Sunday, 21 May 2017

Bentō Lunchboxes, School Lunch, and the Gendered Division of Labour

The bentō (弁当) or lunchbox is a familiar word both inside and outside Japan. In Japan, it usually contains rice with a variety of small compartmentalised side-dishes (okazu = おかず) such as meat, fish, pickles, or vegetables which may be eaten warm or cold. The picture below right shows a typical bentō shop which promotes "one coin" (ワンコイン) lunchboxes (advertised left), that is lunchboxes for ¥500.

At the vast majority of public elementary and junior high schools (as well as many kindergartens) lunch, known as kyūshoku (給食) - literally "gifted" or "granted" food - is provided. This is typically shuttled in from an outside factory to each school though some municipalities (like Kodaira) prepare the meals in the schools themselves. Students will take it in turns to be the kyūshoku tōban, that is the person who brings the lunch to the classroom and dishes it out to their classmates (usually decked out in smock and hat). Generally, students will take their lunch (with milk) back to their table and wait until everyone has their meal before starting. The teacher usually eats with the students too. Many private schools, however, and all high schools will not have kyūshoku so a bentō has to be prepared at home (again, usually by the mother) or (for high-schoolers only) a cafeteria or convenience store lunch may be an option.

Whether a school has kyūshoku or not can be a key point for a busy working mother for whom preparing a bentō each morning can be a thankless task that requires getting up early and producing a lunchbox that is both nutritious and will stand up to the scrutiny of teachers, classmates, and even other parents. Indeed, for some parents, making the perfect bentō can be a point of pride and bentō pictures are a mainstay on social media. Pressure to make a kyaraben or character bentō, a lunchbox featuring a popular cartoon character (such as Hello Kitty or Pikachu) or perhaps an animal (pandas are popular), partly for the purpose of encouraging a fussy child to eat, can put extra pressure on already over-worked mums. Japanese Cookpad has over 30,000 recipes for kyaraben.

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For an academic analysis of the bentō , see chapter 4 in Anne Allison's Permitted and Prohibited Desires (2000) titled, "Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus." In this chapter, she describes how the social pressure on mothers to prepare bentōs and perform other domestic and family work perpetuates the gendered division of labour that effectively limits women to low-paying, part-time jobs.