2003年11月27日 木曜日

Bento Cultural Politics

by Mizuko Ito

Food

bento.jpgIn 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

Comments

So glad to hear that your hard work on school lunches became a point of pride for your daughter - soon the other kids will be jealous I expect. Peer groups can make originality a tough load to carry, especially at a young age. I wonder if your Bento blog augmented her respect for her bento lunches? Perhaps she respected the care you were putting into the boxes - making them and then extending them out on to the 'net. I mean, your children are carrying lunchboxes that have been examined around the world wide web!

I appreciate your taking the time to send your children on their way with hand-packed love and nourishment. The Pikachu and bear-shaped foodstuffs are inspired artistry. But the root of this food-packing is a balanced meal. As you are participating in cross-cultural lunch symbolism, you will learn more about nutrition for growing bodies. So much to study! Fun to share your data. Soon you may be asked to post recipes - "Mimi's Bountiful Bento: How To Fix Boxes for Growing Bodies."

Wow!! This takes me back to my own memories of how my parents used to prepare my bentos for me.

My mom always used to put raw carrot sticks in my bento because it was nutritious, I guess. But for me, I liked it just because of how sweet it was--still one of my favorite food items. I was teased by some of my day-care school teachers that I looked like a rabbit or horse eating raw carrots, but since my peers seemed oblivious to it all, I don't remember the teasing bothering me much.

Another one of my favorite bento items was layered rice with katsuobushi and shoyu as a layer and sesame seeds as another layer. My mom having grown up in the peanut-butter and jam tradition, she couldn't be bothered with all the aesthetic aspects of the bento-making culture. Growing up around other kids who had both parents who worked full-time and also didn't have the time to be making over-the-top fancy bentos, I don't remember the lack of the aesthetics ever becoming an issue.

Glad to hear that your daughter came over her slight embarrassment of taking your bento. It's great stuff! Definitely develops a healthy sense of a balanced meal.

I think Allison's take on the bento-phenomena is intersting and definitely worth looking into for myself, but it all depends on the context. Doing what you do in the US where the pressure to come up with beautiful and nutritious bentos are absent, and as long as you are not doing it out of some sense of guilt, to me, seems like what you are doing is revelutionary, not conformative or oppressed.

3- Karuna Shinsho

natsukashii! my mom also used to make bentos for me when i was going to highschool in japan. my favorite definitely was the musubi with katsubushi/umeboshi/shirasu. in fact, one of my dear american friends, when she first saw me eating it, freaked out after she saw the shirasu sticking out of my riceball. i remember her saying, "eeew, the fish eyes are staring at you!" but i urged her to try it and after that she was hooked. she'd share my onigiri all the time! the amazing thing is that after my own bento lunch, i'd also inhale the school chicken cutlet, which i think was quite tasty for school fare. wakai toki wa futoru koto wo kinishinakute iino ne!
thanks mimi for the inspiration. i definitely want my son to be proud of mom's culinary efforts!

4- Mimi

It's nice to hear that bentos stick in children's memories :-). They did in mine too. I remember my mom used to pack my somewhat odd lunches in a Thermos in a metal Snoopy lunchbox, which was not as conspicuous as bringing a bento box. I don't remember ever bringing sandwiches to school, but lots of different things like soboro rice, chicken noodle soup...

Abbie, one thing I have adopted from the US lunch routine is raw carrots. As you say, the kids love them, they are easy for me, and they are nutritous. Today they got carrot sticks with their tamago-yaki!

mmm you just made me really really hungry

What beautiful bento images. I hadn't realized this was a greater cultural happening; I grew up with my own mother making me bento lunches in U.S. grade school...much to my chagrin. I wasn't able to see the beauty in her bento lunches (all the other kids thought it was weird to bring anything other than a sandwich, chips, and fruit punch in a plain brown paper bag).

Thank you for enlightening me.

It was great learning what a bento was. A penpal in Japan wrote me and referred to a bento. I thought it meant counter-culture until I visited this site. Now, I'm hooked! I can't wait to start making my own bentos. What a neat idea and a good source of nutrition for children. Thanks for sharing.

It was great learning what a bento was. A penpal in Japan wrote me and referred to a bento. I thought it meant counter-culture until I visited this site. Now, I'm hooked! I can't wait to start making my own bentos. What a neat idea and a good source of nutrition for children. Thanks for sharing.

9- Jorrie

Yoku dekimashita! Just veiwing your bento offerings makes my soul sing and my taste buds dance. Yet, it would be a perfect world if there was an establishment near my worksite where I could get bento for hiru gohan. I've bookmarked this site in the hopes that maybe I could attempt the recipes or find a Nissei kanojio that I could easily persuade to warm up to this daily enterprise of making this Nihono riori.

10- Jorrie

Yoku dekimashita! Just veiwing your bento offerings makes my soul sing and my taste buds dance. Yet, it would be a perfect world if there was an establishment near my worksite where I could get bento for hiru gohan. I've bookmarked this site in the hopes that maybe I could attempt the recipes or find a Nissei kanojio that I could easily persuade to warm up to this daily enterprise of making this Nihono riori.

11- Robin

When I was in kindergarten, my mother packed a bento lunch for me everyday for the first few weeks. Being from Taiwan, that was what she always had as a child. Going to school in the deep South, however, did not make that a comfortable experience for me. I was made fun of and made to feel very, very different. Not exactly an easy thing for the only Asian child in his school. Eventually, I convinced my mother to stop making them. Looking back on those events, I regret doing so. The bento lunches were delicious and I wish I had continued having them. I see kids haven't changed much in the past thirty years. However, I am glad to see your daughter finding pride in her cultural roots and the delicious meals that go with them. Hopefully, the other kids have stopped making fun of the foods they are unfamiliar with and have become encious of the delicious lunches your daughter takes to school.

12- grace

I would like to take lunches with me to work. Are there any books to teach me to fix foods for a bento lunch?

Any guidence will be a help.

13- grace

I would like to take lunches with me to work. Are there any books to teach me to fix foods for a bento lunch?

Any guidence will be a help.

14- maya-chan

I wish my dorm had more space to let me fix bento lunches. =^_^= I really like hearing about how others feel and talk about food. roo bad I'm the only one in my fmaily that likes onigiri! oh well, more for me!

15- mimi

DOES ANYONE HAVE INFORMATION ABOUT WHERE YOUCHIEN BENTO ARE MOST POPULAR IN THE UNITED STATES?

I AM LOOKING FOR ANY KIND OF STATISTICS ABOUT HOW THIS WAS CARRIED OVER TO THE U.S. - PARTICULARLY WHICH REGIONS?

16- Diana

What about brazilian, italian food as bento?! Seems very common in some areas in Japan, like Shizuoka, Hamamatsu, Toyohashi etc, where a large amount of brazilian-japanese descendents work and live. I just love carry my own food!

17- Diana

Cool bento for kids: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~msittig/bento/

18- kellie boothby

thank you for the inspiration. My son recently started at a japanese kindergarten and I have so far taken an easy option of the school providing him with a hot lunch. i had a call from his sensei today saying how sad he had become at lunch time - admiring all the other kids lunches complete with cute little extras. So, today i bought his first little 'Thomas the tank' Bento -and tomorrow I will face the morning with more confidence. And hopefully help my sons intergration into such a foreign attmosphere for him (and me).

19- Yumi

As an aide at an elementary school that has a large Japanese population, I have noticed some of the students that have just arrived from Japan bring bento to school. Having been raised by a Japanese mother myself I understand what the child goes through as the American children might poke fun at the newcomer's food. However, at our school we teach cultural tolerance, as well as cultural awareness. Also, I have known that a book by Rosemary Wells (Her Yoko and friends books) have helped in the lunch difference category, as I had experience along with some of the students the hurt they feel having their lunch made fun of to the point the students felt shame in their mother's hard work.

Afterall, if the child's favorite lunch is to bring onigiri, that child should be allowed to eat her meal unharassed by the other students. That is why I highly recommend Rosemary Well's Yoko and friends books.

20- Yumi

After reading the journal entry about the sweet taste of egg in the morning, I recall after a nice long chat with one of my childhood friends (since 3rd grade, we are now working adults) she told me the one thing she misses about us not being children anymore are the sleepovers we used to have and me inviting her to my house and enjoying my mother's sweet egg and pancakes. ^_^ There is nothing like a mother's love through food.

21- JenniferB

Wow, your bentos are great! I'm very interested in making them for myself (just ordered some bento boxes, one for me, one for my boyfriend) and I can't wait to try out different combinations. I especially like that the bentos allow you to better control your portion sizes and balance out your meals...something that is very lacking in traditional American lunches. I'm even going to try making some Japanese dishes to use in my bento.
Great job on your site though, your bentos are very inspiring! :)

22- Anna

Kawaii!

I loved reading this~ It's so wonderful that you care so much about the work you put into the bento, I think it's a sign of love for your children, because you want them to have nutruition - but also have something important to you to eat, and something much prettier than Western lunches.
I myself live in England and have recently completed secondary school, and Japanese cooking is one of my big interests. ^^ I would love to someday learn to make bento for my own children one day - a lot healthier than the lunches I see children around me eating now.
A very inspiring read ^^ To me, you are not the kind of housewife a strong-minded feminist may laugh at - you are a strong-willed, powerful woman with the right amount of love.

23- Tiffani


Wow! I love sites like this, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy. I came upon it by accident while looking for a recipe for Onigiri so that i could make it for my friend koto. She is a Japanese exchange student so i wanted to make her feel at home.

24- Maya

I grew up in Wisconsin with a Japanese mother. One of my favorite memories is from when I was 17 years old and was leaving for my first long road trip away from home. My mother ran out to the driveway as I was pulling out and gave me a box of onigiri through the car window (still brings a tear and a smile).

25- Kyashii (Kathy)

I loved your site. I'm just getting into making bentos.

I didn't eat bentos growing up, but I like the idea about how it's a bond w/ your children. I want to learn to make the cute shapes. Any sites or books to expand my knowledge?

26- PollyG

There's no Asian background in our family, but when it was time to start packing lunches for my daughter to take to preschool, I picked up some bento boxes from our local Asian superstore. The ones I use have 3 sections in one part, and a second part that is one larger section. I like them because they encourage me to include a variety of foods, something different in each segment. The teachers have commented that our daughter eats very well.

Sometimes the contents of her bento box are fairly traditional bento items, and sometimes the larger section has half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Today it contains soba noodles. And yes, there was a classmate who was convinced that the onigiri were "raisins"!

Belle découverte du monde du bento, très étranger à une pensée française.
Amitiés Eric R

I finally found this page after Googling some! WOW, those are so beautiful... I really am into the colors and variety. Amazing, incredible, and I bet it all arranges nicely in the tummy too.

29- Cayla

This is great, I wish I had the talent and time to do what you do for your kids. As for your daughters initial reaction, I am beginning to think that when my son was in his previous day care, and came home with half uneaten lunches that his grandma made for him was for the same reason.

I love the colors too!

30- Kris

Thank you for your wonderful photos! I was shopping for bento boxes when i came across your site, and it's confirmed my desire to buy bento boxes for my kids. My youngest may get strange looks from the other kids, but she grew up in california and eats a wide variety of ethnic foods. I just wasn't sure what to pack in the bento's...what is ok to serve cold and what not. This is inspiring and helpful. I'm sick of sending my girls to school with the boring sandwich, drink, chips etc.

I often visit my 7 yr old at lunch time and we tried the school food and it was SO awful...they managed to mess up pizza! Both my girls refuse to eat school hot lunches 1) because they are nasty 2 lunch time is only 20 min long and waiting in line gives them only 15!

I'm having a hard time finding "packable" bento's for sale here in the US, so i tried online and have met with only 2 sources. I was a little dissapointed that these don't have as many compartments. If anyone can direct me to a good pace to buy them online it would be a big help!

PS. My japanese friend looked at me like i was insane for considering bento's, so i thought maybe this was something that was dying out in japanese culture but i'm glad it isn't and even happier to have found this site.....maybe my friend has lived too long in the USA?

31- Mimi

Kris - J list has a few bento boxes: http://www.jlist.com/CTTR/ though if you have a Japanese grocery local that is probably a better source. Or you could try laptop lunches for an Americanized version. http://www.chanpon.org/archive/2005/11/14/06h54m20s#more

Good Luck!

How wonderful that you promote such healthful eating! The lunches that come from current American school lunch traditions can only promote the same problems: obesity, short attention span, allergies, etc.

A bento box is so much more satisfying, and better for one's health. I like bento-style lunch for myself, old as I am!

...why not bento all the time? Superbowl Bento, World Series Bento... hmmmmm...

33- Molly

I recently started experimenting with bento for my husband and all his coworkers were jealous. "Your wife must REALLY love you!" was the common refrain. I was looking forward to the day when I could make bentos for our future children, when it occured to me that kids are not very tolerant of differences.

Reading up on experiences of bento for children in American school systems reminded me of a forgotten time period in my own life. My family moved from Illinois to Oklahoma when I was in 6th grade and I did not fit in at all. My parents made nutritious lunches low in fat and high in fiber complete with the 100% juice boxes that no one liked - nothing anyone wanted to trade for. My parents were both working full time (prior to that my father worked from home) and I was coming home from a day of teasing to an empty house. My dad was seriously overworked at his new job, but in order to cheer me up he started drawing magic marker cartoons on my lunch bags as often as he could.

I remember him sitting up at night when the whole house was asleep, slaving over what to draw that would be the right balance of funny and colorful. Often he would make a warp around picture with a "surprise" on one side, or a two-panel comic with a joke. Those lunch bags were amazing, and the same children who made fun of me during class would line up to read my lunch bags. I wouldn't say it led to a magic happy ending, but my father's secret passion for drawing was affirmed by a surprisingly receptive audience of children and for 30 minutes a day, I felt like being different was special and cool.

I hope my kids learn to love pretty, healthy food over the salty, sugary mess most kids eat. Thank you for the inspiration.



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