Extreme lunchboxing

The what, how & why of Japanese bentō boxes

To be fair, this King of Tut-boxes was crafted by a stylist at a magazine…

No country has made more of an art of packing a bag lunch and no moms* put more effort into this most resented of daily chores than those in Japan.

Here’s what goes into one, the secrets of how they do it (and a few questions about whether they should).

But this one was made by my former Japanese tutor for her first grade son
And this one was made by one of her friends.

As were all of these:

How can an ordinary mom make food this entertaining while sending kids back to really brush their teeth this time, make sure their homework is packed and (by the way) get ready for work?
Where do they get the recipes to deliver this level of art every day?
Or the artistic chops to recognizably replicate favorite anime characters?
Not to mention zoo animals intricately carved from seaweed?

Read on, for the secrets of power lunchboxing!

1:Where do they get their ideas?

Why, “Kyara & Deco” magazine, of course! Yes, there are magazines devoted to turning rice balls and mini-weiners into inventive bentō designs

2:What goes into making these works of lunchbox art?

In case you’re wondering what that says…

First, wake up at 5:00 a.m. and drink a double espresso so you’re prepared to battle the ingredients into submission.

1: Steam a nice kabocha squash and chop it up with a paring knife.

2: Squish the pieces together in a piece of saran wrap and prod it into a vaguely Pikachu-shaped head.

3: Get your Michelangelo on and carve the corners and curves with a toothpick.

4: With a pair of nail scissors, trim eyes, ears, nose and mouth from a sheet of nori seaweed.

5: Using tweezers and toothpick, position the infuriatingly tiny features on the squash head. Try not to wake up the children with your cursing while you do this.

6: Painstakingly peel the red skin from a piece of fake crab legs and use a straw to cut two perfectly round circles from it.

7: Tweeze those onto the face where the cheeks should be.

8: Use your toothpick to dig out two tiny blobs of mayonnaise for making Pikachu’s pupils. If yours aren’t perfectly round like this, be happy you are not competing with Japanese moms, who can do this blindfolded and with one hand tied behind their backs.

9: Shape the rice left over from last night’s dinner into a ball and cover half of it with more crab leg skin.

10: Use your nail scissors to cut a Pokeball-size circle, and position it on the rice ball. Wrap everything in saran and smush it together until it sticks.

11: Use a straw to cut a smaller circle from a slice of the white inside of the fake crab leg.

12: Position it on the Pokeball and nestle both works of art into reusable cupcake liners.

Wait, that’s just ridiculous. Nobody can use nail scissors and tweezers that early in the morning without serious bodily injury!

3:You’re right. There are TOOLS

There are punches for making faces on plain rice balls out of the sheets of dried seaweed called nori
Which can also be repurposed for faces on hard-boiled eggs
Or to give ham & cheese a little personality
And for those days when all you can do is groan and hit snooze, these stencils can make a tupperware of plain rice cuter in seconds
There are also cheater rice molds (in case your sculpting skillz are not Expert Level). The panda face and the heart even make a perfect indentation so you can position the traditional umeboshi (salty pickled plum) in the right place.
Some molds even come with a seaweed punch so you can clothe your rice balls in the latest lunchbox fashions and give them smily faces
And if you thought the mothers of boys get a pass, uh, no. How many f-bombs were dropped tweezing those little windows onto the bullet train? SO MANY

But it’s not just the cuteness that sucks up those precious morning hours—what about the sheer VARIETY of foods in every single one of these bentō?

This is another bentō made by an actual elementary school mom. Who has time to make all those different things each morning?

The answer is: they don’t. Japanese bentōs are masterpieces of recycled leftovers. Everything is served cold, so it’s fine that the rice is from last night, and the chicken meatball is too. Eggs can be boiled en mass and kept in the fridge for a few days, like so many blocks of marble awaiting Bernini’s inspiration. Veggies can be steamed in a few minutes, then cut with the tiny cookie cutters that every Japanese mom has a drawer full of, and the crab strips and little snausages come right out of the pack. Cut it in half, stick a seaweed face on it, and you’re good to go.

The question is…should you?

And therein lies a tale: the tyranny of the Japanese bentō

The mandatory smorgasbord: There’s a reason kids’ lunches in Japan all have so many moving parts: schools require it. Japanese schools’ long reach into telling moms* how to do their job extends to sending home guidelines about which age-appropriate types of food ought to go into her child’s lunch each day and when to introduce the ones kids hate, but must learn to eat. The school then makes sure children finish their food in a timely manner and eat ALL of it.

Which is where the cuteness craze originated. Dressing up hated foods as beloved characters makes them easier to swallow.

What happens if you don’t follow the guidelines (or your child refuses to eat that slimy cold okra)? You get a home visit. Yes, your child’s teacher knocks on your door and sets you straight. Politely. Using the most honorific of language, to stress that this “suggestion” is not a suggestion. And if you’re a foreigner who commits the unthinkable sin of PB&J, you might get a helpful recipe book too. (Yes, this really happened to a foreign mom who wrote a book about bringing up children in Japan.)

And why are they so heavy-handed? It’s certainly inspired by the paternalistic Confucian belief that it’s not a good idea to leave something as important as child-rearing to rank amateurs like parents, but it’s also to cut down on bullying. If your kid shows up to school with a sandwich and an unpeeled whole apple and a Twinkie, they are going to stand out. Which is not a Good Thing in Japan, and is all too often punished by vigilante schoolmates.

The lunchbox arms race: So, what do you do if you’re a working mom and it’s all you can do to stuff some leftovers into a bentō box and get everyone where they need to be in one piece and on time?

Obviously, cuteness be damned. But when your kids’ friends open up their lunches with squeals of delight, your kid just sort of sits there quietly and hopes no one notices that their weenies do not have smiley faces.

And even if you are a mom who girds herself up at 5:00 so her kid can participate in the tournament of bentō comparison, the prize is…demands for more cuteness. Someone is always going to have a cuter lunchbox, and if your kid is going to be a player, you’d better up your game tomorrow.

That’s why there’s an anti-cute bentō movement gathering steam in Japan now. If all moms agree not to make cuteness part of their kids’ daily diet, it ceases to be a means of one-upping each other at best and bullying at worst. (And, incidentally, gets the beleaguered mom another half hour of badly-needed sleep in the morning.)

*It is universally assumed that this is a job for the female parent.

There are, however, no such downsides for dogs. Knock yourself out!

Yes, this is a bentō for Fido (photo courtesy of Shiba magazine)

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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