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Obento feelings

October 24, 2010

Imagine you’d live in a society in which showing ones feelings is strictly avoided. Friends wouldn’t hug each other when they meet and lovers would not be seen holding hands in public, let alone kissing! Your affection for someone would be your private affair, but even at home you’ll feel uneasy about showing your feelings… Because you’re not used to it!

In a society like this, affection is shown in much more subtle ways, for example through food. The Japanese obento (lunch box) is an excellent example for this.

Japanese girls will prepare obento for their crush to reveal their feelings and Japanese moms put much energy and love into each obento for their kids and husband. But sometimes an obento may create embarrassing situations as seen in this short anime:

On the other hand, the obento also creates social pressure for mothers in Japan as Anne Allison described:

Obentos are boxed lunches Japanese mothers make for their nursery school children. Following Japanese codes for food preparation – multiple courses that are aesthetically arranged – these lunches have a cultural order and meaning. Using the obento as a school ritual and chore – it must be consumed in its entirety in the company of all the children – the nursery school also endows the obento with ideological meanings. The child must eat the obento; the mother must make an obento the child will eat. Both mother and child are being judged; the subjectivities of both are being guided by the nursery school as an institution. It is up to the mother to make the ideological operation entrusted to the obento by the state-linked institution of the nursery school, palatable and pleasant for her child, and appealing and pleasurable for her as a mother. (Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus. In: Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4, Gender and the State in Japan (Oct., 1991), pp. 195-208)

The mother in the following video also states, that an obento was successfully prepared, if the child could finish it. Therefore it is prepared to look cute and be eaten easily:

Of course every mum would prepare a lunch box for her children with as much love as possible, but in a society in which it is hard to express one’s gratitude the obento becomes a one-way street for affection. I think, this can be seen very well in the following commercial:

The mother in this commercial obviously is a full-time housewife. She prepares the obento for her son everyday with much affection always adjusting the lunch box to events in her son’s life. But beside the lunch box there isn’t much communication between the two. She learns of what’s important for her son at the moment rather by chance than by himself and he never says Thank you for the received obento. She even has to say Otsukare (usually said to others at the end of a working day meaning Good job, tsukareta means I’m tired) to herself because nobody else does. What a heart-breaking scene! Btw, did you notice the absence of a father/husband in this commercial? It’s not unusual for a Japanese housewife to be alone all day because her husband works until late at night and her children are busy studying… Even if there’s kind of a happy end here when the son finally says Thank you to his mother, he does so in a letter. There still is no communication between them.

Another commercial of the same company is similar. This time there is no mother so the father has to take the mother’s role and his daughter isn’t able to thank him for years:

There is something called heart-to-heart-communication (isshin-denshin) in Japan and Japanese may claim that they understand those close to them without words, but leading a whole life like this? It seems too lonely to bear to me…



This post was inspired by Alafista.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2010 15:41

    Wow – these commercials are gutting! So, so sad. I’m in Japan currently – I’ve been here for about a week and am here until early December. I’m struck by how exuberant people are when I enter or leave a restaurant. All the loud welcoming and thanking … these videos present such a different perspective on things. Thanks for posting them!

    • franeymoon permalink
      October 25, 2010 16:23

      Thanks so much for your comment! What you experience in shops/restaurants is called tatemae in Japanese, which is how you behave in front of others in opposition to what you really think (honne) Maybe you’ve heard about it. Nevertheless I hope you enjoy Japan 😉

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