For many mothers, this story will come as unwelcome news. They are already doing a lot of work around the house and at their job. However, many maternal figures still put together a nutritious lunch for their child to take to school. Granted, sometimes the nutritious part doesn’t apply. Fortunately, in those situations, there are Lunchables. Yet, when artistic value and presentation are added to the mix, it is even harder to prepare a healthy meal. This has increasingly become the case in Japan and is spreading to other parts of the world.
The Bento box has been a staple of Japanese culture for over 500 years. Consisting of rice, meat or fish, and vegetables, the box provides a single on-the-go meal. In particular, kindergarten students bring bento boxes with them to school. A sub branch of this staple, known as kyaraben or charaben, involves carefully styling these food staples to look like popular characters from Japanese manga, anime, and video games. Of course, this includes creatures from Pokémon Go, like Pikachu and Hello Kitty. However, some creative mothers, including Tomomi Maruo, have raised the bar. They transform the simple food into intricate images of the Mona Lisa, Michael Jackson, Shinzo Abe, and even Donald Trump.
The crafting of character bento is at an unhealthy level in Japan. Parents who don’t participate in the artistic food process cause their children to become social outcasts. As a result, classes have sprung up across the country to teach parents (mostly moms) how to mold the food into adorable shapes. These classes stress the amount of time required to make artistic food. A ball of rice that looks like a pig, while no larger than a piece of sushi, takes 20 minutes for an experienced kyaraben artist. Mothers oftentimes set aside 90 minutes per lunch to prepare a meal that will help elevate their child’s social standing in the cafeteria.
Unfortunately, this cultural pressure shows no sign of lessening. While some schools banned kyaraben to lessen the pressure on mother and child, they are few and far between. Instead, there are currently nation-wide character bento competitions in five cities, including Tokyo and Kyoto. The craze has even been central to movie plots, including Pieter Dirkx’s 2011 Cannes Film Festival submission, Bento Monogatari.