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
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
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