Searchina Strikes Again: “Observations about Japanese Bento” Translation Butchers Actual Conclusion



UPDATE (3/26)(日本語でも書いた更新)

Oh, Searchina. About a year ago, one of my articles got picked up by their “American blog” series and translated into Japanese. I was particularly annoyed, as I wrote, because the translators assumed I was a male tourist and wrote about how “moved” I was by Japanese food. (I’m not the only one whose identity was grossly mistaken, either–it seems to be pretty rough across the board for the other bloggers they translate.)

Anyway, Searchina and MSN picked up my piece “A Bento is Not as Big as the World,”

yellowcardis jawn


and while I got to be mercifully androgynous this time, the translators really missed the point.


The Japanese and my translation (my translation of a translation…brilliant) are below. Mainly, I’m disappointed that they did not include anything about the Matchar piece “Betty Friedan Did Not Kill Home Cooking” as that was the crux of my argument. In fact, the entire last paragraph is just gone.

Translation by paragraph; my comments in italics. More discussion after.


American Blogs: “Observations on Japan’s Bento: ‘Difficult to [say whether they can] Combat Obesity and to Make”

I don’t even know what this title is. It’s very hard to translate, but the just is that bento is not effective in stopping obesity (true to what I said) and is hard to make (not really what I said).

【社会ニュース】 2013/03/24(日) 09:37


There is a discussion of Japanese bento on the food blog “illmakeitmyself.”


According to the author, the topic of bento has recently been introduced in American media. In an [the?] article, Japanese kyaraben  [character bento] are introduced as “too cute to eat.” A kyaraben is a bento in which the contents are made to look like a manga character, etc. The author explains that kyaraben is part of “Japan’s food culture, which is attentive to visual details in food,” but says that there’s another view about whether anthropomorphizing food is really necessary.

I sincerely hope they understood that “Too Cute to Eat” is the title of the NPR article which was linked. It’s not linked in the Searchina piece, and there’s no mention that it’s actually an article from another source.


In the US, children’s unhealthy eating habits have become a problem. The author mentions that Japanese bento are being discussed as a way to reduce obesity rates in children. However, [she] points out that working women shoulder the burden of housework and children more than their husbands and that who makes the bento is an issue.

This is all pretty accurate.


On one hand, [she] introduces a large number of things that mothers in Japan have to prepare for their children to enter preschool. For example, the author brings up “writing the child’s name on all the child’s garments and school supplies” and “making the bento cover [bag] by hand” as examples that are not the custom in the US.

The first line refers to my discussions of Peak and Allison’s researchAlso, parents in the US do have to help their children prepare for school by writing their names on school supplies, etc., but it is nowhere near the level of handmade that the school system in Japan prefers.


The author also explains that bento in Japan are not just for children but also for adults. [She] could not believe her eyes when she saw over 2000 published recipes for danna bento [husband bento] on the popular recipe site Cookpad. “A danna bento is a bento that a wife makes for her husband,” [she] explains. In addition, [she] mentions bento for field trips and sports days.

They completely missed the point of this paragraph. If a papa bento is bento made for “dad” and danna bento is made for the husband, why aren’t mama bento or “wife bento” made FOR mothers and wives, respectively, instead of made BY mothers and wives?


Making bento stimulates the imagination and wanting to make meals more delicious and visually appealing widens the scope of creative cooking. Thus, [she] says, “Making attractive bento for children is not wrong.” However, in America, if one thinks that making bento is women’s work in the division of labor, that could breed problems.

Because they failed to address the Cookpad findings, this paragraph makes it seem like Americans are especially sexist, when this is a problem in both countries.* Tied to my prior commentary about Japanese bento and housework, it made more sense.


Japanese food is established as healthy food even in America. By eating Japanese bento and school lunches, along with getting [children] interested in food, it seems we can expect children’s obesity levels to decrease.




Credit: graffitiballs
Credit: graffitiballs

My argument was actually that American news sources were oversimplifying school lunches and bento as a panacea for America’s obesity problem. In the school lunch piece, I criticized the lack of discussion of the non-uniformity of the quality of school lunch in places other than the featured Tokyo school. In the bento piece, I pointed out that 1. not all bento are kyaraben and not all are for children; 2. both Japan and the US have serious gender discrepancies in who does housework and childcare, which carries over to foodwork and bento; 3. when we consider the bento as a means to help children eat better, we need to acknowledge and reject gender stereotypes with foodwork–not just Japanese ones, but American ones.

Here’s the last section again, in case I’m not being clear enough (emphasis added):

“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 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 quichedrinking beer, or cooking from scratch. It is, shockingly, possible to pack a lunch without oppressing anyone.

It’s also possible to translate articles without missing the entire pointI appreciate the bump in viewers, but you’ve made thousands of Japanese readers think I think that American men are incapable of housework and that Japanese bentos are a cure for fat Americans. Bravo.


*See Tsuya 2004 and Table 5 for details, but in short, in Japan, “Husbands’ share of housework increased from 7 percent in 1994 to 10  percent in 2000, but it was due primarily to wives’ cutting their housework time (from 33  hours to 29 hours per week on average), as the average housework time of husbands remained at around 3 hours per week” not including childcare (11-12).

In the US, “Analyses of pooled data from the American Time Use Survey of 2003 to 2011 indicate that on average, men spend about 10 hours more than women per week in paid work, although women spend about six hours more than men in household work and about three additional hours in child care, bringing the total work time to 45.6 hours per week for men and 45.2 hours for women”–including childcare (Parker & Wang, 2013 [Pew Research]).


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Rachel says:

    Ugh, that is annoying. I hate it when people interpret based on the perspective they assume is written instead of from the perspective that is actually written.

    Maybe you should just make all your posts bilingual so that it can’t happen again :P

    1. Leah says:

      I’m considering it. For shorter, photo-based posts, it’s not hard, but for theoretical stuff, it’d be a big time-suck, especially if no one who speaks Japanese is even reading. If they are, they don’t comment, so I have no idea if the non-Searchina hits I get in Japan are Japanese people or expats or, if they are Japanese, whether they speak/read English.

      Also, I’m pretty sure if they had bothered to read any of the piece, the conclusion wouldn’t have seemed like such a shock. I mean, that’s a classic JLPT trick: have an editorial where you don’t agree with the author at all. (A bad one about how all children ought to have a mother and a father comes to mind…)

  2. Travis says:

    I love your gifs.

    Also, yeah. Willful misinterpretation? Or, so immersed in certain standard discursive tropes that the translator can’t imagine that a different argument, a different conclusion, is being made here?

    At the end of the day, it’s just terrible translation work. Very poorly executed.

    (That said, I’m kind of wondering, when will I get translated and published on Searchina?)

    1. Leah says:

      Haha, thanks. I figured that if they weren’t clear on my meaning that John and Conan and Sen could help illustrate my frustration.

      It reminded me of that JLPT “trick” of using a ではないかと思います to confuse the test-taker (is it positive? negative?). English has its share of rhetorical questions, but I feel like I was really, really blunt in the conclusion. Ah, well. At least they updated their page. (I also sent them an email regarding the mistake.)

      And hey, if you ever get Searchina’d, at least your language skills are good enough to set them straight!

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