A bentô box (or more polite o-bentô) is a traditional boxed meal that can be bought at train stations and convenience stores, as well as at restaurants. In higher class restaurants, the containers are beautifully hand crafted lacquer ware. Frequently, they are homemade for an outing or school lunch. Bentô's usually contain an assortment of delectable items as well as rice, the main ingredient.
Few elevate food to an elaborate, precise art form like the Japanese. There are a multitude of magazines on bento-making, stores that sell only bentô paraphernalia, and nationwide contests. People make beautiful arrangements out of them or perhaps shape them in the form of an animal or character from popular media (Kyaraben).
But no group excels at making these bentos quite like the mothers of nursery school children between the ages of 4 and 6. These are a far cry from the throw together bag lunch; they are works of art designed to convey to the child that there is a precise way of doing things and that everything you do should be done with that precision. Never mind that it can take up to an hour to make these multicourse mini-masterpieces. This is a sign of motherly love, and it is imbued with that spirit.
On the part of the kids, they are supposed to finish every last bite. If they do not, or are slow, others in their group will have to wait for them before they can go out to play, so one learns early in Japan that individual actions affect others in the group. Further, the mother will receive a call from the teacher advising her on how to get the child to eat the full bentô. The teacher will share recipes and ways to make the bento look more appealing, the order for positioning items, the addition of a seasonal reminder, and so on.
Fliers sent home every two weeks from the school outline the essential points, including adding disliked food gradually. This is designed to discourage fussiness and to prepare the child for elementary school where a lunch with no choices is served.
Anne Allison notes in her book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires, ...re-confirming and re-identifying one as a member of the culture are the principles by which Japanese food is customarily prepared: perfection, labor, small distinguishable parts, opposing segments, beauty, and the stamp of nature. Overarching all these more detailed codings are two that guide the making and ideological appropriation of the nursery school bentô most directly: (1) there is an order to the food, a right way to do things with everything in its place and each place coordinated with every other, and (2) the one who prepares the food takes on the responsibility of producing food to the standards of perfection and exactness that Japanese cuisine demands."
Image #1: Laquer ware bento picture by Blue Lotus (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 http://creativecommons.org/ licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Images #2-4: By luckysundae [CC-BY-SA-2.0 http://creativecommons.org /licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons