(Note: This is in part a belated response to the New York Times blog post about bento boxes that appeared in September. I had started it some weeks ago but didn’t have the time to finish, until now. Please also read the very thoughtful forum discussion  about the post.)
The New York Times blog post about Beauty and the Bento Box  was, after the recent balanced article about bento boxes  that appeared in the same publication, was rather disappointing. To see yet another piece in the mainstream media focusing just on the aesthetics of bentos, and specifically on charaben, gives me a “What, again?” sort of resigned feeling. The question that they posed to a group of experts (only one of whom is Japanese…I wonder how many have even had a homemade bento for lunch?) was a leading question if there ever was one: “What does the care devoted to the visual details in a packed lunch suggest about the culture? Why is such value placed on aesthetics in everyday life in Japan?”.
I’ve repeated this many times on this site already, but the basic definition of a bento box is “a meal in a box”, as the subtitle of this site says. Bentos can be for any meal. They can be made by and for anyone. They are often portable, but not always (as for bento box lunches served at sit-down restaurants). In short, bentos are just part of everyday life for most Japanese people. Charaben are just one category of bentos.
In Japan, cute charaben are ostensibly made to overcome the eating habits of small preschool or kindergarten aged children. At least, that is the reason given by many charaben bloggers and book authors as to why they started making charaben.
However, charaben has evolved to the point where it is now a hobby and an industry. I liken it to any other creative hobby, like knitting or crochet or painting. It may be food for kids, but it exists just as much, if not more, as a creative outlet for their moms (and the occasional dad). Kids are not the ones buying up nori punches and egg molds and Rirakkuma shaped onigiri shapers; it’s their moms. There are charaben contests on a national scale, often sponsored by makers of charaben goods (such as Sanyo) or bento-related foods (such as Ajinomoto, who also pay well known charaben bloggers to come up with cute bentos featuring their frozen shuumai dumplings and such).
The daily opening of the bento box at kindergarten has come to be regarded as a sort of local competition between charaben-creating moms. Recently there’s been a backlash against this - some mothers are complaining that they don’t have the time to make such elaborate cute bentos, and that their kids are made to feel inferior, or teased and even bullied, because of this. As a result, some preschools and kindergartens have started to ban charaben. Some Japanese charaben bloggers have written about how they have had to restrict their creative efforts to lunches served at home.
Since most elementary/primary schools serve school lunches, mothers are relieved of their bento making duties once their kids are older. Even if the kids still need bentos, as they get older they - especially boys - start to reject charaben, as being childish (kodomoppoi) and embarassing (hazukashii).
My sister Mayumi, who lives in the Tokyo area, is the mother of two kids. They are both in elementary school now, but when they were in kindergarten she made bentos for them every day. She said that she just avoided the charaben ‘senso’ (wars) by not making charabens at all, since she didn’t have the time or inclination. Her children fortunately didn’t get teased or anything for their not-cute ‘plain’ bentos. But she says it was a relief in many ways when her youngest graduated from kindergarten. She, and the kids, love school lunch.
Mayumi also related the competitiveness of charaben to the peculiar Japanese social phenomenon called “Playground Debut”. When you are in a new neighborhood, your child’s first appearance at the local playground (or debut) is a very big deal. If you as the parent, and your kids, do not get accepted by the existing clique there, you are doomed to playing on your own, or seeking out another playground. Japanese society can be very stressful and competitive for kids and their mothers. (I found this article on Salon from 1999  that conveys this kind of competitive and stressful situation quite well, from an expatriate American mother’s point of view.)
A breakdown of the of the 50 bestselling bento books on Amazon Japan  as of this writing, might provide a snapshot of the state of the interest in bentos in Japan:
Unfortunately, since charaben are so visually striking, most of the attention paid to bentos from outside Japan focuses on this small segment, and, like the New York Times blog post, tries to draw some conclusions about Japanese society in general from that.
It’s understandable that this happens. It’s still rather frustrating though, and it’s not really the whole picture at all.
It’s interesting to see that books extolling the virtues of homemade bentos are amongst the top sellers in this category. As in most societies, more and more people in Japan are eating fast food, especially from the ubiquitous konbini or convenience stores, which stock every kind of grab-and-eat food that you can think of, including readymade bentos. Those readymade bentos are often not that healthy, filled with lots of cheap carbohydrates and deep fried food.
I admire the creativity of skilled charaben artists. I am not that skilled, but I dabble a little in decorated bentos myself. However, I don’t think that charaben are something anyone can make every day. Even the most dedicated charaben-oriented mothers in Japan don’t.
I do believe that a little time taken to make sure a bento box is attractively presented is a great thing. What can be possibly wrong about food that looks as appetizing as it tastes, that is pretty as well as being nutritious. Whenever there’s some mainstream media thing about bentos, you can be sure there will be a few snarky comments along the lines of “a peanut butter sandwich was good enough for my parents and good enough for me, and it’s good enough for my kids” or “spending so much time on food is unnatural/sacriligeous/spoiling your kids/un-American” et al. As much as I think charaben all the time is unrealistic, I don’t get this ‘food must look plain’ thing either. (I wonder if those people who object to pretty lunches also reject decorated birthday cakes, and cupcakes with colored icing?)
There is a long tradition in Japanese cuisine of making food that looks beautiful. The highest form of Japanese cuisine is so beautifully presented that it has inspired chefs around the world. That sense of aesthetics does trickle down to everyday home cooking. But most people don’t make it into a hobby.
I’d like to close with a translated quote from a bento book written back in 1998, by one of my favorite food writers, Katsuyo Kobayashi  (see footnote). The book is called Katsuyo Kobayashi’s “Obento’s Decided!” . (kobayashi katsuyo no obento kimatta!), a book that is still in print 11 years later, and in the top 50 bestselling bento book list mentioned above. (My copy is from the 22nd printing in 2006.) Here is what she writes in the foreword:
I am really not fond of obentos that are overly decorated. An obento is one of the three daily meals. It’s just an everyday lunch on the go. In other words, instead of eating lunch at home, we bring it to school, to work, or on an outing. Rather than sausages cut to look like an octopus, or onigiri made to look like people’s faces, I want to honor the beauty and deliciousness of food that Nature has given us - the yellow of tamagoyaki, the green of spinach, pink salmon, the earth tones of gobo [burdock root], the pure white of rice.
While I’m not totally adverse to purposely made bento decorations as Mrs. Kobayashi is (I do have a soft spot for the occasional sausage decoration  or cutely cut out sandwich), I do agree with her general philosophy. While Just Bento is about many kinds of bentos, including charaben, my main focus is always on bentos that taste good and are on the healthy side, and look naturally appetizing. If I add extra decorations to my bentos, I don’t spend more than 5 minutes, 10 at the most, on them, unless it’s for a special occasion. It’s striking a middle ground between a plain sandwich thrown into a brown paper bag, and an astonishing charaben creation that takes hours to assemble.
Or in other words, I’m just trying to spread the good word about everyday bentos.
I’ve read that Mrs. Kobayashi (who in her heyday was everywhere in the food world - on TV, in magazines, churning out several books a year) is not that well anymore, which is a real shame. However, her son Kentaro has been a TV, magazine and cookbook star for some years now too. Some of his books have appeared in translated English this year, including one about bentos called Bento Love . I haven’t had a chance to look at this book yet, mainly because it sounds suspiciously like a book of his that I have already, but I did notice that Pikko of Adventures in Bentomaking recently made a boiled salmon recipe  from it. Boiled salmon sounded rather familiar - and it’s not a usual way to cook salmon in Japan. Sure enough, there’s a recipe for Boiled Salmon in his mother’s bento book! Not only that, she has a recipe for fried chicken in there called Kentaro Fried Chicken (KFC!). I love this mother-son connection.
(Incidentally, Pikko mentioned that her salmon was rather bland. If you do have that book, do check for me to see if Kentaro specifies the use of salted salmon. His mom’s recipe does, and I think it would make all the difference. Salted salmon is a very common ingredient in Japan, but outside of it it’s expensive if you can find it. Here’s my method for making your own .)