Eras in Education – Bento Boxes

In all cultures and times, education systems enforce a degree of uniformity on pupils. During lunch hour, however, students are freer to express the outside culture of which they are a part. By comparing the lunchtime experience of Canadian and Japanese schoolchildren, basic cultural differences appear.

Sometimes lunch seems like only a mirage on the horizon. One of my most enduring memories of the third or fourth grade was how, at some point during the first week of class, the teacher would painstakingly describe how and where to place our names and the date on each sheet of paper we used.

Upon completion of a little sermon on the matter, he would stroll up and down the rows of desks and inspect our papers. Invariably he would pause at some hapless student’s desk, lean over, and announce in a loud and authoritative voice some miniscule mistake that had been made.

This would set off a chain reaction of several other students exaggeratedly exclaiming ?Aaaaa!? They would then proceed to crumple up their own pages in mock horror that they had somehow not Followed Directions Adequately. The more athletic-minded boys would toss their papers in the direction of the wastebasket, invariably missing. The whole sequence of events tended to throw the teacher into a state of noticeable agitation. For us it just made the time until lunch pass a bit quicker.

As degrading as being taught the precise way to record the name and date was, it was often counterbalanced by an enjoyable lunch hour. Kids fortunate enough to receive a Kraft cheese-and-crackers package (mostly plastic, but exceedingly desirable) would yelp with glee and receive envious glances from all directions. Neither we nor our parents had any idea that Kraft was to be absorbed by Phillip Morris, a tobacco company.

We also never would have dreamed that on the other side of the world, in Japan, schoolchildren who had also endured an asinine beginning-of-term lecture were opening their own lunch boxes, the bento box, and being greeted with entirely different contents. The greatest prize we could imagine was a classic symbol of North American mass production. For the Japanese students, whose mother spent an average of 45 minutes preparing it, lunch consisted of minutely decorated food shaped into flowers and animals with colours contrapuntally ordered and arranged.

The bento box, product of a conformity-based society, represents an opportunity for individual expression on the part of the mother, and individual pride on the part of student. It is of great sociological interest that in our own theoretically individualistic society, the lunch box is the paradigm of uniformity and sameness. Beginning as a reused ?biscuit, tobacco or candy tin? it soon became a symbol of gender (decorated with He-Man or My Little Pony) and class (shiny new, or scratched from the previous school year). To fit in and be cool it was very important to have the right lunch box. The contents, on the other hand, were the same for everyone: a sandwich and, if we were lucky, some sort of prefabricated treat.

Yet in Japan, the wicker bamboo bento box was far less important than what was inside. As Marshall McLuhan famously stated, ?the medium is the message.? Yet if this were so, why weren’t our lunchboxes more overtly individualist than those in Japan?

One possible explanation of this contradiction may be found in the work of Talcott Parsons, a structural functionalist sociologist known for explaining all social norms and values as valuable for upholding a stable whole. Japanese society has been historically isolated from other cultures. Therefore, non-consumerist traditions such as the detailed and homemade bento box have remained important in the school setting. In Canada, the key thing to teach children is that cool stuff is bought in stores, not made painstakingly (and less expensively) at home.

Unlike in Europe, where until the Industrial Revolution most people returned home from the fields for lunch, Japan has a long history of lunch boxes. The bento box dates back thousands of years and has accommodated itself to the modern world. It became an important part of mothering with the introduction of compulsory education in the decades following the ?opening? of Japan to the outside world by the American Commodore Matthew C. Perry. The separation of public or ?outside? (soto) and private or ?home? (uchi) made it important for women to remind their offspring that they were loved and that they were representing the pride of the family in these formative years of contact with society. In a culture as honour-driven as Japan?s, it was important for young people to know their place and to feel fulfilled rather than alienated by it.

As Emile Durkheim noted, anomie (or normlessness) would arise amongst people who felt detached from their surroundings. The idea behind creating beautiful bento box contents was to inspire the child to do well in school and peacefully accept the transition from private to public sphere. The bento served to ?create an invisible bond between mother and child, and also between the world of the family and the world of the school.?

The fact that in Japan the best bentos are the most artistically designed and nutritionally balanced, while in North America the best lunch box predictably contains a mass-produced snack with minimal nutritional value, suggests that our culture has found it necessary to encourage consumerism at the expense of creativity.

Everyone learns their culture as a ?patterned, ordered system of symbols that are object of orientation.? For young children here, the symbols are to be bought and consumed; in Japan the symbols are predominantly produced in the home. The obento can make a child part of the ?in group.? In effect, to be a cool kid in Japan means one must have a cool mom. On this point Canadian and Japanese kids are perhaps not so different. The definition of cool changes, but not the goal of being accepted by one’s peers. The medium may change, but the message is the same.

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