as it tastes, that is pretty as well as being nutritious. Whenever there’s some mainstream media thing about bentos, you can be sure there will be a few snarky comments along the lines of “a peanut butter sandwich was good enough for my parents and good enough for me, and it’s good enough for my kids” or “spending so much time on food is unnatural/sacriligeous/spoiling your kids/un-American” et al. As much as I think charaben all the time is unrealistic, I don’t get this ‘food must look plain’ thing either. (I wonder if those people who object to pretty lunches also reject decorated birthday cakes, and cupcakes with colored icing?)

There is a long tradition in Japanese cuisine of making food that looks beautiful. The highest form of Japanese cuisine is so beautifully presented that it has inspired chefs around the world. That sense of aesthetics does trickle down to everyday home cooking. But most people don’t make it into a hobby.

I’d like to close with a translated quote from a bento book written back in 1998, by one of my favorite food writers, Katsuyo Kobayashi (see footnote). The book is called Katsuyo Kobayashi’s “Obento’s Decided!”. (kobayashi katsuyo no obento kimatta!), a book that is still in print 11 years later, and in the top 50 bestselling bento book list mentioned above. (My copy is from the 22nd printing in 2006.) Here is what she writes in the foreword:

I am really not fond of obentos that are overly decorated. An obento is one of the three daily meals. It’s just an everyday lunch on the go. In other words, instead of eating lunch at home, we bring it to school, to work, or on an outing. Rather than sausages cut to look like an octopus, or onigiri made to look like people’s faces, I want to honor the beauty and deliciousness of food that Nature has given us - the yellow of tamagoyaki, the green of spinach, pink salmon, the earth tones of gobo [burdock root], the pure white of rice.

While I’m not totally adverse to purposely made bento decorations as Mrs. Kobayashi is (I do have a soft spot for the occasional sausage decoration or cutely cut out sandwich), I do agree with her general philosophy. While Just Bento is about many kinds of bentos, including charaben, my main focus is always on bentos that taste good and are on the healthy side, and look naturally appetizing. If I add extra decorations to my bentos, I don’t spend more than 5 minutes, 10 at the most, on them, unless it’s for a special occasion. It’s striking a middle ground between a plain sandwich thrown into a brown paper bag, and an astonishing charaben creation that takes hours to assemble.

Or in other words, I’m just trying to spread the good word about everyday bentos.

Footnote: The Kobayashi family, from mother to son

I’ve read that Mrs. Kobayashi (who in her heyday was everywhere in the food world - on TV, in magazines, churning out several books a year) is not that well anymore, which is a real shame. However, her son Kentaro has been a TV, magazine and cookbook star for some years now too. Some of his books have appeared in translated English this year, including one about bentos called Bento Love. I haven’t had a chance to look at this book yet, mainly because it sounds suspiciously like a book of his that I have already, but I did notice that Pikko of Adventures in Bentomaking recently made a boiled salmon recipe from it. Boiled salmon sounded rather familiar - and it’s not a usual way to cook salmon in Japan. Sure enough, there’s a recipe for Boiled Salmon in his mother’s bento book! Not only that, she has a recipe for fried chicken in there called Kentaro Fried Chicken (KFC!). I love this mother-son connection.

(Incidentally, Pikko mentioned that her salmon was rather bland. If you do have that book, do check for me to see if Kentaro specifies the use of salted salmon. His mom’s recipe does, and I think it would make all the difference. Salted salmon is a very common ingredient in Japan, but outside of it it’s expensive if you can find it. Here’s my method for making your own.)

For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or by email (more about subscriptions).

And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

18 comments

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Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Great article Maki i totally, TOTALLY agree with you :)
and follow your example. I just don't have the time to create über-cute charabens (I don't even have time to pack a plain bento every single day!!!) so i just try to assemble a lunch that looks cute and also is healthy and tastes good. I truly believe THAT is the point for a bento, not to have a super cute box and create super cute pictures with your food. Well on the box topic I must admit i have a soft point for bunnies and flowers ._.
I always keep in mind what you said on another article (which somehow "touched" me): a cute charaben may not be that healthy or may not taste that good.
The most important thing is to eat healthy, not to eat cute. Cuteness should be on the last row when you are listing the important things about your food.

Besides I'd be bullied in my work if I came with a hello kitty charaben. My workmates usually make comments about my food or my boxes (in a nice way, though) but I wouldn't even dare to give them the chance to say "hey look Jiza has manga food!" ;)

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

This works in the same way, although on another level, that anime porn is; giving a false image of the Japanese society. Most young North Americans know about the tentacles and all that extra weird stuff and most people who don't know Japan think the country is populated by sick perverts.

As for the kindergarten wars, I've seen it. Luckily the kindergartens I go to serve lunches, but the kids still have to bring rice. As soon as we sit down, they compete to show me their chara bento boxes. Kids with plain tin boxes are ignored. I hate how kids ostracize each other and how parents and teacher do nothing to stop it.

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Excellent post. I often find myself browsing cake blogs/flickr and marvelling at the elaborate cakes that people are making these days, many of them so cute/beautiful/cool that I don't think I could bear to actually eat them. Most of these bakers seem to be from the US, yet I don't see people talking about how that says something about US culture and blah blah blah. Of course cakes are more a special occasion thing, but I still think it's a valid comparison. Not everyone in the US is baking super fancy cakes at home, not by a long shot. And not everyone in Japan is making super fancy bentos.

It's just a desire to other/exoticise Japan.

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

I've been making bento for my husbands lunch for about 9 months now. I live in North Carolina, USA. I DO NOT make charaben lunches, although I admire them and love the thought of being able to one day make them for my 3 yr old daughter. I can't imagine what it would be like to have my child picked on or ridiculed because her lunch wasn't up to some people's standards. I'm just grateful that I do have the time and energy to make the ones I do make. They are not flashy; they are practical, accessible and edible and the only person that should matter is the person that is eating them.

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

wonderful post, maki! the breakdown of book categories was very helpful in terms of providing insight into how this practice is perceived/ingrained in the culture from which it originates.

i agree with you that healthy and well-balanced bentos should be acheivable on a daily basis, and that to do that, it's not practical to do kyaraben everyday. i stick a quick cheese face on a mini-pizza or a cheese-and-nori elephant on top of some rice a couple times a week, but i don't do it if it becomes stressful or un-fun, because the healthy food is more important than the cuteness.

gosh some of those kyaraben are cute! but yes, the important thing is BALANCE -- in the ingredients you are using, in the level of effort you invest (versus what else you could be doing in your life with that time), etc.

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Hi.. I hv that book "Bento Love" , and the boiled salmon recipe.. yup.. it's just plain raw salmon. I've tried tt many times as it's so easy and tasty and just like what the recipe says, the key is in the soy sauce and sesame oil, and letting the boiled salmon sit in the seasoning long enough to absorb all that flavour before stirring into the rice.. it took mine a while to "absorb" the seasoning and I broke up the salmon while waiting to "assist in the absorption" before mixing into my rice.. tastes great !
BUT would love to try your version next wif salted salmon cos it sounds just as fabulous !!

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Nice article. In my opinion bento just tastes great even without faces in my food. Some small decorations are ok and pimp up the look of bento quickly. But i keep myself from spending hours to plan and assemble cute landscapes and that kind of things. There is a geraman saying "Das Auge isst mit" which literally means the eye is eating with you, that´s true i think, but when we bother all the time about the look of our food one may not concentrate on the taste. I heard of children that sayed that their bento looked so cute they weren´t able to eat it because they didn´t want to destroy the picture by eating things out of it... so charaben can indeed make your child become even more picky eaters.

I flipped through my copy of "Bento Love": The recipe there is with raw salmon filet that is sesoned with a pinch of salt while cooking it. By the way it is a very basic book, I bought when i started bentoing. Main aspect lies on fiilling tasty, manly bento with lots of meat and carbohydrates. Right what you might need, if your hubby is afraid og vegetables like mine..:)

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Great article Maki! I totally agree.

It’s funny, but I didn’t start to make bentos for my twin daughters until they got to middle school last year, and the logic behind it was that they're so physically active (9+ hours a week in dance) that they need all the nutrition they can get. The mostly processed food at school just wasn’t enough for them. When I make bentos I know if they’ve eaten it or not, and I wouldn’t know that if they bought lunch everyday. The compact size of a bento box also fits into their very large and heavy book bags. Ironically, all of their friends envy them for their bentos and the teacher remark on them as well.

One thing that I find problematic about the really crazy charaben is that it doesn't look very tasty. The food elements appear to be chosen for how they look over how they taste. For example nori, rice, processed American cheese and lunch meat assembled into a character? As for as taste goes – YUCK!

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Very interesting article here! I agree, who really has time to make charaben? Not to mention I'd feel bad about eating something that took so long to make.
Also, just wanted to say that I really love that quote for some reason. It's so eloquent sounding.
Let's hope people seeing Charaben articles gets them interested enough to research online and find reasonable, everyday bento (and your website!)

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

As a person who works in the media, I HATE when they make an overarching generalization about any one race/culture with these kinds of stories. It not only does a disservice to the culture involved, but it perpetuates the myopic view of that culture, which becomes increasingly hard to shake as time goes on.

Anyway, as much as I admire charaben for their design, I'm more interested in eating something that tastes as good as it looks. This is why I got into bento (or baon, as it's known in the Philippines where my grandparents are from) -- I was sick of sad leftovers in a Ziploc container. (Just cue my "I want new food!" proclamation during lunch over a year ago...)

Now, I have nice bento boxes that help me turn my leftovers into something that's as pleasing to the eye as it is the palate. Whether those leftovers are made into something tastier (like last night's mashed potatoes that will become tomorrow's croquettes), or are simply repackaged, I've enjoyed the bento-making experience. While I don't think I'll ever do charaben (even if/when I have kids), I do have a few flower-shaped cookie cutters for days when I think my food could use a little more "charm." ^__~

On another note, if you're interested in Bento Love, just note that it is a translated book from Japan. Vertical, the series' publisher, pretty much only does translations and their catalog contains everything from cookbooks, craft books and manga. And—in the spirit of full disclosure—a colleague of mine is the marketing manager there and I'm sure would be more than happy to send you the book to review.

----------------------------
Love manga? Then check out my manga review blog, i ♥ manga!

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Hi Maki,
What a coincidence that you mention the book "Bento Love", by Kentaro Kobayashi! I recently skimmed through the book at a local book store. But for some reason, which now I can't remember, I didn't buy it. Hmm... I'll have to go back and take another look. I've never boiled salmon...must give it a try.

Like most everything in this world, there's a time and a place for things such as charaben. It's an art form, it's a lunch, and it's just another option.

If there is nothing bad about good looking food... is there is nothing good about bad looking food?

Thanks for another stimulating article.

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

I respect the work that goes into many charaben, but honestly, most look inedible to me. I find ones that are less "exciting" and more elegant to be far more appealing! I'm still new to the art in either form, and sadly, my food generally looks kind of dull to me. Which is bad as I'm a homemaker and my significant other likes to bring lunch to work. We both agree on the charaben thing, but he may like cute more than me! We are also vegetarians, almost vegan. How in the world can I keep things very edible, occasionally add something cute and vegetarian on top of all that?! Keep up the good work here so I feel inspired!

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Maki,

I always love your down to earth point of view!

How food looks is important - so we want to eat it! But anything can be carried to an extreme as you point out.

Thanks for your back to basics guidance and cultural insights!

hugs,

Amy

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Great post!
I'm really pleased to see this as it helps counter the determination to 'other'/exoticise Japan just as Travis described.
I watched a food program about Japan recently (Planet Food), the presenter watched a lady from Tokyo make tempura and was too busy exclaiming how "everything has to look pretty in Japan" to see the logic in her host's attention to detail:
The eggplant was cut into a fan so that it would cook evenly, the shrimp and squid were scored so that they wouldn't curl (which again helps with even cooking), and the ends were sliced from the shrimp tails as water collects in this part of the shell and could explode in the hot oil (tempura frying is known to be dangerous).
Mathematicians have long declared that all the best formulas and theories are inately beautiful. I think that's the same with anything that does what it is supposed to do well. So many of the preparation techniques that make Japanese food so aesthetically pleasing were developed to solve cooking problems, improve texture and flavour and sometimes to minimise health risks. Simply squealing that everything is pretty kind of overlooks the accumulation of centuries of ingenuity and common sense.

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

This was such an intereseting reed... Thanks for the enlightment!

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

Awesome! Thanks for the post.

Despite the claim that this post is late in coming, I would have to say it was perfectly timed. After I found this site via the news article, I went crazy looking around for a short while then I took a break before returning.

And when I returned, here was this marvelous post, much more informative than the times article! Arigatou gozaimashita!

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

That is quite an extrapolation that article has there; charaben=inscrutable Japanese society! LOL. Did the author ever notice the dizzying amount of designs for American children lunch boxes? Even though the food inside isn't usually presented as cute as a charaben bento, the outside of the boxes with so many characters to pick, could be used to dissect American culture also if one chose.

And American kids can be teased the same way if they don't have the "cool" character on their lunchbox.
Then later lunchboxes themselves become "uncool" and the "brown bag" lunch makes it's appearance!
Personally I think it just says that American kids watch cartoons and later outgrow the characters.
Just as charaben probably just means Japanese moms want their picky pre-schoolers to eat. And also maybe to help them not miss home and mom so much.

Re: What is a bento anyway, redux: It's not just about cute ...

I think this gave me a very different view on obentos. That is to say, I didn't think that all bentos were chara-bentos, but I was overly fond of them and I think that this article really lifted that a little. Although I love chara-bentos, I can understand the art of the food in it's natural form. I still love the usagi ringo slices though...

Although some people make the connection between Japan and Kawaii, they have to realize that that's really not what it's all about. I mean, what was there before anime and manga and cute stuff? That's right, a huge many facets of a culture that had developed for a thousand years and did not include the market of cute things.

I really think that people see Japan in a very wrong light sometimes. But you can't blame them. What are humans more prone to do than create a place where everything is so rosy and perfect. All others can do is educate them to the truth and get their heads out of the clouds. And that's exactly what this article does in the respect of obentos. So thank you~!

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