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Introduction: The Obento

From carefully measured proportions to refined visual presentations, Japanese cuisine
is often recognized and favoured for their meticulous and elaborate foodwork. Such
intricacy extends to the school lunches of Japanese preschoolers, most of whom carry
an ornate, mom-made feast neatly organized in a box, known as the obento a
custom that has become an integral part of Japanese education as it seeks to forge a
bond between school and home whilst easing the childs anxiety of transition. By
addressing the obento as a delicate microcosm of Japanese culture by its
compartmentalized, palatable morsels of ideologies, the meal serves as a metaphor for
the Japanese mother-child relationship, in which the pervasiveness of mother-child
memories (fostered by the obento experience) is significantly intertwined with the
socialization of Japans future generations.


Shoku-iku: The Socialization of Children
Shoku-iku, the Japanese term for "food education, has been widely employed ever
since Shoku-iku Kihon Hou the Fundamental Law on Nutritional Education
established by 12 central government ministries was implemented in 2005. Shoku-
iku is defined, at present, as the cultivating of oneself by being aware of what one eats.
From lessons on nutrition and food sources to the understanding of food history, Shoku-
iku is integrated as a critical part of every Japanese childs preschool education.

Besides nutrition, the decree indoctrinates children into principles of Japanese
living and in particular, the collectivist culture
and value of homogeneity. To reinforce
the importance of the communal, lunch is declared over only when every child has
finished his or her obento. Part of the mothers duty was therefore to whet the appetite
of her child by making the obento as tempting and easily consumable as possible, as
taking too long to finish ones obento would reflect poorly upon both the child and the
mother. Similarly, both the parent and the child will be held accountable if the child fails
to finish his or her entire obento. The obento then becomes a sign of a woman's
commitment as a mother and her inspiring her child to being similarly committed as a
student (Allison 200):


As the famous Japanese proverb goes, the nail that sticks out gets hammered
down. By gathering the children to eat their obento and recite gratuitous verses
together in a single space, shoku-iku prepares the children for a group-focused social
life, as it reduces their sense of individuality and pursuit of self-interest instilling them
with concepts of being Japanese, by stressing on the collective and importance of
meeting expectations, i.e. finishing ones obento within the time given. By receiving and
carrying out instructions given during mealtimes, the child is exposed to the presence of
hierarchy within the educational institution which, in turn, acculturates them into
appropriate norms of behaviour, starting with the showing of respect for authoritative
figures such as the sensei.


Silver, or gold, or jade, what are they?
Never could they be compared to one's precious child. (660-733)
Yamanoue no Okura, Manyoshu

Of Class and Gender: Amae and the Japanese Mother
Composed almost a millennium ago, the well-known poem by Okura conveys the
parents unconditional love for their child a sentiment that continues to prevail in
modern Japan an affection that is both furthered and complicated by Dois gendered
theory of amae.

Amae, otherwise known as indulgent dependency, has been widely accepted by
scholars as characteristic to the production and reproduction of Japanese culture.
Assuming that Japanese socialization patterns are modeled after the fundamental
mother-child experience, the Japanese mother is responsible for protecting and
pampering the child in order to fulfill the expectations of amae. If efficacy is established,
the mother will be rewarded with identity confirming responses from her child (Smith
and Nomi 2000). In Japanese culture, the frequency of physical endearment declines as
the child enters pre-school, and physical contact is usually confined to domestic
functions like grooming (Lebra 75). The mother will then seek for alternative means to
foster intimacy and convey her affections, one of which is the making of the obento
an activity that not only shapes the childs dependency, but also the mothers identity as
it is the sign of a woman's commitment as a mother (Allison 200).


Empress Michiko, acknowledged as the first empress to nurture her children
herself, had a clip of her making obento for her children broadcasted repeatedly across
the nation. This not only situated her role as a model mother, but also promoted
foodwork as a gauge of a womans dedication to her mothering role. Obento cookbooks
and magazines were titled with these ideals in mind, bearing captions of Mamas love
or Mamas idea that designate the obento as a metaphor and measure of motherly
love (Lebra 77). The effect is perceptible as Japanese mothers are estimated to spend
nearly an hour a day making an obento, which excludes the time spent on planning and
picking out ingredients (Allison 1991).

Mothers are often expected to engage in obento artistry to create an obento
that was visually appealing, appetizing, and creative all at the same time. The ideal, as
revealed by mothers and cookbooks, is to assemble the food into a scene recognizable
by the child (235) and to transform and disguise foods in order to encourage the child
to eat ingredients that he or she may dislike:


Here we are able to conclude, with regards to the observation on the redundancy
of aestheticization, that much of the womans responsibility in making obento has little to
do with stimulating the childs appetite. Instead, what we have is a derivation of the
states agenda in keeping the women contained within a subservient, domestic sphere
and under close scrutiny. By examining the obento against a larger backdrop of
Japanese culture namely the societal expectations for mother-child relationships and
motherhood allows for the appreciation of obento as an important cultural site of
discourse, and raising questions about the cultural digestibility that the obento can offer.

Keeping up with the Mrs. Tanakas
Besides the pressure from societal expectations of motherhood, Japanese mothers are
often burdened by the silent competition between the mothers themselves. Besides the
fear that their child might not be satisfied with their obento, mothers are also troubled by
the paranoia of competition as they take their childs innocent expressions of envy or
desire for anothers obento to heart. (Nancy 2011) Such cognitive responses could be
attributed to the amae, whereby the mother may view the childs affections for anothers
obento as an engagement or identity confirming response to another mother a
threat to the mother-child relationship and a hint at her failure in establishing amae.

Similarly, the amae can also be translated as a reflector of class distinctions as
observed via the aesthetics of Nonchan noriben (2009), a Japanese film about obento.
Nonchan is the name of the protagonists daughter, whilst Noriben refers to a basic and
inexpensive Japanese obento consisting of only rice, nori, soy sauce, and occasionally
dried bonito flakes.

In the film, Nonchans noriben are portrayed to be awfully plain and were a stark
contrast to the fancy and assorted kyaraben
that her classmates had. Aside from the
films emphasis on Nonchans obento as being extremely delectable, the film makes the
constant note that Nonchans mother, Komaki, was struggling to make ends meet. This
brings us to Bourdieus Theory of Class Distinction, which suggests that the quality of a
meal (in this case, the obento) mirrors ones societal and cultural standing. Bourdieus
theory does ring true in the film for the plainness of Nonchans obento parallels the
economic struggles of her home. The class inequality also becomes an indicator for
gender struggles as it is the mother who is burdened with the task of upholding the
status of the household in having to produce an obento that is presentable by school
and societal standards.


Konbini Paradise: Seeking Alternatives
The arduousness of this whole obento business may, however, seem like a superfluous
attempt in modern Japan, a nation well-known for convenience living. From ready-made
obento to precooked, vacuum-sealed side dishes, one might find the intricate planning
and preparation of meals almost unnecessary.

One could argue that the Japanese, who are more often than not lauded for
incredible knowledge of nutrition (as observed from their high life expectancy) and
hence, would be more cautious about what goes into each convenient pack of pre-
prepared fare. Despite the accessibilities provided by retail institutions such as the
konbini (Japanese contraction of the English term convenience store), the convenient
foods available are severely lacking in nutritional quality and the popular, readymade
obento offered by konbini are essentially unhealthy products of a nutritional wasteland.
Despite the fact that proportions remain well-controlled, most konbini obento are
generously filled with deep fried or otherwise, high-fat foods, rendering it a recipe of
preservatives, additives, high sodium, high sugar high starch, high calories (Wilk 125).


The persistence of a state gendered ideology upon the obento can be observed
from the advent of the konbini-housewife syndrome a derogatory term projected at
housewives who are dependent on the foodstuff provided by konbinis and reproving
them for having failed in performing their socially prescribed role as a good wife and
wise mother. This directs us back to Japans patriarchal system, in which the konbini-
housewife would be perceived as a potential threat to the system that clearly
establishes the familial role of the woman as a caregiver, proving that the obento culture
is markedly gendered.

It is also crucial to note the significance of konbinis in Japan, where they are
heralded as reizouko no kawari (replacement refrigerators) by locals who live by
themselves, particularly those without a mom around the house. The prominence of the
mom-made meal is being emphasized once again as konbini are often seen to be
aligning and marketing themselves to their suggested role as surrogate mother. Most
Japanese continue to associate the obento with the idea of home and the presence of
the mother, underscoring the pervasiveness of amae as it sprawls beyond the grounds
of preschools. To address this, we will first need to disassemble the obento (literally)
and direct our focus on the key component: rice, or rather onigiri, Japanese sticky rice


When I was a child I would never eat the rice served to me in the chawan but
when my mom made that same rice into an onigiri I would love it.

Mai Kelly, creator of The Japan Food Channel

Into the Obento: Onigiri as Japanese Soul Food
The onigiri, in lieu of its size, relative ease of preparation, and the possibilities for
value-added innovation through fillings, shapes and flavours (Wilk 134), is not just
valued by retail institutions but also by obento makers who mark the sticky rice balls as
an indispensable component of their repertoire. But why the need to specify onigiri? Is it
not just rice? Indeed, onigiri is largely made of rice, but what renders its distinctiveness
to the Japanese lies in the preparation of the onigiri by the hands of ones mother.

The symbolic parent-child connotation is often highlighted by the presentation of
the onigiri in Japanese media, along with the emotions that they evoke. In Miyazaki
Hayaos acclaimed anime, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (2001) is a pivotal scene
which encapsulates the Japanese affection for the onigiri: the heroine, Chihiro, upon
realizing her predicament in an unfamiliar world without her parents, refuses to eat
anything but two onigiri offered by her friend, Taku, which she consumes in tears.


Accompanying the release of the film, the studio produced plastic replicas of the onigiri
which circulated as a mini-fad for months. The packaging includes a quote by Hayao
Miyazaki, in which the producer shares his opinion on the pathos evoked by the onigiri
by describing it as a powerful reminder of commensality and human interdependence:

As a child or a parent, you understand that the onigiri is a food sculpted by the
hands of someone you know and whose tireless efforts give you life.

A similar connection is illustrated by Kamome shokud (2006), a film which concerns
itself with a Japanese woman, Sachie, and her attempts to introduce the culture of
onigiri to the residents of Helsinki. For Sachie, onigiri is Japanese soul food, and the
director, Naoko Ogigami, emphasizes that philosophy by packing the film with a fair
amount of close ups on the rice being molded tenderly by the warm hands of the
motherly Sachie.


By setting the narrative in Helsinki, Kamome shokud not only presents the onigiri as a
food charged with a sense of national identity but most importantly, as a emblem of
home. Imbuing the onigiri with the power to convey a sense of care and familiarity in a
foreign setting, the film shows both the omnipresence of the parent-child relationship
and fondness for the motherland.

Obento and the Construction of Home
The numerous takes on Sachies relaxed expression while she rolls and pats the onigiri
aligns with the conception of comfort food as having the capacity to offer a sense of
comfort in unfamiliar settings. The emphasis on the sculpting action further proves that
the emotions evoked are not merely by taste but the actual foodwork itself in the case
of the film, it is the mobilization of the entire body (Abdullah 2010).

Despite its popularity worldwide, the obento has yet to lose its cultural significance
and is still valued by the Japanese as a continuation of traditional ideals and the
promotion of an unbreakable familial bond especially for those residing far away from
the comforts of home: through the making of obento, one would be able to indulge in a
shared imagination of space and experience a temporal fulfillment of their desire for
amae. As both the symbol of intimacy and manifestation of a mothers love, there is no
question as to why the obento is still cherished today.


Allison, Anne. Enchanted Commodities, Millennial
Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination.
University of California Press, 2006..

Allison, Anne. Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-
Box as Ideological State Apparatus. Anthropological
Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4, Gender and the State in Japan,

Itoh, Makiko. The best kindergarten lessons are at lunch
time, The Japan Times Online; 7 April 2011.

Lebra, Takie Sugiyama. The Japanese Self in Cultural Logic.
University of Hawaii Press, 2004.

Miyazaki, Hayao. Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. Studio
Ghibli, Nippon Television Network Corporation, 2001.

Nancy, Miss. The art of Obento its more than a lunch
box. Kindermusik, Studio3Music. 28 Feb 2011.

Ogata, Akira. Nonchan Noriben. Kino International, 2009.

Ogigami, Naoko. Kamome shokud. Nippon Television
Network Corporation, 2006.

Peak, Loius. Learning to Go to School in Japan: The
Transition from Home to Preschool Life. University of
California Press, 1993.

Smith, Herman W, and Takako, Nomi. "Is Amae the Key to
Understanding Japanese Culture?" Electronic Journal of
Sociology, 2000.

Wilk, Richard R. Fast Food/Slow Food: The Cultural
Economy of the Global Food System.AltaMira Press, 2006.


1. Here I refer to Hofstedes
definition of collectivism here as
represent[ing] a preference for a
tightly-knit framework in society in
which individuals can expect their
relatives or members of a particular
in-group to look after them in
exchange for unquestioning
loyalty; and how the Japanese self
image is often defined by we
instead of I.

2. Sensei, literally meaning
"former-born", refers to or
addresses teachers, doctors,
politicians, lawyers, and other
figures of authority in an institution.

3. Kyaraben or charaben, is a
shortened form of character
obento a style of elaborately
arranged obento which features
food decorated to look like people,
characters from popular media,
animals, and plants