Would you spend two hours making a lunch box for your kids, so that the food looks like a picture of Barack Obama, Michael Jackson or Harrison Ford? No? Well in Japan the way food looks is almost as important as it how it tastes. And keeping up appearances matters. You can’t just send your kids off to school with a few sandwiches in some cling film. Japanese mothers create artistic looking combinations of rice, fish, seaweed and vegetables that look like true works of art.
Some of the lunches look like a piano or the control console for a video game. Some look like Hello Kitty, or Totoro, a Japanese cartoon character. Some look like people. Tomomi Maruo runs classes in her apartment where she teaches other mothers to make lunchboxes. The lunch boxes with faces take two hours.
In this BBC story young mother Yayoi Uemura, one of Tomomi’s students confesses that she feels pressured by Japanese culture to come up with something novel to match the other moms. “I feel, oh my gosh, it’s sports day, the expectation is getting high, you have to sit next to other moms. I feel pressured.” And most of the kids featured in the BBC story, the ones eating these lunches, are in kindergarten.
Watching this story, I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the mothers. As well as going to the office, or working in a shop, or doing ordinary housework, the thought of spending two hours on a kid’s lunch box seems, well, pretty demanding.
I’ve been to Japan three times as a tourist, and had Japanese students board at my house. I was learning the language until the writing part got so time-consuming I couldn’t continue. Japan is a country where part of the culture says you have to fit in. One Japanese saying is “Deru kugi wa utareru.” The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. It means you conform or else.
Watching the BBC story made me stop to think: is there anything that I do that serves no real purpose except to fit in with other people? We’re all social beings. We all try to fit in to some degree with other people, but most of the time we’re not very conscious of it. Sometimes, at family gatherings, we have to hold our tongue for the sake of harmony. But I struggle to come up with anything in Western culture that even remotely resembles what these mothers are doing. Is there anything I’m missing here? Are there things we do just to fit in? What do you think?