In Japan, food is meant to satisfy all of the senses in the human body and is commonly known for increasing longevity. Food is always prepared with great care and is presented beautifully, especially in Japanese bento boxes. The traditional diet also known as Washoku contains a high amount of fish, soybeans, low animal fats, and umami (Gabriel et al, 2018). Most meals are served alongside rice and miso soup.
In America, we commonly eat soups such as udon, soba, and ramen as part of a large meal in “Americanized” Japanese restaurants. When I went to Japan back in 2019, I saw that udon, soba, and ramen soups are more of an indulgence or “quick eat” for people that are in a hurry or are working full-time. In restaurants in America and Europe, bento meals consist of foods packed into separate sections, and are served with rice, fish or meat, miso soup, and some extra vegetables that are sometimes pickled. However, in Japan, bento boxes are commonly made at home and/or they are also sold at convenience stores or at train stations.
Food is linked to many dimensions of culture, food provides universal meanings to understand cultures (Levi Strauss 1969) , and food also can be seen as a code that reveals social relationships (Mary Douglas 1972). In this blog post featuring Japanese culture, I will show how Japanese cooking and child rearing are so highly valued in a mother’s life.
History of Japanese Bento Boxes
As a brief history, according to Web-Japan.org, packed lunches go back as far as the 5th century when people carried dried rice with them out to their hunting, farming, or warring jobs. In the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga who lived 1534-1583 fed large numbers of people with simple meals. The word bento was termed by the simplicity of his meals that he provided.
People that farmed, hunted, and worked outside for the majority of their day carried their lunches with them and their lunches were boxed with rice, and potatoes. Because coursed meals do not really exist in Japan, people began taking their small meals or purchasing food to eat on public transportation. I will briefly touch on the importance of box lunches at train stations.
Ekiben in Japan – Japanese Railway Bento Boxes
Eikben or railway boxed lunches are still prominent in Japan and are received with energetic praise (Richie 1985:75). While other cultures have multiple courses during a meal, Japanese meals consist of having one’s food in front of them at the same time. Ekiben comes from “eki” meaning railway station, and “ben” which is short bento. Station box lunches also known as train box lunches (kishaben) are eaten and purchased at train station. In the 1970s, two million boxes were purchased which led to a growing popularity in these lunch items. Most are developed specially distinct from each region, and are found only in railway stations. Some dishes can include ikameshi (squid stuffed with rice) and onigiri (rice balls wrapped with bamboo leaves). In this next section, I will delve into Japanese mothering, child rearing practices, food preparation, and bento box creation.
Mothering and Preparing Japanese Bento Boxes:
According to Levi Strauss (1969:164), the cook serves as the mediator between nature and human culture. He presents cooking through the binary opposition, the “raw” and the “cooked” which are contrasting pairs of mental constructs that create social meaning. For women, cooking not only symbolizes a woman’s role in the family, but also provides a structure for creating family bonds.
In my most previous blog post, Anthropology of Italian Cultural Traditions Surrounding Family and Food, Italian cooking and food procurement and how mothers convey love to their children if at all is highlighted. Food is related to nurture because it is fundamental for child development and highlights the way mothers feel obligated to fulfill their roles inside and outside the home (Barry et al 1959; Barry and Schlegel 1986).
In Japan, feeding a family is a chore that many women actually feel proud of and find satisfaction in even when working outside the home, and a busier mother actually is said to raise more responsible and nurturant children (Barry et al 1959:88, DeVault 2008). Obedience and strong work ethics are two strong values that Japanese people are known to embody. Humans convey messages by “manipulating food combinations, cooking mode, color, texture, taste and form” and a “woman’s control over food preparation gives her influence in her family” (DeVault 2008). Overall, the ideas of Levi Strauss and Barry and his colleagues suggest that cooking and feeding plays an essential role in the structure of a family, and develops strong bonds between mothers and their children (Carrington 2008).
In Japan, most mothers make bento for their children to bring to school. Their love can be seen in the level of detail in the food and the time it takes to craft these meals. In this next section, I made use of Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as an Ideological State Apparatus (1991) by Anne Allison to show how bento boxes are embedded in child rearing.
Bento Boxes as an “Ideological State Apparatus” in Japan
Obento are boxed lunches that mothers make for their nursery school children, and are prepared with meaning and a constructed order. The mother that produces the bento box and the child who consumes the box are overseen by an ideological gendered state ideology. They are watched and judged, and through their joint effort between preparing and consuming their goal can be accomplished (Allison 221). Mothers typically spend anywhere between thirty minutes to two hours preparing an intricate lunch for their children.
In Japanese society, entry into nursery school can be quite stressful as a child moves from the inside world (uchi) to the outside world (soto). The school represents the outside world, and the home where mother and child reside is considered as the inside world. Ultimately, the obento is “intended to ease a child’s discomfiture and to allow a child’s mother to manufacture something of herself and the home to accompany the child as s/he moves” to the outside word (227)
Bento Boxes: Presentational Style in Japan
Japanese bento boxes are guided by presentation and health: “smallness, separation, and fragmentation where the eye is pulled towards de-centered parts” (224). Sometimes they are arranged so elaborately that they look like characters from TV shows, manga, or video games called “kyaraben” or they are made to look like animals, plants, monuments, and buildings called picture bento or oekakiben.
According to Anne Allison, every mother has some skills in the kitchen and knowledge of different ways to prep foods. She states, “food becomes manipulated into some other form than it assumes either naturally or upon being cooked: lines are put into mashed potatoes, carrots are flaked, weiners are twisted and sliced” (234). Food is also ordered and arranged rather than letting a natural force take over. These are the two most important structures in shaping bento meant for a child.
Some typical arranges of creations are: Weiners cut to look like an octopus or a worm, cut tomatoes, apples, cheese, hard boiled eggs made to look like an animal with leaf ears and pickled eyes (234).
One magazine that Anne Allison viewed presented a list of rules that should be followed when making bento. The rules state that foods must be easy to eat without leaving anything behind, foods should be prepared in a way for a child to become skillful in using chopsticks, foods must be decorated, and once he/she becomes used to the bento add more balance with things he/she dislikes etc (231).
Most interestingly, children are reprimanded if they are unable to finish their bento box or if they do not consume it in a timely manner. The box must be eaten fully. The school system greatly reinforces timely eating and their submission to school authority is presented by their eating manners. If a child is caught misbehaving, Allison says that a teacher may comment on a child’s bento eating progress instead of referencing a wrongdoing that was recently committed. Thus, early socialization and order is made with reference to one’s bento eating.
Japanese Bento Box Recipes
In this section, I want to present a few cooking techniques and foods that are used to prepare bento. Mothers believe that Japanese children can be very picky at times and the food has to be prepared just right to their child’s liking (Allison).
The most important ingredient is the rice. The quality and the brand of rice play a large role in taste. Japanese rice is shorter, fluffier, and stickier. Most often, the rice is prepared in a rice cooker, and sometimes a stove top pan. .
As a favorite dish in Japanese society, tonkatsu is a common part of a bento box as well. Breaded chicken, fish, or pork cutlet are the most used meats. Alongside the tonkatsu is shredded cabbage cut thinly.
Japanese potato salad is another dish commonly eaten in a bento box. Potato salad consists of semi-mashed potatoes mixed together with egg, mayonnaise, ham, and vegetables. Colorful vegetables play a role in making the dish visually appealing.
Additional fruits and vegetables can be added to a bento box including tomato wedges, carrots, snow pea shoots, oranges, apple slices etc. Bits of seaweed and sesame seeds are sprinkled over the top of rice, meats, fruits and vegetables for better presentation.
Lastly, nori also known as roasted seaweed or dry edible seaweed comes in thin, paper-like sheets. It is made from a species of red algae called Porphyra and comes in different grades. Lighter colors are deemed as cheaper and low in quality. In other countries, roasted seaweed is a popular ingredient to wrap sushi, and rice balls also known as onigiri.
Are Japanese people still cooking?
Around the 1950s to the 1960s, the Japanese diet started to become more westernized. People were straying away from traditional homemade cooking and started to embrace fast food, processed foods, and instant meals.
Washoku is defined as traditional, home-cooked Japanese food, which consists of nizakana (boiled fish), o-hitashi (blanched greens with soy sauce-flavored dash broth), and sunomono (vinegared food, and other vegetables and fish with vinegar and sesame. By end of 2013, 353 homes that were analyzed by several authors were not cooking traditional washoku meals anymore. Even tempura is not cooked at much at home.
According to Nippon.org, the elderly in Japan still recollect the US-funded kitchen cars that spread Western-style diet in the mid 20th century. As more people began to partake in processed foods and move away from rice, this new food adventure was deemed as a “more sophisticated diet.” Processed foods actually allowed room for mothers to prepare “exotic” non-Japanese dishes; spaghetti, curry, and beef stew. Women felt as if they could cook anything as some of the new processed foods were more instant and easy.
Despite this change since the mid 20th century, the decline in eating homemade meals and traditional foods poses some questions for further research. Many mothers still value home cooking and use it to gauge their quality in mothering. Is home cooking still valued today, what makes people veer from the traditional cooking values in Japanese culture, and how do people feel about sitting together around the table and eating?
Significance in Anthropology
The intense labor and preparation that mothers undergo in making a healthy, beautiful lunch for their child is historically embedded in their culture. The vivid history shown in this blog post shows how long beautiful, presentational foods have been so valued for years. The food production required to make these bentos can be rather demanding, and Japanese culture truly upholds the “hardworking” image that most cultures cannot compare to. Lots of ingredients and food techniques are used to prepare each item in a bento box, and each dish must be prepared with the utmost care. As a result, Allison shows that the order in which things are made and prepared suggests a “fundamentally correct way to do things in society.” In short, “obento is regulated and structured in nursery schools and home settings as different generations in Japanese society maintain child-rearing practices even today (222).
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Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as an Ideological State Apparatus.” In Food and Culture: A Reader. Edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. 2nd ed. Routledge, 1997 (1991).
Barry III, Herbert, Irvin Child and Margaret Bacon. “Relation of Child Training to Subsistence Economy.” American Anthropologist. Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.
Barry III, Herbert, and Alice Schlegal. “The Cultural Consequences of Female Contribution to Subsistence.” American Anthropologist. (1986) 88:142-1650.
Carrington, Christopher. “Feeding Lesbigay Families.” In Food and Culture: A Reader. Edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. 2nd ed. Routledge, 2008.
Gabriel, A. S., Ninomiya, K., & Uneyama, H. (2018). The Role of the Japanese Traditional Diet in Healthy and Sustainable Dietary Patterns around the World. Nutrients, 10(2), 173. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu10020173
Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969 ).