by Mizuko Ito
In honor of Thanksgiving and my new US camera phone, I launched my bento photo blog this week, an idea I had been incubating ever since my colleague Daisuke Okabe told me about photo sites in Japan featuring bento on yapeus. After Xeni BoingBoinged it and Joi blogged it, my little site with currently three fuzzy camphone photos of my kids' bentos has seen a lot of traffic.
I've been getting interesting emails and comments from people comparing them to the pbj lunches they grew up with. The Japanese bento, particularly the childhood variety, elicits a certain amount of curiosity, surprise, shock and comparisons to standard American kid lunch fare. It seems bento are another one of those cultural objects that elicit both admiration and cultural distancing on the part of those outside of Japan.
I have considered bento an interesting object of cultural cross-talk and politics ever since reading Anne Allison's book Permitted and Prohibited Desires several years ago. She has a chapter reflecting on her own trials of having to make bento for her son as he was attending a Japanese youchien. She analyzes bento as an aesthetic and culinary tradition, as well as an integral part of the disciplines of Japanese schooling and the definition of particular social roles of mother and child. She questions the figure of the ideal Japanese mother who shoulders almost all of the child-rearing burden, and critiques as oppressive the "standards of perfection and exactness " demanded of the youchien bento.
Reading Allison's take on the subject was a chanpon moment for me; my feminist intellectual roots made me sympathetic to the overall argument, but I also discovered my deeply rooted personal investments in bento as a kind of ideal embodiment of love, care, and aesthetic value. Now, several years later, I am making my own Japanese bentos for my kids, even in the face of a dominant US culture of insta-food childhood eats: peanut butter, pizza, and chicken nuggets.
Now, my bentos are nothing like the more serious bentos made by some Japanese moms which might feature an omu-rice pikachu or bear-shaped gohan. But I do rack my brains every morning for a protein, a rice, and two vegetables to round out each bento, ideally with a balanced array of green, red/orange, and brown colors. I don't always succeed, but when I wrap those two bentos in their bento cloths and bags, tucking them into lunch basket and backpack, I have an indescribable sense of satisfaction that helps me get through my workday away from my children. Is this my own internalization of the oppressive disciplines of Japanese motherhood? Perhaps. Is it, as my husband often asks me, worth getting up at the crack of dawn for? Perhaps not. But for me it is a satisfying morning routine that gives me a sense of intimate participation in and connection with my children's lives even while I am away from them.
Bento politics among children are just as complicated. My daughter, who has recently started kindergarten, was coming home for a while with only a few bites out her lunch, much to my chagrin. She claimed she didn't have enough time to eat, but as I probed further, I found that other chldren were asking, perhaps not too nicely, "What is that??" "I don't like it," she explains in her usual matter-of-fact way when discussing social issues. Okay, it is not as bad as having your onigiri called a bomb, but it seems to have been bothersome enought that she was not eating her food. We have a chat with her teachers about giving her enough time to eat, and I suggest she tells the curious(?) other children that she doesn't like them pointing at her lunch. This week, as I show her my new bento blog, she proudly tells me that she has been polishing off her bento. I ask her again if she is interested in getting a hot school lunch every once in a while. Her emphatic answer, as always, "No!" Sometimes even the most oppressive burdens of motherhood are worth it.
Posted by Mizuko Ito at 2003年11月27日 21:08