The bento chronicles

An expatriate mom in Japan learns that a dewhiskered Hello Kitty rice ball in her child's lunch could forever condemn her as a rotten mother.


Jane Singer
January 20, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

It was 6:15 a.m. and I just couldn't get Hello Kitty's whiskers to lie flat. The tiny wisps I had cut out of sheets of black seaweed wouldn't adhere to the rice ball that formed her face, and a dewhiskered Hello Kitty would leave my daughter the laughingstock of her Moon class at day care.

As most things do with children, my decorative rice ball fixings started manageably small but escalated. On a visit to the family of my husband, who is Japanese, my sister-in-law presented me with a plastic mold for rice balls. Why was there no internal warning buzzer when she, a non-working mom, said she never had had time to use it when her kids were small? You pressed rice into the mold, she said, added features cut out of seaweed or red pickled apricots and presto! a small rice panda that would elicit cries of recognition from your child and her friends when she opened the lid of her lunch box -- and from her teachers, affirmation of good standing as a Mom Who Cares.

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This imprimatur is important in Japan. Magazines such as the Housewife's Friend devote special sections to preparation of attractive lunch box fare, with the admonition that a child's memories of his or her first bento, or lunch boxes, are planted in the seedbed of consciousness. This memory, more than the nine months of breast-feeding or years of mopping up spilled juice, remains with the child until adulthood, they say. Was your child the envy of his peers as he unhinged his two-tiered Ultraman plastic bento box to reveal apple slices pared to resemble bunny ears and braided fish cakes in red and white, the colors of celebration? A monotonal lunch box with just a few ingredients -- or even, dear lord, a sandwich, apple and cookie in a brown paper bag -- would damage young Taro's self-esteem and his standing among his cohorts. Even worse, the photographs always taken of children at lunch would reveal to the other mothers that you're more concerned with a few hours sleep and getting to work on time than with your child's best interests.

Maternal self-sacrifice and the desire for acceptance are an unspoken refrain here. A Japanese friend once shared her worries about her child's "park debut," the moment when she would first bring her toddler to the local concrete playground. It's a common concern: Will your child create a nasty scene by smacking a playmate with her plastic shovel or appear poorly groomed in an unironed playsuit? More important, would the veteran mothers who shmooze there every day deign to speak to you? There aren't many playgrounds to choose from here in Kyoto, so if you're shunned in your neighborhood, you and your child might be stuck playing inside your three-room apartment until he enters first grade.

Such seemingly trivial encounters are fraught with significance. There are few casual conversations in Japan. Speaking with someone might mean entering into a relationship that entails obligations somewhere down the road. If a colleague brings you fruit, you must reciprocate, and soon, with some Mount Fuji-shaped sweet cakes from your trip to Atami hot springs; if a friend becomes your guarantor for a loan, you'd better find homestay sponsors for his nephew at junior college in New Hampshire. Not surprisingly, some mothers thus prefer anonymity to introducing themselves. In the park they stand mutely by, smiling weakly, while their children and yours fight over seating on a plastic horse.

Guilt and self-sacrifice are a healthy part of the maternal psyche in many cultures, of course, but in Japan they are exacerbated by the social pressures to conform. Japanese doctors rarely administer epidurals during labor, and the 24-hour labor I experienced with my first child is typical, as women are instructed to "gaman," or endure the pain. Yet the labor room quiet is rarely punctuated by anything louder than a few moans and gasps, unless there's a foreign woman on site. (On the plus side, Japan has one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.)

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Social consciousness holds modern women to almost the same standards as it did 30 years ago. About that time, two trends -- the emergence of nuclear families with fewer children and the prevalence of absentee workaholic husbands -- led home-bound but highly educated women to devote themselves to their children. They became known as "Education Mamas," hounding teachers and nagging their young ones to propel them into reputable schools, thus good universities and, ultimately, jobs with famous corporations. They are often scorned for their excesses; Japanese social critics have even embraced salacious rumors of the extremes some mothers would go to to motivate their sons.

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Yet their devotion -- hours spent helping the child study, preparing nutritious treats and special meals before his or her cram school classes, foregoing television or musical distractions at home -- is admired by many. If the child is successful in his or her school exams, much of the credit goes to the mother, who created a proper home environment. These Education Mamas have become the standard by which other mothers are judged.

Today the image of industrious homemaker persists, despite the reality that more women work than do not. For years, women have been quietly stealing into the workplace to perform low-paying service jobs, then quietly slinking back home in time to scrub down the tatami floors, put five-course dinners on the table and have a hot bath ready for hubby when he returns from his after-work drinking. Working mothers often get flak from their in-laws, so most women quit working when their children are small but return several years later, creating an "M for Mother" curve on labor participation charts. Those who continue their careers must then endure the severity of judgment by other mothers when their charges reach school age and the day-care mothers encounter the nursery school moms. I've attended PTA meetings that bristled with barely controlled hostility. "Why can't you working mothers pull your weight and serve as officers?" demands one camp. "Try holding PTA meetings in the evenings and maybe we will!" retorts the other. The debate has a familiar ring for Americans, but the greater weight of social obligations here makes this a tough battle for working mothers to win.

As for me, my slide into bento fixings basically began with a desire to upset perceived wisdom. Many Japanese firmly believe that such intricate manual skills as attractive bento preparation are uniquely theirs, honed by years of folding origami and writing Chinese characters with tiny brush strokes, while Westerners, with their big, clumsy hands, just want to get the job done. By this reasoning, Americans regard the lunch box as a nutrition delivery system, not a showcase for motherly love. I vowed to show that I could make the grade. I decided I would not only make my son the fanciest bento; I would embroider his name in varicolored thread on his play smock and write perfect Japanese entries in his daily notebook, including hours of sleep, contents of every meal, time and appearance of bowel movements -- even during holidays. The teachers would write back in exquisite detail, recording that, for example, Adam had had a bowel movement at 3:14 p.m. that day. (How could they be so precise, I wondered -- or, like me, were they just making up what they couldn't remember?)

I tried, but just when I thought I had mastered the system, I'd get stung by something new. One day we were asked to supply the teacher with hand-sewn zokin, or dust rags. Soon after I brought my initial offering, an old towel folded in two, Adam's teacher gently handed it back and took me aside for a demonstration. A proper zokin, she explained, is a still-clean white towel folded over and sewn along all four edges. It is bisected by an X sewn from the four corners, with a square sewn in the center. Anything else would lack the proper heft and stability to be a zokin, I was told, when I asked the reasons why (itself a very un-Japanese thing to do).

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As my son grew and what I once regarded as "the culture game" became a way of life, I came to realize that there were greater stakes involved. My lunch box efforts might help improve my children's chances of being accepted by their peers, as well as my own standing. Yes, I would be acquiescing to a system that many Japanese women resent, but what was the alternative? Many Western mothers don't go the lunch box route; they prefer being what amounts to an eternal guest here. But others of us worry about our children's acceptance by their own culture. Japan still seems the most homogenous of nations; that is, if you ignore the presence of large numbers of Koreans, Chinese and other Asians, many of them born here but without Japanese citizenship. The number of Western women marrying Japanese men is rising, however, and, despite the old G.I. bride imagery, there are now more foreign wives here than foreign husbands of Japanese.The population may be slowly diversifying, but the government is not yet prepared to embrace the goal of a multicultural society. When Japanese children look at their government-sanctioned textbooks, photos of black-haired, dark-eyed children are all they see. When my son was a first-grader, he came home one day and asked me to buy konbu, a type of thick seaweed, for dinner. Why? His friend told him that a daily diet of konbu is sure to turn his auburn hair black. Brown-haired children who were born and raised in Japan and carry Japanese passports wince when strangers compliment them on their "near-native" command of Japanese. As kids reach late adolescence, perhaps you can persuade them of their good fortune in having blood ties to the land of Michael Jordan and "The X-Files." But when they're younger and fear that even having a pencil box that's the wrong color might subject them to verbal bullying, such arguments will not wash.

So when my son entered the local elementary school, I made sure to always appear at PTA meetings in the proper "mommy suit" (not a power suit but more of a powerless suit, in pastels with pearl buttons and lace collars). Keeping up with the detailed instructions concerning school supplies, including nearly a dozen different quilted bags for everything from recorder to handkerchiefs, has been a challenge, but I like showing that I can finesse the small things, too. I recently began making panda rice balls for my daughter's monthly day-care outings, then expanded my repertoire after buying a plastic Hello Kitty mold and trying freehand rice ball versions of Japanese cartoon favorites like Pikachu, a yellow and black (egg and seaweed-wrapped) catlike creature.

Now she and the other girls who share her "leisure sheet," the plastic mats they lay out for picnics, expect a production from me every time. Of course, sometimes I can't help but mentally calculate the negative earnings represented by hours spent forming beaming suns from cherry tomatoes and carrot slices when I could be at work. But for my hafu children, who face a tough road to acceptance by their peers, I figure that a bento to die for is the least I can do.

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Jane Singer

Jane Singer is a magazine editor in Kyoto, Japan.

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