For Japanese Parents, Gorgeous Bento Lunches Are Packed With High Stakes

Jul 24, 2016
Originally published on July 27, 2016 12:26 pm

Packing your child's lunch calls for a whole different level of preparation in Japan. There, moms often shape ordinary lunch ingredients like ham or rice into cute little pandas, Pokemon or even famous people's faces. It's called character bento, and there's considerable pressure to produce these cute food creations.

Tomomi Maruo has been teaching how to make character bentos, or "kyaraben" for short — at her home for the past 13 years.

"My kid brought kyaraben to the kindergarten and his friends saw the bento and moms started asking me how to make kyaraben so that's how I started teaching," Maruo said.

In a photo album of her proudest creations, she shows me the Mona Lisa, her skin with rice and her facial lines with dried seaweed cutouts. Various Pokemon. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. All as food.

Kyaraben is fairly typical in Japan, where the culture puts a premium on design and packaging. A few times a week she seats moms around her dinner table to walk them through new characters. The creations will only be the size of individual pieces of sushi, but require an investment of a precious commodity. At least twenty minutes for each pig or flower.

The moms in Maruo's class say they don't do it every day, but on mornings they make kyaraben, they block out as much as 90 minutes to make lunch. And not every Japanese parent wants to do this — but the cultural pressure is high, because it's hard to be the parent whose kid has a lame lunch.

"I think it's oppressive," says Margarita Estevez-Abe, a political science professor at Syracuse University, who specializes in gender issues in Japan.

"In a sense, they have a lot of time on their hands and they are just putting their effort and time into creating and competing over who makes the best character bento box," Estevez-Abe says.

How Japanese women are spending their time is a hot topic these days, as the government attempts to push more women into its shrinking workforce. Japanese women are highly educated, boasting bigger numbers of college grads than men. But nearly 70 percent of them quit working after having a baby. That's compared to one third of moms in the U.S. Moms cite a combination of Japan's long work hours, lack of daycare, and cultural pressures as reasons they're staying home.

"Japan still remains to be a very conservative society. And it's interesting, the conservative side in Japan really emphasizes the importance of meals and lunch boxes cooked by their mothers," Estevez-Abe says.

Signs are pointing to change. The Japanese prime minister's "womenomics" initiative set a target to increase the percentage of moms who return to work after their first babies to 55 percent by the year 2020. It's crucial for Japan's economy: If women don't work in bigger numbers, Japan is looking at a 10 percent drop in its workforce by 2030 because of its aging and shrinking population.

In the meantime, there's bento. Moms in Maruo's class say while making cute characters is time consuming, it's worth it to show a little love at lunchtime.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this story.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ELISE HU, HOST:

I'm filling in for Rachel Martin this weekend, but my usual post is out in East Asia where I cover Japan. The Japanese pay a lot of attention to proportion and design. You can see it everywhere, even in places you might not think to look, like inside lunchboxes. Japanese moms can transform ordinary lunch ingredients like ham or rice into cute little pandas or pigs or even famous people's faces. It's called character bento, or kyaraben for short. I wanted to try it out for myself, so I went to a class in a neighborhood just outside Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

TOMOMI MARUO: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: Tomomi Maruo has been teaching kyaraben at her home for the past 13 years.

MARUO: My kids brought kyaraben to the kindergarten, and his friend saw that bento and mom would start asking me about how to make the kyaraben. So that's how I started teaching.

HU: And what's the craziest thing you ever made?

MARUO: Obama.

HU: Obama, you made?

MARUO: (Laughter).

HU: You made Obama with rice?

MARUO: Yes. I mean, I made his face with ham and seaweed.

HU: Ham and seaweed. Maruo keeps a photo album full of her elaborate creations. The Mona Lisa, her skin made with rice and her facial lines with dried seaweed cutouts, various Pokemon, the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

MARUO: (Laughter) My son requested this when he...

HU: Kyaraben is fairly typical in Japan, where the culture puts a premium on packaging. For this class, since I admitted I'm not gifted in the culinary arts, Maruo settles on teaching us how to make pig face rice balls and on how to turn a small ham and cheese sandwich into a pretty flower.

I'm so nervous.

She seats us around her dinner table at matching egg-shaped placemats. The creations will only be the size of individual pieces of sushi but require an investment of a precious commodity.

How much time do you expect it to take?

MARUO: For the pig, maybe about 10 to 15 minutes, and the flower sandwich about 20 minutes, I guess.

HU: The moms in class say they don't do it every day. But on mornings they make kyaraben, they block out 90 minutes to make lunch. Not every Japanese parent wants to do this, but the cultural pressure is high because it's hard to be the parent whose kid has a lame lunch.

MARGARITA ESTEVEZ-ABE: I think it's oppressive.

HU: Margarita Estevez-Abe is a political science professor at Syracuse University. She specializes in gender issues in Japan.

ESTEVEZ-ABE: So Japan is very unique among OECD countries in having lots of highly skilled mothers staying home, looking after one child or two children. And in a sense, they have a lot of time in their hands.

HU: How Japanese women are spending their time is a hot topic these days as the government attempts to push more women into its shrinking workforce. Japanese women boast bigger numbers of college grads than men, but roughly 70 percent of them quit working after having a baby. That's compared to one-third of moms in the U.S. Japanese moms cite a combination of their country's long work hours, a lack of daycare and cultural pressures as reasons they stay home. Estevez-Abe explains.

ESTEVEZ-ABE: Japan still remains to be a very conservative society. And it's interesting that the conservative people in Japan really emphasize the importance of meals and lunchboxes cooked by their mothers.

HU: If women don't work in bigger numbers, Japan is looking at a 10 percent drop in its workforce by 2030 because of its aging and shrinking population. In the meantime, there's bento. It took me almost an hour, but I managed to fashion a flower and a pig face.

I just can't cut - I couldn't cut the eyes very well. So he looks kind of...

MARUO: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: It's OK.

MARUO: Cute.

(LAUGHTER)

HU: An hour's work that these women gladly do. Satoko Sano is mom to a 10-year-old boy.

SATOKO SANO: It worth it because we see how happy our kids become so we'll do our best.

HU: A little love in a lunchbox. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.