A Bento is Not As Big As the World

(サチーナの翻訳が更新された?!)UPDATE on the Searchina Translation (3/26)

This is a companion piece to “‘Deeply Ingrained Advantages’: American Media Discovers Kyûshoku.”

At the same time as Japan’s school lunch programs got picked up by the media, there was a burst of articles about Japan’s other distinctive lunch: the bento.

Bento and the Cult of Cute

Vegan Bento from Earth Cafe @ I'll Make It Myself
A vegan bento served at Earth Cafe in Kanazawa. The box is lacquer and the presentation is beautiful, but this is also not an elaborate kyaraben.

In the lead-in to Carlsen’s and Turner’s “In Japan, Food Can Be Almost Too Cute To Eat,” there is a slideshow showcasing the cuter side of Japanese food: tofu character goods, a kyaraben (character bento), and images of Anpanman in cartoon and pancake form. The authors mention that food presentation is part of the culture of cute, but instead of an obsession with food presentation dictating the creation of characters and mascots like Anpanman, I would actually say that Japan’s love of cute things dictates the creation of anthropomorphized food. I don’t just mean in terms of kyaraben, I mean that the regular onions I buy at the grocery store have an anthropomorphized onion on the bag. So do my eringi mushrooms. So do my tomatoes. Visual presentation of food is definitely a part of Japanese food culture, and creating a cute obento for a child to eat is part of that culture, but the food presentation didn’t create the characters necessarily.

As for the contents of the obento (from here: bento), Debra Samuels is right in her assertion that Japanese children eat a variety of Japanized Western foods. Audie Cornish’s interview with her is more about packed lunches than school lunches, though she focuses on bento packed for preschoolers. Bento are not always homemade, though. Normally one uses home-cooked goods, often leftovers from last night’s dinner’s okazu, and planning to make a little (or a lot) extra in order to have some for lunch is quite easy. Some people make their own rice but purchase store-bought deli items like hijiki salad, croquettes, frozen gyoza, or cooked fish. Office workers often order their bento from a local seller or buy them at the market. (Diamond at Omicho Market in Kanazawa has some nice okazu sets that I get occasionally.) As Makiko Itoh writes in her “Bento Basics,” though, most people’s bento tend to be more utilitarian than cute, and there are many examples of regular bento on her site Just Bento. There are certainly adults who make kyaraben for themselves, too–just check out Anna the Red for some of the best kyaraben on the Internet.

Food Work and Gender Expectations

Rainbow Bento @ I'll Make It Myself
My pride bento: a collection of leftovers. Pretty but utilitarian. (Contains eggplant and soumen dish, sauteed peppers, corn, aka zuiki pickles, grilled salmon with thyme, brown rice.)

Who makes the bento? Mothers, generally, or at least that’s what is expected. There has been quite a bento boom in the English-speaking parental blog world, and the sentiment these blogs express about “why bento?” echoes Lois Peak’s research on school in Japan from early ’90s. She quotes the principal of a Tokyo preschool,

“It’s important for o-bento to be made just for the child…. When the child opens the lid of his lunch box at lunchtime, his mother’s love and feelings for him should pop out of the box. Children should feel, ‘My mother made this just for me.’” (p. 60)

In Japan, this is in addition to the other tasks expected of mothers (not fathers): labeling all of their children’s clothing and school supplies, hand-sewing a bento cover, a toiletries bag, and a painting smock (61, 113). Anne Allison devoted a whole chapter to “Japanese Mothers and Obentôs” in Permitted and Prohibited Desires in which she discusses the social implications of a preschoolers bento. (I don’t agree with all of her conclusions in the book, but I do find this chapter quite useful; there is an excellent review on Contemporary Japanese Literature.) She focuses a section on how the teacher seemed more interested in discussing her son’s “progress” eating his bento rather than his other behavioral issues, to which she responds, “The manifest reference was to the box lunches, but wasn’t there a latent reference to something else?”–her skills as a mother, helping her child adjust to preschool life by creating bento so cute that he would want to eat every bite (91).

Over 20 years have passed since Allison and Peak published their initial work on bento, but I find that little about the expectations for women to be the primary homecook has actually changed. One could write a whole dissertation on contemporary bento and gender, but for the sake of my argument here, let’s look at just a few examples. Itoh has a good timeline of bento one makes and eats throughout one’s life in “A Japanese Life of Bento.” (Please note that the timeline shows the sexism inherent in the culture and is not Itoh’s personal endorsement of who should make bento.)

I also did a search for 旦那弁当 (danna [husband] bento) or パパ弁当 (papa bento) on Cookpad, one of Japan’s most popular recipe sites. There are 2363 results each (tagging overlap, I suspect) for bento that married mothers make for their husbands. Search for “mama bento,” and the results are deceiving: of the 1926 entries, most are for users/blogs with “mama” in the name (“Kitchen Mama“), or the bentos are made by women for themselves or for others [Ed: not bentos made for the mothers by others]. There are bento made by mothers for themselves to take on a family outing (ママ弁当: 子どもの遠足に) or for their children “from Mama” on sports day*, as well as “papa and mama” kyaraben, which feature a coupled set of characters or a pair of characters that represent sexual dichotomy–a big “papa” and a dainty “mama.”

Some of the instances of “mama” I found are also grammatical (“as it is”), but that also says something: who makes bentos for grown women? “Wife bento” has only 11 entries, some of which are from the poster who writes that he and his wife made a bento together or that his wife likes the dish. “Beloved wife bento” (愛妻弁当) usually refers to a bento that a loving wife makes for her husband. This list is by no means exhaustive or definitive, but does show the gender imbalance: “papa bento” is made with love for her husband; the alleged “mama bento” is made with love for her children–not by her husband or children for her.

American Bento

Men's bento box @I'll Make It Myself
“Men’s bento.” Found in a 100-yen shop in Kanazawa.

With this in mind, the conclusion in the recent media that America might learn from Japan’s example how to lower obesity rates through emulating their foodways, is linked to blaming the parents, specifically the mother, for children’s unhealthy food habits. In the US, even though working women do a larger percentage of housework and child-care than their male counterparts (extensively dealt with in Parker & Wang, 2013 [Pew Research]), the idea that feminism killed home cooking is alive and well. I feel like these articles about kyûshoku and bento are a hairbreadth away from garnering a response that blames women for the lack of American bento. To that, I would like to respond with a (rather long) quote from New Domesticity writer Emily Matchar‘s (2013) excellent piece for The Atlantic: “Betty Friedan Did Not Kill Home Cooking”:

The idea that feminists convinced women that cooking was oppression is absurd, a modern day rendering of the hoary old “man-hating bra-burners” stereotype. There were feminists who hated all housework, there were crunchy feminists who baked whole-grain bread and crocheted sweaters all day, and there were feminists (the majority, no doubt) who simply felt that women shouldn’t have to be the ones who did all the housework. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote, “a baked potato is not as big as the world” to point out that keeping women in the kitchen all day long shrank their horizons. It was not a diss on potatoes, nor those who bake them.

She continues with this questions: “why does this idea of “feminism killed home cooking” keep staggering around, zombie-like, infecting new and otherwise intelligent audiences?”

Twenty-first century foodies like [Michael] Pollan and his followers have an understandably hard time seeing cooking as anything but enjoyable. In the post-industrial middle- and upper-middle class America of the 21st century, cooking, stripped of necessity, has been reimagined as a hobby or a vocation. Many of us spend our days in front of computers, disconnected from the kind of tactile labor that produces tangible results. Baking bread, digging up watermelon radishes in your backyard garden, or stirring a big pot of earthy mushroom risotto fulfills a very common urge to work with your hands and enjoy the end product. But stirring pots and digging in the dirt is not necessarily fun when you have to do it. And we ought to remember that.

While it’s true that creating bento can be a way for people to stretch their creative culinary wings and create something that tastes and looks nice, just like baking bread or gardening, when it becomes a socially enforced expectation or a necessity, particularly a gendered one, the narrative shifts from a creative outlet to oppressive, something which Matchar has also addressed in her research. Certainly there is nothing wrong with choosing to devote time to making your child a healthy lunch with good presentation, but if one believes the social expectation that this is “women’s work,” or that foodwork is the proper role and duty of “wives and mothers,” and enforces it in one’s home and to others, then the act is problematic.

Detaching the Bento from Gendered Foodwork

Unfortunately, the more I read of journalism about Japan and about gender, even from publications I respect, the more I see the need for attached academic consultants and more stringent editors to help prevent infuriatingly simplistic conclusions. “Japanese food” is not a panacea for America’s obesity problem. Although bento are a great way to reconsider healthy eating and to create visual appeal for food, but they don’t have to be labor intensive, or cute, just for kids, or made by women. The association in Japan of cooking and bento-making as the duty of wives and mothers is highly problematic, as are the terms in which bento for (adult) men and women are falsed dichotomized: big vs. dainty, meat vs. diet, not-cute vs. cute. Even if we Americans adopt new foodways regarding school lunches and packed lunches based on Japanese culture, we do not also have to adopt the sexist attitude that food is women’s work; in fact, we should outright reject it.

In reality, the only thing gendered about the act of cooking and feeding others is the gendered meaning that society, and, by extension, individuals, assign to it. As I have argued time and time again, there is nothing particularly feminine or masculine about consuming quiche, drinking beer, or cooking from scratch. It is, shockingly, possible to pack a lunch without oppressing anyone.

Addendum: As for questions of class and race: the issues I am critiquing do not bring them up (through the pieces seem directed at the middle class), and unfortunately, I have not seen any studies of bento bloggers outside Japan. However, having the time to make kyaraben or (an observation from reading English-language bento blogs that needs statistical data to back it up) have a stay-at-home parent may indicate a certain class level. This critique directed at the message to the “intended reader” of said articles. I get them impression that most of the bento enthusiasts are middle-class to upper class; as for the English language blogs, there seem to be a mix of mainly white bloggers and bloggers of Asia descent. If someone could point me to more research on bento makers outside of Japan, I would appreciate it.


* “Because Mama has gotten into the spirit! A sport’s day bento ♡. Generally cute and delicious (*´▽`*). Nourishes the eyes and the body [stomach] +☆+. Good luck in the afternoon relay ♡. (ママ張り切っちゃうんだから~運動会弁当♡” : とにかく可愛く、そして美味しく(*´▽`*)目にも胃にも大満足な出来栄えです。+☆+。゚ 午後からリレー頑張れ♡) (source)


Allison, Anne. (1991). “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus.” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4, Gender and the State in Japan. pp. 195-208.

—-. (2000). Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press. (See “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs”; “Producing Mothers.”)

Itoh, Makiko. (2007). “Bento Basics.” Just Bento.

—-. (2009). “A Japanese Life of Bento.” Just Bento.

Parker, Kim, & Wendy Wang. (2013.) “Modern Parenthood: Roles of Moms and Dads Converge as They Balance Work and Family.” Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends.

Peak, Lois. (1991.) Going to School in Japan: The Transition from Home to Preschool Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.



9 Comments Add yours

  1. Jean says:

    We really have to disassociate bento from gender preparation and also the myth that it will help the obesity trend in North American (and elsewhere) children.

    I personally find this whole thing on bento awareness in Japan and food preparation linked to women/mothers, kind of pecularily ….Japanese.

    While true Chinese culture has its long standing stuff related to women and home food preparation, it doesn’t have the cuteness consumerist stuff in the same way as the Japanese. In fact, what I see in Chinese North American supermarkets, on kitty marketing for food looks borrowed from…Japan. Not inherently Chinese much at all..to me.

    I’m all for simple packing up of food for kids to make them eat it…but not get overboard..spend um 1 min. doing this and be done with it.

    It’s only lunch, every day…every year before kid flies the coop or earns their own money to buy lunch.

    I actually find the cuteness and association with women in Japan….kind of annoying and even more annoying, when girl becomes woman. And makes me so glad that I was never raised in Japan.

    1. Leah says:

      I’m not a fan of the feminized cuteness (vs, say, cute mascots) and infantilization of women, but every culture has its own gender issues. In the US (and elsewhere), the whole Disney princess trope and fetishization of a wedding day as the be-all end-all of your life, never mind that you’re meant to live and grow with this person and love alone cannot sustain a relationship, really, really bother me. I didn’t write about this in this piece, but I really ought to address some of the race and class issues surrounding the narrative of the “good mother” in the US, where the original articles I critiqued were published, and in Japan, as well.

      Lunch is important, but as you say, it ought to be easy. And making something healthy and visually appealing doesn’t have to take a lot of time or be in the shape of a rabbit or Pokemon.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. kamo says:

    I don’t think there’s anything I could usefully add to this. Or at least not without it descending into a disjointed ramble/borderline rant.

    So this is just a note to say I read this, greatly appreciated it, and I hope you keep up the good work.

    1. Leah says:

      Thank you! I really appreciate it. Between the original articles and the Searchina fiasco, I feel like I’ve got a new, unwanted handle on the power of nihonjinron.

  3. I found this fascinating. I’m a professional woman in IT. I’m also a wife and mother. One of my hobbies is bento as a creative outlet.

    While it’s fun, I do find it interesting that I chose as a hobby something that does “serve” the family. I’d make bento for myself were I single. For me, it’s like drinking tea out of the good china or some similar grace note in life.

    But to say that I give no thought to the nutritional needs and likes of my family as I am making bento would be quite disingenuous. What a knife edge we walk in our society.

    How much is that choice driven by an internalized cultural expectation that the woman is in charge of the household food? I’d say quite a bit, for all that I really do enjoy cooking.

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