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For Japanese Parents, Gorgeous Bento Lunches Are Packed With High Stakes

SHARE For Japanese Parents, Gorgeous Bento Lunches Are Packed With High Stakes

(Elise Hu/NPR)

Packing your child's lunch calls for a whole different level of preparation in Japan. There, moms often shape ordinary lunch ingredients like ham or rice into cute little pandas, Pokemon or even famous people’s faces. It's called character bento, and there's considerable pressure to produce these cute food creations.

Tomomi Maruo has been teaching how to make character bentos, or "kyaraben" for short — at her home for the past 13 years.

"My kid brought kyaraben to the kindergarten and his friends saw the bento and moms started asking me how to make kyaraben so that's how I started teaching," Maruo said.

In a photo album of her proudest creations, she shows me the Mona Lisa, her skin with rice and her facial lines with dried seaweed cutouts. Various Pokemon. The Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. All as food.

Kyaraben is fairly typical in Japan, where the culture puts a premium on design and packaging. A few times a week she seats moms around her dinner table to walk them through new characters. The creations will only be the size of individual pieces of sushi, but require an investment of a precious commodity. At least twenty minutes for each pig or flower.

The moms in Maruo's class say they don't do it every day, but on mornings they make kyaraben, they block out as much as 90 minutes to make lunch. And not every Japanese parent wants to do this — but the cultural pressure is high, because it's hard to be the parent whose kid has a lame lunch.

"I think it's oppressive," says Margarita Estevez-Abe, a political science professor at Syracuse University, who specializes in gender issues in Japan.

"In a sense, they have a lot of time on their hands and they are just putting their effort and time into creating and competing over who makes the best character bento box," Estevez-Abe says.

How Japanese women are spending their time is a hot topic these days, as the government attempts to push more women into its shrinking workforce. Japanese women are highly educated, boasting bigger numbers of college grads than men. But nearly 70 percent of them quit working after having a baby. That's compared to one third of moms in the U.S. Moms cite a combination of Japan's long work hours, lack of daycare, and cultural pressures as reasons they're staying home.

"Japan still remains to be a very conservative society. And it's interesting, the conservative side in Japan really emphasizes the importance of meals and lunch boxes cooked by their mothers," Estevez-Abe says.

Signs are pointing to change. The Japanese prime minister's "womenomics" initiative set a target to increase the percentage of moms who return to work after their first babies to 55 percent by the year 2020. It's crucial for Japan's economy: If women don't work in bigger numbers, Japan is looking at a 10 percent drop in its workforce by 2030 because of its aging and shrinking population.

In the meantime, there's bento. Moms in Maruo's class say while making cute characters is time consuming, it's worth it to show a little love at lunchtime.

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this story.

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