Why do Japanese mums spend so much time and effort on their children’s packed lunches?

According to Face Food, a whole book on charaben (kyaraben- character bento) that the publisher sent me a review copy of, reasons include:

“to improve their children’s nutritional health… ” and to “[help] their child become more popular in school”.

I’ve also read elsewhere that kindergartens give mothers precise instructions and sometimes critical comments saying that the boxed lunches they give their children must give a balanced diet and be attractive enough to make them actually want to eat it. The cult of kawaii (cuteness) and the history of over the top concentration on appearance in Japanese must also be factors. Add in the difficulty some Japanese have expressing love through words and bodily contact, the continuous talking about food as a safe conversation topic, and a culture of perfectionism and continuous improvement, and there you have it.

Other nice quotes from the book “Face food” (with my comments in brackets) include:

“…growing increasingly opinionated and critical of her talents, he had begun to chastise her for her creations, often complaining of a likeness’s minute inaccuracies before, of course, scarfing it all down” (seems very sad, until you realise that children chastising their parents is actually a common way of showing affection in Japan)

“They all possess their own unique style honed with a singular intent: to garner praise from their child” (I think that’s meant as a compliment, but I’d see it more as a sign of someone who should see more of their salaryman husband!)

“Who do you make charaben for? How is his/ her response? – My children: very happy. Husband: no response” (My suspicions of something missing in suburbia continue, although again it’s difficult to judge anything in Japan by what is said and unsaid…)

“Describe a typical charaben-making day’s schedule- I go shopping the day before and prepare the ingredients. I wake up at 5 and finish making charaben sometime between 7 and 8” (Wow! No comment!)

“I started making charaben for my daughter, and now I talk with her more, mostly about food” (Ah, food, the one safe conversation topic in Japan…)

“The logistics behind the actual preparation and sculpting of your very own character bento is a mind-numbing exercise in patience” (Perfect training for being Japanese then)

Face Food is a charming little book with great pictures and nice design, kind of a pocket sized coffee table book (maybe so you can take it to Starbucks and put on the coffee table there??). Having never bought a coffee table book of any size, I’m using my imagination here- but it could serve as nice gift for someone interested in cartoons or as inspiration to put a bit more effort into your own kids’ lunches. For myself, I’m a text man, and could have quite easily read 150 pages on the sociological meanings of charaben. Until Christopher D Salyers writes that book, my own attempts above will have to suffice…

To finish, one quote from the much better written review of Face Food on Justbento.com:

“(My one hope though is that it doesn’t further perpetuate the misconception that every Japanese mother makes such elaborate bentos for their children, which I like to repeat a lot is definitely not the case.)”


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