By now we have all seen some of the adorable bento boxes (弁当) that children bring for lunch in Japan. But just in case you still don’t know about them, we’ll fill you in. Instead of being packed with plain rice and vegetables like a traditional Japanese bento box, the food is made into super adorable animals and shapes. Your mom may even make it look like your favorite anime character or a superhero from a movie.
Maybe one day your bento will be a mouse or a flower or even Hello Kitty! While the trend started as a way to get kids excited about eating healthier, well-balanced diets, キャラ弁 (kyaraben or charaben, short for “character bento”) have exploded over the last decade. They’ve made their way from a popular trend in lunchboxes to warranting national bento competitions, and have even migrated to Europe and the United States. But is there a darker side to this super-cute kawaii fad? Could something so adorable be causing stress to families in Japan and abroad?
Of course, children around the world love to make everything a competition and lunchboxes are no exception. If you have the cutest, coolest, or most epic lunchbox, other kids are going to be jealous of you. And if your bento box has nothing but rice and some smelly brown fish in it, you won’t feel too great being compared to the intricately crafted kyaraben around you. But who is responsible for this lunchtime hierarchy?
Most of the time in Japan (as in many countries) the mother is responsible for packing lunches. Maybe it takes 30 minutes to cook some rice, cut some meat and vegetables, and pack up your bento. But how long does it take to turn your rice into お握り (onigiri) or your egg and cheese into Naruto? How many different tools do you need? How early do you have to get up? Will you spend extra money taking bento classes so you can learn new techniques? Japanese culture is filled with a pressure to perform on many different levels, and somehow lunchtime did not escape this competitive and pervasive aspect of Japanese society.
Bento Box for Grown Ups?
Don’t be fooled by thinking that fancy or cute bento boxes are only for children either. Japanese wives are often expected to make them for their husbands as well. These are known as 愛妻弁当, “lunchbox made with loving care from one’s wife.” While these won’t usually be anime characters, the wife can use a bento to express many different kinds of emotion. Take this one for example:
Can you read it? The wife sends a sweet love note, お疲れさま, (Good Job!) to her husband.
This can also take a darker turn, however. Instead of a loving bento, a husband can receive a 仕返し弁当, or “revenge bento.” This scathing jab seen below, 罪と罰 translates as “crime and punishment.” So what do you think he did wrong? And what is he going to eat for lunch?
While a wife and mother sending love notes or creating her child’s favorite Disney character sounds like a wonderful thing, bento boxes can add a huge stress to the already stressful day of the average homemaker. You may think the stress and competition only lies between the children at school, but the mothers compete against each other as well. They may spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to be the mother who has sent the best bento to school each day. In some cases schools in Japan have had to ban kyaraben altogether because of the rifts it causes between students. Luckily, when children enter elementary school, lunch (給食) is traditionally provided and the need for (and stress of) bento boxes disappears.
Just because bento can be stressful for moms and kids sometimes, doesn’t mean they aren’t also a lot of fun! Making special bento for field trips or family outings is a wonderful way to share a special experience or show your child how much you care. If you are making bento for your child, try to remember that it isn’t about a competition, it’s about the happy look on your child’s face to see the extra special lunch you’ve made them with their favorite characters. So have fun, be creative, and don’t let bento stress be a part of your life!
Just for fun, here are some super cute kyaraben to make you smile today!