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Australian mother reflects on 'lunchbox shame' she felt from her son’s Tokyo preschool teacher

By Casey Baseel, SoraNews24

When Catherine Taylor’s third child got old enough to start preschool, the Australian mother was living in Tokyo. Rather than send the boy off to an international school or other expat-oriented facility, she enrolled him in a normal Japanese preschool, where he was the only non-Japanese kid in the class.

It wasn’t long, though, until a major cultural difference cropped up, as Taylor recounts in a column for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. One day, Taylor packed her son a fairly standard lunch, at least by Australian standards, with a Vegemite sandwich accompanied by sides such as a banana, cheese stick, carrot slices, and a muffin. However, when Taylor went to pick her son up, a teacher, who had taken a photo of her son’s lunch, told her that such fare simply wouldn’t do, saying “Sandwiches are not appropriate because they are not healthy.”

The teacher then went back to his phone’s photo album, explaining “These are some of the [lunches] that other children brought with them today” as he showed Taylor a series of Japanese-style bento boxed lunches. These weren’t just any bento, though, but chara-ben, “character bentos.”

▼ A chara-ben

Screen Shot 2019-05-22 at 10.04.12.png

Chara-ben have become something of a cultural phenomenon in Japan over the past few years, with home chefs sharing snapshots of their creations on social media in which they take Japanese lunch staples like rice, omelets, sliced vegetables, and bite-sized meat morsels to create edible recreations of beloved children’s characters hailing from Studio Ghibli, Disney, Sanrio or Pokemon franchises. “I thought the teacher was joking: it could not be possible that any parent would produce such a thing for a pre-schooler’s lunch,” says Taylor, but when she realized he was serious, however, she decided to learn how to make character bento, so as to match what her son’s classmates’ mothers were doing.

Luckily, she wouldn’t have to figure everything out on her own. Making cute bento is such an ingrained part of Japanese parenting that even discount 100 yen shops have molds, cutters, and other kitchen gadgets to help you get started. If you need help figuring out what to do with them, there are chara-ben YouTube videos, and if you want even more personal instruction, there are even chara-ben classes you can sign up for at community centers, which is the route Taylor took.

As Taylor gained more experience, she found out that the reasons for visually appealing bento go beyond just Japan’s natural gravitation towards cute things. The standard logic is that a painstakingly crafted bento reflects a mother’s consideration and love for her child, and serves as an energy/morale booster during the mid-day meal at school. A variety of shapes, colors, and textures also keeps the eating experience fresh and fun, which encourages children to eat a variety of healthy foods and try new ones.

Taylor says that she was happy when she got to put her new chara-ben skills into practice, and that her son enjoyed receiving/eating them. However, she also worries about the stress and time cost for mothers, who already handle the vast majority of child-rearing responsibilities in Japan. Taylor estimates that all the cooking, slicing, and positioning that goes into a chara-ben can easily take a solid hour, and so even after learning how to make character bento, she still only did so “from time-to-time.”

It’s worth pointing out that despite the photos her son’s teacher had shown her as recommended lunches, most Japanese mothers don't make chara-ben for their kids every day. Most simply make Japanese bento boxed lunches that look like ordinary food, and save the chara-ben hassle for special occasions. Some schools in Japan have even outright banned chara-ben, in the interest of keeping kids whose moms don’t have the time or skill to make them from feeling left out, as well as sparing kids who feel self-conscious about being the center of attention because their chara-ben is more artistic than their classmates.

On days when she didn’t make chara-ben for her son, Taylor doesn’t say if she prepared a standard Japanese-style bento, or an Australian lunch like the one that had drawn the teacher’s criticism in the beginning. However, she’s at least got the skills to whip up a chara-ben, though whether or not she has the time is a separate issue.

Source: ABC/ Catherine Taylor via Yuruku Yaru via Jin

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- Why are some Japanese preschools banning awesome, adorable character bento?

-- Awesome lunch boxes full of Disney’s Tsum Tsum characters are almost too cute to eat!【Photos】

-- Revenge bento show us it’s a dish best served cold (and boxed) with insults and hidden chilies

© SoraNews24

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Check out the fat, saturate, sugar, salt on the level. Most of them are over 20%

Would you like to share the butritional values of chicken katsu covered in sauce over white rice, or perhaps a hamburg meal? Maybe ramen? Or even almost any kids meal in a japanese restaurant?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Giving a kid a sandwich for bento is lazy and embarrassing for the kid.

is there really any discussion needed about this?

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

I had a peanut butter jelly sandwich in a brown paper bag with a banana in it. It probably took one minute to make.

What would a playboy bento look like? Tan face blonde hair guy making a leave sign? The blonde hair could be yellow strips of egg. The tan face might be made using peanut butter. Kabotcha seeds could make large almond eyes.

Looks like someone from Shonan Enoshima.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

What's the point in trying to make the foreign student be more Japanese when you'll never be accepted as one anyway? Either calling him/her "gaijin" or "haffu", so no care about conforming with the lunch characters.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Still schools in Japan take it for granted that there is a housewife/husband specialised for housechores.

That is why it is tough to raise children in Japan

If there's one thing Japanese mothers of youngsters are great at doing, it's making life much more difficult not only for each other but themselves.

Hallelujah! Anyone who thinks a mother busy making kyara-ben or attending PTA meetings to cut out bell marks in Japan is equivalent to another mother, possibly in another country, busy juggling childraising and a career is an idiot.

Most character bentos are made by cutting out little shapes from nori seaweed, processed cheese slices, sliced ham, thin omelettes, etc. So you have to open a whole cheese slice just for the two whites of a character's eyes. I hope the mother eats the rest of the slice because the bento may use less than 5% of it.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

It would have been very easy for this mom to win and own this argument. I think it would have been good for all involved.

This is not regular in Japan I think.

Many schools even make customized foods that parents bring in since they are non meat eaters, or a muslims, etc.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Sandwiches are not healthy at least the way most people make them.

Of course, in Japan, the default for sandwiches is white bread. However whole grain or multi-grain bread sandwiches are healthier. There are historical and social reasons why Japanese people prefer white bread over brown breads.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

Sandwiches are not healthy at least the way most people make them.

The teacher was right.

-11 ( +0 / -11 )

BackpackingNepalToday 01:03 pm JST

Foreigner needs to learn in foreign country for themselves to settle close enough as locals. Not complaints and bashings all the time.

Let me see if I understand you. You think when a person emigrates, they must leave everything about their culture behind them, including food culture. Also you are never allowed to complain about anything, because that is bashing - even if Japanese people complain about the exact same thing, you are not allowed - because you are a foreigner no matter how long you have lived in Japan. That negates your rights!

Well, if that is the case, then I imagine you never go to any restaurants in Japan that aren't Japanese. No Indian, Nepalise Thai, Italian food for you! Only Japanese! ;)

6 ( +7 / -1 )

I grew up with a single mother and made my own damned lunch, every day, throughout my school career. It should not be rocket science.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

I believe a sandwich of cheese and vegemite plus leaf greens and a slice of ham or beef is completely healthy. Sausages made by a Japanese meat processor such as the Meat Hope company eaten whole plus polished white rice with sugar coating tends to be rather unhealthy. A requirement to turn a child's lunch into a work of art places undue pressure on the lunch preparer and should be banned by schools.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

This teacher over stepped the bounds of his job.

The lunch served by the mother was appropriate and nutritious and if you expect an Australian to be a Japanese you will always be disappointed.

In my day I got a cheese and Vegemite sandwich 5 days a week and nothing else. Things have come a long way since then and the addition of carrot, banana and muffin would have been much welcomed by me when I was at school.

Teachers job is to teach reading, writing, math, science and history etc to the child. Not to try teaching his preferences to the parent.

The teacher needs to be reprimanded.

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Even Japanese kids bring sandwiches for lunch sometimes at my kids’ kindergarten. They are easy for little fingers to handle and easy to put together quickly. The only rule at my kids’ school is no dessert other than fruit.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

It's true sandwich isn't healthy even if it contains Vitamin B. However, its is just like any other processed food.

Check out the fat, saturate, sugar, salt on the level. Most of them are over 20%. Avoid sandwiches esp. Tuna and egg but organic homemade is fine.

Foreigner needs to learn in foreign country for themselves to settle close enough as locals. Not complaints and bashings all the time.

-9 ( +1 / -10 )

By the way, the picture at the head of the article is not a nutritious lunch!

6 ( +7 / -1 )

What I can't understand about them is this; why would you want to EAT characters that you love? I think that biting the head or ears off of Mickey Mouse, or taking a big chew of Pikachu's chee, would be rather traumatizing for kids.

I see it as yet another way for stay at home moms to waste (or be forced to waste) time and feel the comforting illusion that they are doing essential work that requires 24 hour attention. Much like shopping daily or doing laundry every day, this is another make-work project for bored housewives.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

“I believe the term you want is not Chara-ben, but Kyara-ben キャラ弁.”

And here I thought they were talking about 'playboy bentos' (チャラい弁).

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Sorry Japan, but your food isn't as healthy as you believe it is. So stop shaming a parent over what she chooses to feed her child. Didn't know this teacher was also a licensed dietician, too.

6 ( +9 / -3 )

Put me firmly in the camp of "my chara-ben would have been a fist with a raised middle finger made of sausage". Let's be honest, this is all about being different and not about being healthy. I'm sure that even if the lunch had been a roast turkey wrap with feta cheese in a whole wheat pita, the teacher would have complained. The message is conformity and not nutrition.

I remember being told something similar by an elementary teacher. My son went on a school outing and packed a lunch. I made sandwiches (ham, cheese, lettuce) and was told "please, everyone else is making onigiri, so next time...." The reason came out that the other kids might be jealous of my son getting sandwiches! So for the next school outing, I changed........... the sandwich filling to pastrami from ham.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

A sandwich isn’t healthy? I guess it depends on the sandwich, and I guarantee I can make a much healthier sandwich than chicken katsu on white rice or hamburg covered in a sugary sauce!!!!!!!

And what’s wrong with banana, cheese and carrots? Sounds pretty good to me!

Then what about the muffin? Maybe it was a zucchini date muffin! Maybe it was a special treat!

This happened to me once as a kid when I was about 9 years old, and I was smart enough to not let it bother me one bit, because I just thought the teacher was so ignorant. I’d had a special treat in my lunch that day, yes, but I couldn’t believe he had forgotten how nutritious my lunches were EVERY day, including that days’ lunch (minus the treat)!

but the fact that he had shamed and singled me out, and that he undermined my hardworking mom, that hurt me

This is shameful on the teachers’ behalf!!!!!!!

5 ( +6 / -1 )

Coming at it from the other way, i remember looking at envy at my classmates with their ham and cheese on white bread lunches at school in Australia, while my mum gave me sourdough bread, filled with weird stuff like alfalfa sprouts and avocado.

Now there is nothing i miss more than a hard crusted bread that actually requires teeth to bite into, filled with healthy stuff.

But, if my primary school asked me to make Chara-ben's for my kids, you can bet that the next day's bento would include rice shaped into "F U 先生”. Actually i would probably try to order a chara-ben shaped branding iron, so i can stamp that onto the sandwiches i make for them (though it would be more than just cheese on white bread)

9 ( +9 / -0 )

Sorry. That's something you want parents to discourage

0 ( +0 / -0 )

White rice is not healthy at all. It's just starch, stripped of all the vitamins and minerals. Plus, every vegetable is boiled, which lessens the vitamin/mineral content as well.

Food as characters? But kids are told not to play with their food.

: / Mixed messages..

Speaking as a former kid, I really didn't care what my food looked like, even though I was artistically inclined. Still don't care. Though, a bloodied rare steak does look beautiful..

5 ( +9 / -4 )

As it included a muffin which is high in sugar and fat and essentially a dessert-style treat (unless it's homemade to healthier specifications), the Aussie sandwich lunch was not perhaps the "healthiest" lunch. However, it's not an "unhealthy" lunch either. It's simply not a Japanese-style lunch.

It's very hard going against the Japanese norms and doing things your own way. I know. And while I'm not impolite about it, I go about doing things my own way unless I'm convinced that the Japanese way is the better way. That said, it's no easy feat. In the Borg Collective resistance is futile--a worthy transliteration of shoganai.

Besides, making meals too cute can have a serious downside. It cultivates fussy eaters who won't, for example, eat an apple that's slightly bruised or hasn't been cut a certain way. That leads to the enormous levels of food waste--not only in Japan but in other developed nations. That's not something you want parents to discourage.

Yes, food preparation is equated with love (in many cultures, not only Japan); however, there are other meaningful ways to show love than a Hello Kitty rice ball.

9 ( +10 / -1 )

The teacher was right. I'm sure the teacher didn't expect the Aussie mummy to create a work of art. Her criticism was that a vegemite sandwich, cheese stick and a banana is not a nutritious lunch.

-11 ( +3 / -14 )

A sandwich isn't healthy?

My response to the teacher would have been a simple "Why? Explain to me what is inherently unhealthy about the sandwich I sent my son to school with compared to these bento boxes."

If the teacher couldn't come up with a reason that was both accurate and logical, and I guarantee you he wouldn't have, I would have kindly told him to focus on his job, and in no unclear terms said that anything involving the lunches my child eats, the cultural differences they would have, etc... are none of his doggone business.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

Still schools in Japan take it for granted that there is a housewife/husband specialised for housechores.

That is why it is tough to raise children in Japan

7 ( +8 / -1 )

It's a great thing for mothers who have nothing else to do and can spend hours making a tiny lunch box every day. And, what kind of naive twit tells somebody a vegemite sandwich is not healthy. Its the world's richest source of vitamin B and contains all the B group vitamins, which are essential for young children. I would have given this joker a good old Aussie, "Pull your head in!"

10 ( +12 / -2 )

I have a feeling that most parents don't make these because they want to, but more to appease the archers or even other parents who might see them.

Id prefer a vegemite sandwhich anyway

11 ( +13 / -2 )

Yay! More group think for things that really don't matter!

19 ( +21 / -2 )

Shaming someone for their food is very bad manners.

22 ( +23 / -1 )

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