On bento culture

Hello, reader! And long time no writey, eh? My excuse for not posting regularly has gotten even better: moving house and having no internet at the new place. But honestly, now that I’m not so immersed in the machine that is the Japanese public school system, there aren’t so many working-life things that I care to write about. Also, having no internet, I haven’t been keeping so up to date on news and other blogs I follow… so didn’t realise until today that Japanophile blossomkitty had asked me a question, which was what my take is on ‘bento boxes,’ as they’re known in the West.

The infamous kyaraben, character bento, with something out of Yokai Watch, a cartoon that little Japanese kids love.

Basically, I like eating them, especially if they’re professionally made, but I’ve never made one myself. Because ceebs (cbf, equates to ‘can’t be bothered.’ Read here if you really want to know).

‘Which do you like, school lunch or bento?’ is one of the standard questions that inevitably come up from about year 7 (中1/first year of junior high school) English classes in Japan. I don’t know what high school kids say, but to me it seemed the majority of junior high school kids said ‘bento’ because they could have what they liked in their lunch every day if their mum was making it for them, and their mum could give them the right quantity, whereas school lunch might sometimes be too much or too little. How often did consideration for their mums come into it? Not very.

Some kid’s school lunch in Gunma. Image: City home page

As a non-fussy eater, I would choose school lunch every time. I know this wasn’t your question, Blossomkitty, but it is a thing in Japan, and as far as I’m concerned, school lunch is the best thing since sliced bread, except it’s so much better than sliced bread. Here are my many reasons (none of this ‘I have two reasons’ stuff, kids):

  1. Someone else cooks it
  2. Someone else cleans up
  3. It’s different every day, and therefore fun to eat
  4. It’s nutritious and makes an attempt at balance
  5. It usually tastes pretty good. Naturally there are some misses
  6. Doesn’t spill in your bag
  7. It minimises lunch envy
  8. You don’t have to remember to bring it to school or take it out of your bag when you get home
  9. It has various components within the meal (rice, meat/fish, salad, soup, milk, whatever) which makes it interesting – similar to (3) but I reckon this merits another dot point
  10. Someone gets properly compensated for making it
  11. It uses mostly local and seasonal ingredients
  12. It’s cheap (approx. 200-300 yen a day, which is something like $2 – $3)

OK. Now I think I’d better go into the bento.

First of all, if you have to take a portable lunch somewhere and can’t have a proper nice sit-down lunch on a plate, the bento is the way to go. Might as well do a list. However, this list turns into less things I like about bentoes than just things I have noticed.

Yeahhh, the professional ekiben (station bento). Image: matome

  1. It has compartments. (I know from googling it just now that lunch boxes around the world also now have compartments. Fine.)
  2. It seals nicely and doesn’t seem to spill in anyone’s bag. That being said, people don’t gung-ho chuck their lunch boxes into their bags in Japan and run around with said bags on their backs or throw their bags around. Maybe that was my problem.
  3. Some people wrap their bento in a cloth called a furoshiki 風呂敷. Makes it look nice, absorbs condensation perhaps, and you can use the cloth to carry it if you want.
  4. The compartments thing means you can have rice and other things separately.
  5. People use little patty pans to put lots of different things into the larger compartments. You can get silicone, i.e. washable ones these days, which makes it a bit more eco-friendly than plastic/paper or foil ones.
  6. The average school kid’s bento can often be expected to contain a miniature sausage, though not necessarily a whole one, and a little patty-pan-full of ‘Napolitan’ (tomato sauce, aka ketchup) spaghetti, and either or both of a piece of fried chicken and a piece of rolled omelette (卵焼き, tamagoyaki, たまごやき). Sometimes it has a little hanba-gu (hamburger steak/rissole) too. Last year at one of my primary schools there was one day when all the kids had to bring lunch, maybe the last day of term, and I swear 9 out of 10 lunches I saw had a little wiener and a tiny patty pan of this spaghetti. None of them were as cute/pretty as the lunch pictured here, however.

  7. The average homemade bento doesn’t have a lot of vegetable content. Japan doesn’t eat much fruit in general, so that’s not so noticeable. You might have a slice of orange or apple, or a few strawberries or grapes, and maybe a cherry tomato or a piece of cucumber. It’s rare that I’ve seen more than that in a homemade one. The ones you see posted on the Internet aren’t what everyone makes – some people don’t have that sort of time.
  8. A well-made, especially a professionally made bento, is really nice to eat, and in my experience has more vegetables and some pickled things in it.

8. This is my main issue with bento-making and eating. Bentoes are usually made by mums/wives; some junior high or high school girls make their own. I have never heard of boys doing so, though such people must exist somewhere, and there are probably dads who make them too – I just haven’t seen/met any. It’s generally assumed in Japanese society that a wife/mum will do all the cooking and cleaning, which is basically a full-time job if you’re going to cook all the various little parts that make up a good Japanese meal. Of course, if being a full-time housewife is your thing, that might be fine. If you want to have a job, though, this puts a lot of pressure on women to get up at or before 5am, make breakfast and pack lunches for husband (who probably leaves the house by around 7?) and children and maybe yourself, then go to work and work a full day, come home, buy ingredients on the way home, cook dinner, wash everyone’s lunch boxes, wash the dishes after everyone’s dinner, wash the dishes again after your husband has finished dinner later than everyone else, go and have a bath, dry your hair… by this time it may well be 11, 12 or 1am.

It’s also really ingrained that girls make bento for boys. It’s a kind of trope in every anime or high school drama that a girl brings a lunch for a boy if she likes him. On Terrace House (a Japanese reality show about a sharehouse situation) they do it if they like the boy or if there’s some thing on and they’re all going somewhere.

‘Eating whatever bento as if you’re enjoying it is a boyfriend’s duty kindness’
Image: ‘Girl power up blog

So I’m all for eating cute, delicious and healthy lunches. And if it’s fun to make them, then so much the better. But if it’s an everyday necessity and kids are going to get bullied because their lunch isn’t as cute as the next kid’s, and it puts pressure on women and girls who also probably aren’t getting as appreciated as they deserve, then I reckon it’s better to pay someone to make your lunch. At least if I have the choice, that’s what I do.


2 thoughts on “On bento culture

  1. Thanks 😊 Bijinjapn…. yep, school lunches look pretty good!! I have watched documentaries about kids serving it and cleaning up themselves, also….
    The getting up at 5 in the morning thing is madness. We are on school holidays in Australia and not making school lunches is one of my favourite things about holidays!!!!


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