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Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus

Author(s): Anne Allison


Source: Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 4, Gender and the State in Japan (Oct., 1991),
pp. 195-208
Published by: The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3317212
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JAPANESE MOTHERS AND OBENTOS:
THE LUNCH-BOXAS
IDEOLOGICALSTATE APPARATUS
ANNE ALLISON
University of Colorado

Obentus are boxed lunches Japanese mothers make for their nursery school children. Fol-
lowing Japanese codes for food preparation-multiple courses that are aesthetically ar-
ranged-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 chil-
dren-the nursery school also endows the obentu with ideological meanings. The child
must eat the obento; the mother must make an obentu 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
obentu by the state-linked institution of the nursery school, palatable and pleasant for her
child, and appealing and pleasurable for her as a mother. [food, mother, Japan, education,
ideology]

Introduction accomplished.
I use Althusser's concept of the Ideological
State Apparatus (1971) to frame my argument. I
Japanese nursery school children, going off to
school for the first time, carry with them a boxed will briefly describe how food is coded as a cultural
lunch (obentv) prepared by their mothers at home. and aesthetic apparatus in Japan, and what author-
Customarily these obentvs are highly crafted elabo- ity the state holds over schools in Japanese society.
rations of food: a multitude of miniature portions, Thus situating the parameters within which the
obentv is regulated and structured in the nursery
artistically designed and precisely arranged, in a
container that is sturdy and cute. Mothers tend to school setting, I will examine the practice both of
expend inordinate time and attention on these making and eating obentv within the context of one
obentvs in efforts both to please their children and nursery school in Tokyo. As an anthropologist and
to affirm that they are good mothers. Children at mother of a child who attended this school for fif-
teen months, my analysis is based on my observa-
nursery school are taught in turn that they must
consume their entire meal according to school tions, on discussions with other mothers, daily con-
rituals. versations and an interview with my son's teacher,
examination of obentv magazines and cookbooks,
Food in an obentv is an everyday practice of
participation in school rituals, outings, and
Japanese life. While its adoption at the nursery
Mothers' Association meetings, and the multifari-
school level may seem only natural to Japanese and
ous experiences of my son and myself as we faced
unremarkable to outsiders, I will argue in this arti-
the obentv process every day.
cle that the obentv is invested with a gendered
I conclude that obentvs as a routine, task, and
state ideology. Overseen by the authorities of the
art form of nursery school culture are endowed
nursery school, an institution which is linked to, if
with ideological and gendered meanings that the
not directly monitored by, the state, the practice of
state indirectly manipulates. The manipulation is
the obentv situates the producer as a woman and
neither total nor totally coercive, however, and I
mother, and the consumer, as a child of a mother
and a student of a school. Food in this context is argue that pleasure and creativity for both mother
and child are also products of the obentv.
neither casual nor arbitrary. Eaten quickly in its
entirety by the student, the obentz must be fash-
ioned by the mother so as to expedite this chore for Cultural Ritual and State Ideology
the child. Both mother and child are being
watched, judged, and constructed; and it is only As anthropologists have long understood, not only
through their joint effort that the goal can be are the worlds we inhabit symbolically constructed,
195
196 196
ANTHROPOLOGICAL
ANTHROPOLOGICAL
QUARTERLY

but also the constructionsof our culturalsymbols ibi (Barthes1957: 109-111)-allows the termsand
are endowedwith, or have the potentialfor, power. relationsof ideologyto spill into and infiltrateour
How we see reality,in otherwords,is also how we everydaylives.
live it. So the conventionsby which we recognize A world of commodities,gender inequalities,
our universeare also those by whicheach of us as- and power differentialsis seen not therefore in
sumesour place and behaviorwithinthat universe. these terms but as a naturalizedenvironment,one
Cultureis, in this sense, doublyconstructive:con- that makessensebecauseit has becomeour experi-
structingboth the worldfor peopleand peoplefor ence to live it and accept it in preciselythis way.
specificworlds. This commonsenseacceptanceof a particularworld
The fact that culture is not necessarilyinno- is the workof ideology,and it worksby concealing
cent, and power not necessarilytransparent,has the coerciveand repressiveelementsof our every-
been revealedby much theoreticalworkconducted day routinesbut also by makingthose routinesof
both insideand outsidethe disciplineof anthropol- the everydayfamiliar, desirable,and simply our
ogy. The scholarshipof the neo-MarxistLouis Al- own. This is the criticalelementof Althusser'sno-
thusser (1971), for example, has encouragedthe tion of ideologicalpower:ideologyis so potentbe-
conceptualizationof poweras a force which oper- cause it becomesnot only ours but us-the terms
ates in ways that are subtle, disguised, and ac- and machineryby whichwe structureourselvesand
ceptedas everydaysocialpractice.Althusserdiffer- identifywho we are.
entiatedbetweentwo majorstructuresof powerin
modern capitalist societies. The first, he called, Japanese Food as Cultural Myth
(Repressive)State Apparatus(SA), whichis power
that the state wields and manages primarily
An authorin one obentomagazine,the type of me-
throughthe threat of force. Here the state sanc- dium-sizedpublicationthat, filled with glossy pic-
tions the usage of power and repressionthrough
tures of obentosand ideas and recipesfor success-
such legitimizedmechanismsas the law and police
fully recreatingthem, sells in the bookstoresacross
(1971: 143-5).
Japan, declares, ". . . the making of the obentv is
Contrastedwith this is a second structureof the one most worrisomeconcernfacing the mother
power-Ideological State Apparatus(es) (ISA). of a child going off to school for the first time
These are institutionswhich have some overtfunc-
(Shufunotomo1980:insidecover).Anotherobentv
tion other than a political and/or administrative
journal,this one heftierand packagedin the ency-
one:mass media,education,healthand welfare,for
clopedic series of the prolificwomen'spublishing
example.More numerous,disparate,and function- firm, Shufunotomo, articulates the same social
ally polymorphousthan the SA, the ISA exert fact: "first-timeobentvsare a strainon bothparent
powernot primarilythroughrepressionbut through and child" ("hajimete no obentv wa, oya mo ko
ideology.Designedand acceptedas practiceswith mo kinchvshimasu") (Shufunotomo 1981: 55).
anotherpurpose-to educate (the school system), An outside observermight ask: What is the
entertain(film industry),inform(news media),the real sourceof worryover obento?Is it the food it-
ISA serve not only their stated objectivebut also self or the entranceof the youngchild into school
an unstatedone-that of indoctrinatingpeopleinto for the first time? Yet, as one look at a typical
seeing the world a certain way and of accepting child'sobentv-a smallbox packagedwith a fiveor
certain identities as their own within that world six-course miniaturizedmeal whose pieces and
(1971: 143-7). parts are artisticallyarranged,perfectlycut, and
While both structuresof poweroperatesimul- neatly arranged-would immediately reveal, no
taneouslyand complementarily,it is the ISA, ac- food is "just"food in Japan.What is not so imme-
cordingto Althusser,whichin capitalistsocietiesis diately apparent,however,is why a small child
the more influentialof the two. Disguised and with limitedappetiteand perhapsscant interestin
screenedby anotheroperation,the powerof ideol- food is the recipientof a meal as elaborateand as
ogy in ISA can be both more far-reachingand in- elaboratelypreparedas any made for an entire
sidiousthan the SA's powerof coercion.Hiddenin family or invitedguests?
the movieswe watch,the musicwe hear,the liquor Certainly,in Japanmuchattentionis focussed
we drink, the textbookswe read, it is overlooked on the obentv, investingit with a significancefar
becauseit is protectedand its protection-or its al- beyond that of the merely pragmatic,functional
JAPANESE MOTHERSAND
JAPANESE MOTHERS AND OBENTS
OBENTOS 197
197

one of sustaining a child with nutritional foodstuffs. only to retain, as much as possible, the innate natu-
Since this investment beyond the pragmatic is true ralness of ingredients-shopping daily so food is
of any food prepared in Japan, it is helpful to ex- fresh and leaving much of it either raw or only
amine culinary codes for food preparation that op- minimally cooked-but also to recreate in prepared
erate generally in the society before focussing on food the promise and appearance of being "natu-
children's obentus. ral." As Richie writes, ". . . the emphasis is on
As has been remarked often about Japanese presentation of the natural rather than the natural
food, the key element is appearance. Food must be itself. It is not what nature has wrought that ex-
organized, re-organized, arranged, re-arranged, cites admiration but what man has wrought with
stylized, and re-stylized to appear in a design that what nature has wrought" (1985: 11).
is visually attractive. Presentation is critical: not to This naturalization of food is rendered
the extent that taste and nutrition are displaced, as through two main devices. One is by constantly
has been sometimes attributed to Japanese food, hinting at and appropriating the nature that comes
but to the degree that how food looks is at least as from outside-decorating food with seasonal re-
important as how it tastes and how good and sus- minders, such as a maple leaf in the fall or a flower
taining it is for one's body. in the spring, serving in-season fruits and vegeta-
As Donald Richie has pointed out in his elo- bles, and using season-coordinated dishes such as
quent and informative book A taste of Japan glassware in the summer and heavy pottery in the
(1985), presentational style is the guiding principle winter. The other device, to some degree the in-
by which food is prepared in Japan, and the style is verse of the first, is to accentuate and perfect the
conditioned by a number of codes. One code is for preparation process to such an extent that the food
smallness, separation, and fragmentation. Nothing appears not only to be natural, but more nearly
large is allowed, so portions are all cut to be bite- perfect than nature without human intervention
sized, served in small amounts on tiny individual ever could be. This is nature made artificial. Thus,
dishes, and are arranged on a table (or on a tray, by naturalization, nature is not only taken in by
or in an obentv box) in an array of small, separate Japanese cuisine, but taken over.
containers.1 There is no one big dinner plate with It is this ability both to appropriate "real" na-
three large portions of vegetable, starch, and meat ture (the maple leaf on the tray) and to stamp the
as in American cuisine. Consequently the eye is human reconstruction of that nature as "natural"
pulled not toward one totalizing center but away to that lends Japanese food its potential for cultural
a multiplicity of de-centered parts.2 and ideological manipulation. It is what Barthes
Visually, food substances are presented ac- calls a second order myth (1957: 114-7): a lan-
cording to a structural principle not only of seg- guage which has a function people accept as only
mentation but also of opposition. Foods are broken pragmatic-the sending of roses to lovers, the con-
or cut to make contrasts of color, texture, and sumption of wine with one's dinner, the cleaning up
shape. Foods are meant to oppose one another and a mother does for her child-which is taken over
clash: pink against green, roundish foods against by some interest or agenda to serve a different
angular ones, smooth substances next to rough end-florists who can sell roses, liquor companies
ones. This oppositional code operates not only who can market wine, conservative politicians who
within and between the foodstuffs themselves, but campaign for a gendered division of labor with
also between the attributes of the food and those of women kept at home. The first order of language
the containers in or on which they are placed: a ("language-object"), thus emptied of its original
circular mound in a square dish, a bland colored meaning, is converted into an empty form by which
food set against a bright plate, a translucent sweet it can assume a new, additional, second order of
in a heavily textured bowl (Richie 1985: 40-1). signification ("metalanguage" or "second-order
The container is as important as what is con- semiological system"). As Barthes points out how-
tained in Japanese cuisine, but it is really the con- ever, the primary meaning is never lost. Rather, it
tainment that is stressed, that is, how food has remains and stands as an alibi, the cover under
been (re)constructed and (re)arranged from nature which the second, politicized meaning can hide.
to appear, in both beauty and freshness, perfectly Roses sell better, for example, when lovers view
natural. This stylizing of nature is a third code by them as a vehicle to express love rather than the
which presentation is directed; the injunction is not means by which a company stays in business.
198 ANTHROPOLOGICAL
19
ATHOPLOICL QUARTERLY
UATEL

At one level, food is just food in Japan-the in a political order desired and directed by the
mediumby whichhumanssustaintheir natureand state.
health. Yet under and through this code of In moderncapitalistsocietiessuch as Japan,it
pragmatics,Japanesecuisine carries other mean- is the school, accordingto Althusser,which as-
ings that in Barthes'terms are mythological.One sumesthe primaryrole of ideologicalstate appara-
of these is nationalidentity:food being appropri- tus. A greater segment of the populationspends
ated as a sign of the culture.To be Japaneseis to longerhoursand moreyears here than in previous
eat Japanesefood, as so many Japaneseconfirm historicalperiods.Also educationhas now taken
when they travel to other countriesand cite the over from other institutions,such as religion,the
greatestproblemthey encounterto be the absence pedagogicalfunctionof beingthe majorshaperand
of "real" Japanese food. Stated the other way inculcatorof knowledgefor the society. Concur-
around,rice is so symbolicallycentralto Japanese rently, as Althusserhas pointedout for capitalist
culture (meals and obentrs often being assembled modernism(1971: 152, 156), there is the gradual
with rice as the core and all otherdishes,multifari-
replacementof repressionby ideologyas the prime
ous as they may be, as mere complimentsor side mechanismfor behaviorenforcement.Influenced
dishes) that Japanesesay they can never feel full less by the threatof force and moreby the devices
until they have consumedtheir rice at a particular that presentand informus of the worldwe live in
meal or at least once duringthe day.3 and the subjectivitiesthat worlddemands,knowl-
Embedded within this insistence on eating
edge and ideology become fused, and education
Japanesefood,therebyreconfirming one as a mem-
emergesas the apparatusfor pedagogicaland ideo-
ber of the culture,are the principlesby whichJap-
logical indoctrination.
anese food is customarilyprepared:perfection,la- In practice,as schoolteacheschildrenhowand
bor,smalldistinguishableparts,opposingsegments, what to think,it also shapesthem for the rolesand
beauty, and the stamp of nature.Overarchingall
these moredetailedcodingsare two that guide the positionsthey will later assume as adult members
of the society. How the social order is organized
makingand ideologicalappropriationof the nurs-
through vectors of gender, power, labor, and/or
ery schoolobentvmostdirectly:1) thereis an order class, in otherwords,is not only as importanta les-
to the food: a right way to do things, with every-
son as the basics of reading and writing, but is
thing in its place and each place coordinatedwith transmittedthroughand embeddedin those class-
every other, and 2) the one who preparesthe food room lessons. Knowledgethus is not only socially
takes on the responsibilityof producingfood to the
standardsof perfectionand exactness that Japa- constructed,but also differentiallyacquiredaccord-
nese cuisine demands.Food may not be casual, in ing to who one is or will be in the politicalsociety
one will enterin lateryears.What preciselysociety
otherwords,nor the producercasualin her produc-
tion. In these two rulesis a messageboth aboutso- requiresin the way of workers,citizens, and par-
cial orderand the role gender plays in sustaining ents will be the conditiondeterminingor influenc-
and nourishingthat order. ing instructionin the schools.
This latterequation,of course,dependson two
factors:1) the convergenceor divergenceof differ-
School, State, and Subjectivity ent interestsin whatis desiredas subjectivities,and
2) the powerany particularinterest,includingthat
In additionto languageand secondordermeanings of the state, has in exertingits desiresfor subjects
I suggestthat the ritualsand routinessurrounding on or throughthe systemof education.In the case
obentvsin Japanesenurseryschools present,as it of Japan, the state wields enormouscontrolover
were, a third order,manipulation.This order is a the systematizationof education.Throughits Min-
use of a currencyalreadyestablished-one that has istry of Education(Monbusho),one of the most
already appropriateda language of utility (food powerfuland influentialministriesin the govern-
feeds hunger)to expressand implantculturalbe- ment, educationis centralizedand managedby a
haviors.State-guidedschoolsborrowthis codedap- state bureaucracythat regulatesalmost every as:
paratus:usingthe naturalconvenienceand coverof pect of the educationalprocess.On any given day,
food not only to code a culturalorder,but also to for example,what is taught in every publicschool
socialize childrenand mothers into the gendered followsthe same curriculum,adheresto the same
rolesand subjectivitiesthey are expectedto assume structure,and is informedby textbooksfrom the
JAPANESE MOTHERS AND OBENTOS 199
199

prescribed list. Teachers are nationally screened, these routines and rituals may be the format
school boards uniformly appointed (rather than through which subjects are taught in higher grades,
elected), and students institutionally exhorted to they are both form and subject in the yochien.
obey teachers given their legal authority, for exam- While the state (through its agency, the Min-
ple, to write secret reports (naishinsho), that may istry of Education) has no direct mandate over
obstruct a student's entrance into high school.4 nursery school attendance, its influence is neverthe-
The role of the state in Japanese education is less significant. First, authority over how the
not limited, however, to such extensive but codified yochien is run is in the hands of the Ministry of
authorities granted to the Ministry of Education. Education. Second, most parents and teachers see
Even more powerful is the principle of the the yochien as the first step to the system of com-
"gakureki shakkai" (lit. academic pedigree soci- pulsory education that starts in the first grade and
ety) by which careers of adults are determined by is closely controlled by Monbusho. The principal of
the schools they attend as youth. A reflection and the yochien my son attended, for example, stated
construction of the new economic order of post-war that he saw his main duty to be preparing children
Japan,5 school attendance has become the single to enter more easily the rigors of public education
most important determinant of who will achieve soon to come. Third, the rules and patterns of
the most desirable positions in industry, govern-
"group living" (shudanseikatsu), a Japanese social
ment, and thle professions. School attendance is it- ideal that is reiterated nationwide by political lead-
self based on a single criterion: a system of en-
ers, corporate management, and marriage counsel-
trance exams which determines entrance selection
ors, is first introduced to the child in nursery
and it is to this end-preparation for exams-that school.7
school, even at the nursery school level, is increas- The entry into nursery school marks a transi-
ingly oriented. Learning to follow directions, do as tion both away from home and into the "real
one is told, and "ganbaru" (Asanuma 1987) are so-
world," which is generally judged to be difficult,
cial imperatives, sanctioned by the state, and
even traumatic, for the Japanese child (Peak
taught in the schools.
1989). The obentv is intended to ease a child's dis-
comfiture and to allow a child's mother to manu-
Nursery School and Ideological Appropriation of facture something of herself and the home to ac-
the Obentu company the child as s/he moves into the
potentially threatening outside world. Japanese use
The nursery school stands outside the structure of the cultural categories of soto and uchi; soto con-
notes the outside, which in being distanced and
compulsory education in Japan. Most nursery
schools are private; and, though not compelled by other, is dirty and hostile; and uchi identifies as
the state, a greater proportion of the three to six- clean and comfortable what is inside and familiar.
The school falls initially and, to some degree, per-
year old population of Japan attends pre-school
than in any other industrialized nation (Tobin petually, into a category of soto. What is ulti-
1989; Hendry 1986; Boocock 1989). mately the definition and location of uchi, by con-
Differentiated from the hoikuen, another pre- trast, is the home, where family and mother
school institution with longer hours which is more reside.8 By producing something from the home, a
like daycare than school,6 the yochien (nursery mother both girds and goads her child to face what
school) is widely perceived as instructional, not is inevitable in the world that lies beyond. This is
necessarily in a formal curriculum but more in in- the mother's role and her gift; by giving of herself
doctrination to attitudes and structures of Japanese and the home (which she both symbolically repre-
schooling. Children learn less about reading and sents and in reality manages9), the soto of the
writing than they do about how to become a Japa- school is, if not transformed into the uchi of home,
nese student, and both parts of this made more bearable by this sign of domestic and
formula-Japanese and student-are equally maternal hearth a child can bring to it.
stressed. As Rohlen has written, "social order is The obentv is filled with the meaning of
generated" in the nursery school, first and fore- mother and home in a number of ways. The first is
most, by a system of routines (1989: 10, 21). Edu- by sheer labor. Women spend what seems to be an
cational routines and rituals are therefore of inordinate amount of time on the production of this
heightened importance in yochien, for whereas one item. As an experienced obentv maker, I can
2W
200 QUARTERLY
ANTHROPOLOGICAL
QUARTERLY

attest to the intenseattentionand energydevoted viable and successful Japanese in the realms of
to this one chore. On the average,mothersspend schooland later work.
20-45 minutes every morningcooking,preparing, The exhortation to consume one's entire
and assemblingthe contentsof one obentufor one obentvl3is articulatedand enforcedby the nursery
nurseryschool-agedchild. In addition,the previous school teacher.Makinghigh dramaout of eating
day they have planned,shopped,and often organ- by, for example,singinga song;collectivelythank-
ized a suppermeal with left-oversin mind for the ing Buddha (in the case of Buddhist nursery
next day's obentu. Frequentlywomen10discuss schools),one's motherfor makingthe obento,and
obentoideaswith othermothers,scan obentocook- one's father for providingthe means to make the
books or magazinesfor recipes,buy or make ob- obentv;havingtwo assignedclass helperspourthe
jects with which to decorateor contain (part of) tea, the class eats togetheruntil everyonehas fin-
the obento,and perhapsmake small food portions ished.The teacherexaminesthe children'sobentos,
to freeze and retrievefor futureobentu." makingsure the food is all consumed,and encour-
Of course, effort alone does not necessarily aging, sometimesscolding,childrenwho are taking
producea successfulobentm.Casualnesswas never too long. Slow eatersdo not fare well in this ritual,
indulged,I observed,and even motherswith chil- becausethey hold up the other students,who as a
dren who wouldeat anythingpreparedobentvsas peer group also monitora child's eating. My son
elaborateas anyoneelse's. Such labor is intended oftencomplainedabouta childwhoseslownessover
for the child but also the mother:it is a sign of a food meantthat the otherswerekept inside(rather
woman'scommitmentas a motherand her inspir- than being allowedto play on the playground)for
ing her childto beingsimilarlycommittedas a stu- much of the lunch period.
dent. The obento is thus a representationof what Ultimately and officially, it is the teacher,
the motheris and what the child shouldbecome.A however,whose role and authorityit is to watch
model for school is added to what is gift and re- overfoodconsumptionand to judgethe personcon-
minderfrom home. sumingfood. Her surveillancecoversboth the stu-
Thisequationis spelledout morepreciselyin a dent and the mother, who in the matter of the
nursery school rule-all of the obento must be obentm,must work together.The child'sjob is to
eaten. Thoughon the face of it this is petty and eat the food and the mother'sto prepareit. Hence,
mundane,the injunctionis taken very seriouslyby the responsibilityand executionof one'stask is not
nurseryschoolteachersand is one not easily real- only sharedbut conditionedby the other.My son's
ized by very small children.The logic is that it is teacher would talk with me daily about the pro-
time for the childto meet certainexpectations.One gress he was making finishing his obentvs. Al-
of the mainagendasof the nurseryschool,after all, though the overt subject of discussionwas my
is to introduceand indoctrinatechildreninto the child, most of what was said was directedto me:
patternsand rigorsof Japaneseeducation(Rohlen what I could do in orderto get David to consume
1989;Sano 1989;Lewis 1989). And Japaneseedu- his lunch moreeasily.
cation, by all accounts, is not about fun (Duke The intensityof these talks struckme at the
1986). time as curious.We had just settled in Japanand
Learningis hard work with few choices or David, a highly verbalchild, was attendinga for-
pleasures.Even obentosfrom home stop once the eign school in a foreignlanguagehe had not yet
child entersfirstgrade.'2The mealsthereare insti- mastered;he was the only non-Japanesechild in
tutional:largely bland,'unappealing, and prepared the school.Many of his behaviorsduringthis time
with only nutritionin mind. To ease a youngster weredisruptive:for example,he went up and down
into these upcoming(educational,social, discipli- the line of childrenduringmorningexerciseshit-
nary, culinary) routines, yochien obentos are ting each child on the head. Hamada-sensei(the
designedto be pleasingand personal.The obentvis teacher), however,chose to discuss the obentvs.I
also designed,however,as a test for the child. And thoughtsurely David'ssurvivalin and adjustment
the double meaningis not unintentional.A struc- to this environmentdependedmuch moreon other.
ture already filled with a significationof mother factors,such as learningJapanese.Yet it was the
and home is then emptiedto providea new form: obent that was discussedwith such recallof detail
one now also writtenwith the ideologicaldemands ("Davidate all his peas today,but not a singlecar-
of beinga memberof Japanesecultureas well as a rot until I asked him to do so three times") and
JAPANESE MOTHERS AND OBENTS
OBENT7S 201
201

seriousness that I assumed her attention was being not manage the multifarious and constant rituals of
misplaced. The manifest reference was to box- nursery school. And for those who do not manage
lunches, but was not the latent reference to some- there is a penalty which the child learns either to
thing else?1 avoid or wish to avoid. Seeking the acceptance of
Of course, there was another message, for me his peers, the student develops the aptitude, will-
and my child. It was an injunction to follow direc- ingness, and in the case of my son-whose outspo-
tions, obey rules, and accept the authority of the kenness and individuality were the characteristics
school system. All of the latter were embedded in most noted in this culture-even the desire to con-
and inculcated through certain rituals: the nursery form to the highly ordered and structured practices
school, as any school (except such non-conventional of nursery school life. As Althusser (1971) wrote
ones as Waldorf and Montessori) and practically about ideology: the mechanism works when and be-
cause ideas about the world and particular roles in
any social or institutional practice in Japan, was so
that world that serve other (social, political, eco-
heavily ritualized and ritualistic that the very form
of ritual took on a meaning and value in and of nomic, state) agendas become familiar and one's
itself (Rohlen 1989: 21, 27-8). Both the school day own.
and school year of the nursery school were organ- Rohlen makes a similar point: that what is
ized by these rituals. The day, apart from two free taught and learned in nursery school is social order.
Called shadanseikatsu or group life, it means or-
periods, for example, was broken by discrete rou-
tines-morning exercises, arts and crafts, gym in- ganization into a group where a person's subjectiv-
struction, singing-most of which were named and ity is determined by group membership and not
scheduled. The school year was also segmented into "the assumption of choice and rational self-inter-
and marked by three annual events-sports day est" (1989: 30). A child learns in nursery school to
be with others, think like others, and act in tandem
(und&kai) in the fall, winter assembly (seikatsu
with others. This lesson is taught primarily through
happyvkai) in December, and dance festival (bon
the precision and constancy of basic routines: "Or-
odori) in the summer. Energy was galvanized by
these rituals, which demanded a degree of order as der is shaped gradually by repeated practice of se-
well as a discipline and self-control that non-Japa- lected daily tasks . . . that socialize the children to
nese would find remarkable. high degrees of neatness and uniformity" (p. 21).
Yet a feeling of coerciveness is rarely experienced
Significantly, David's teacher marked his suc-
cessful integration into the school system by his by the child when three principles of nursery school
instruction are in place: 1) school routines are
mastery not of the language or other cultural skills, made "desirable and pleasant" (p. 30), 2) the
but of the school's daily routines-walking in line,
teacher disguises her authority by trying to make
brushing his teeth after eating, arriving at school the group the voice and unit of authority, and 3)
early, eagerly participating in greeting and depar- the regimentation of the school is administered by
ture ceremonies, and completing all of his obentu
an attitude of "intimacy" on the part of the teach-
on time. Not only had he adjusted to the school
ers and administrators (p. 30). In short, when the
structure, but he had also become assimilated to desires and routines of the school are made into the
the other children. Or restated, what once had been
desires and routines of the child, they are made
externally enforced now became ideologically desir-
acceptable.
able; the everyday practices had moved from being
alien (soto) to familiar (uchi) to him, from, that is,
being someone else's to his own. My American Mothering as Gendered Ideological State
child had to become, in some sense, Japanese, and Apparatus
where his teacher recognized this Japaneseness was
in the daily routines such as finishing his obentv. The rituals surrounding the obent's consumption
The lesson learned early, which David learned as in the school situate what ideological meanings the
well, is that not adhering to routines such as com- obento transmits to the child. The process of pro-
pleting one's obentv on time leads to not only ad- duction within the home, by contrast, organizes its
monishment from the teacher, but rejection from somewhat different ideological package for the
the other students. mother. While the two sets of meanings are inter-
The nursery school system differentiates be- twined, the mother is faced with different expecta-
tween the child who does and the child who does tions in the preparation of the obento than the
202
202 ANTHROPOLOGICAL QUARTERLY
ANTHROPOLOGICAL QUARTERLY

child is in its consumption. At a pragmatic level soy sauce and ketchup, and 5) design obento-re-
the child must simply eat the lunch box, whereas lated items as much as possible by the mother's
the mother's job is far more complicated. The onus own hands including the obentu bag
for her is getting the child to consume what she has (obentrfukuro) in which the obento is carried.
made, and the general attitude is that this is far The strictures propounded by publications
more the mother's responsibility (at this nursery seem to be endless. In practice I found that visual
school, transitional stage) than the child's. And this appearance and appeal were stressed by the
is no simple or easy task. mothers. By contrast, the directive to use obentmas
Much of what is written, advised, and dis- a training process-adding new foods and getting
cussed about the obento has this aim explicitly in older children to use chopsticks and learn to tie the
mind: that is making food in such a way as to facil-
furoshikile-was emphasized by those judging the
itate the child's duty to eat it. One magazine obento at the school. Where these two sets of con-
advises: cerns met was, of course, in the child's success or
failure completing the obentr. Ultimately this out-
The first day of taking obento is a worrisomething for
motherand "boku"(child"6)too. Put in easy-to-eatfoods
come and the mother's role in it, was how the
that your child likes and is already used to and prepare obento was judged in my experience.
this food in small portions(Shufunotomo 1980: 28). The aestheticization of the obentv is by far its
most intriguing aspect for a cultural anthropologist.
Filled with pages of recipes, hints, pictures, and Aesthetic categories and codes that operate gener-
ideas, the magazine codes each page with "helpful" ally for Japanese cuisine are applied, though ad-
headings: justed, to the nursery school format. Substances
are many but petite, kept segmented and opposed,
- First off, easy-to-eatis step one.
- Next is being able to consumethe obentowithoutleav-
and manipulated intensively to achieve an appear-
ance that often changes or disguises the food. As a
ing anythingbehind.
- Make it in such a way for the child to becomeproficient mother insisted to me, the creation of a bear out of
in the use of chopsticks. miniature hamburgers and rice, or a flower from an
- Decorate and fill it with cute dreams (kawairashi
apple or peach, is meant to sustain a child's inter-
yume). est in the underlying food. Yet my child, at least,
- For older classes (nencho), make obento filled with
variety. rarely noticed or appreciated the art I had so labo-
- Once he's become used to it, balance foods your child riously contrived. As for other children, I observed
likes with those he dislikes. that even for those who ate with no obvious "fussi-
- For kids who hate vegetables ....
- For kids who hate fish .... ness," mothers' efforts to create food as style con-
- For kids who hate meat. . . (pp. 28-53). tinued all year long.
Thus much of a woman's labor over obento
Laced throughout cookbooks and other magazines stems from some agenda other than that of getting
devoted to obento, the obento guidelines issued by the child to eat an entire lunch-box. The latter is
the school and sent home in the school flier every certainly a consideration and it is the rationale as
two weeks, and the words of Japanese mothers and well as cover for women being scrutinized by the
teachers discussing obentv, are a number of princi- school's authority figure-the teacher. Yet two
ples: 1) food should be made easy to eat: portions other factors are important. One is that the obento
cut or made small and manipulable with fingers or is but one aspect of the far more expansive and
chopsticks, (child-size) spoons and forks, skewers, continuous commitment a mother is expected to
toothpicks, muffin tins, containers, 2) portions make for and to her child. "Kyoiku mama" (edu-
should be kept small so the obent can be con- cation mother) is the term given to a mother who
sumed quickly and without any left-overs, 3) food executes her responsibility to oversee and manage
that a child does not yet like should be eventually the education of her children with excessive vigor.
added so as to remove fussiness (sukikirai) in food And yet this excess is not only demanded by the
habits, 4) make the obeno pretty, cute, and visu- state even at the level of the nursery school; it is
ally changeable by presenting the food attractively conventionally given by mothers. Mothers who
and by adding non-food objects such as silver pa- manage the home and children, often in virtual ab-
per, foil, toothpick flags, paper napkins, cute sence of a husband/father, are considered the fac-
handkerchiefs, and variously shaped containers for tor that may make or break a child as s/he ad-
JAPANESE MOTHERSAND OBENT7JS
OBENTOS 203

vances towards that pivotal point of the entrance from the agenda the obentv was expected to fill at
examinations.17 school. Or stated alternatively, in the role that fe-
In this sense, just as the obentv is meant as a males in Japan are highly pressured and en-
device to assist a child in the struggles of first ad- couraged to assume as domestic manager, mother,
justing to school, the mother's role generally is per- and wife, there is, besides the endless and onerous
ceived as being the support, goad, and cushion for responsibilities, also an opportunity for play. Sig-
the child. She will perform endless tasks to assist in nificantly, women find play and creativity not
her child's study: sharpen pencils and make mid- outside their social roles but within them.
night snacks as the child studies, attend cram Saying this is not to deny the constraints and
schools to verse herself in subjects her child is weak surveillance under which Japanese women labor at
in, make inquiries as to what school is most appro- their obentv. Like their children at school, they are
priate for her child, and consult with her child's watched by not only the teacher but each other,
teachers. If the child succeeds, a mother is compli- and perfect what they create, partially at least, so
mented; if the child fails, a mother is blamed. as to be confirmed as a good and dutiful mother in
Thus at the nursery school level, the mother the eyes of other mothers. The enthusiasm with
starts her own preparation for this upcoming role. which they absorb this task then is like my son's
Yet the jobs and energies demanded of a nursery acceptance and internalization of the nursery
school mother are, in themselves, surprisingly con- school routines; no longer enforced from outside it
suming. Just as the mother of an entering student becomes adopted as one's own.
is given a book listing all the pre-entry tasks she The making of the obento is, I would thus ar-
must complete, for example, making various bags gue, a double-edged sword for women. By relishing
and containers, affixing labels to all clothes in pre- its creation (for all the intense labor expended, only
cisely the right place and with the size exactly once or twice did I hear a mother voice any com-
right, she will be continually expected thereafter to plaint about this task), a woman is ensconcing her-
attend Mothers' Association meetings, accompany self in the ritualization and subjectivity (subjec-
children on fieldtrips, wash the clothes and indoor tion) of being a mother in Japan. She is alienated
shoes of her child every week, add required items in the sense that others will dictate, inspect, and
to a child's bag on a day's notice, and generally be manage her work. On the reverse side, however, it
available. Few mothers at the school my son at- is precisely through this work that the woman ex-
tended could afford to work in even part-time or presses, identifies, and constitutes herself. As Al-
temporary jobs. Those women who did tended ei- thusser pointed out, ideology can never be totally
ther to keep their outside work a secret or be repri- abolished (1971: 170); the elaborations that women
manded by a teacher for insufficient devotion to work on "natural" food produce an obentv which is
their child. Motherhood, in other words, is institu- creative and, to some degree, a fulfilling and per-
tionalized through the child's school and such rou- sonal statement of themselves.
tines as making the obentv as a full-time, kept-at- Minami, an informant, revealed how both re-
home job.18 strictive and pleasurable the daily rituals of moth-
The second factor in a woman's devotion to erhood can be. The mother of two children-one,
over-elaborating her child's lunch-box is that her aged three and one, a nursery school student,
experience doing this becomes a part of her and a Minami had been a professional opera singer
statement, in some sense, of who she is. Marx before marrying at the relatively late age of 32.
writes that labor is the most "essential" aspect to Now, her daily schedule was organized by routines
our species-being and that the products we produce associated with her child's nursery school: for ex-
are the encapsulation of us and therefore our pro- ample, making the obentu, taking her daughter to
ductivity (1970: 71-76). Likewise, women are what school and picking her up, attending Mothers' As-
they are through the products they produce. An sociation meetings, arranging daily play dates, and
obentv therefore is not only a gift or test for a keeping the school uniform clean. While Minami
child, but a representation and product of the wo- wished to return to singing, if only on a part-time
man herself. Of course, the two ideologically con- basis, she said that the demands of motherhood,
verge, as has been stated already, but I would also particularly those imposed by her child's attend-
suggest that there is a potential disjoining. I sensed ance at nursery school, frustrated this desire.
that the women were laboring for themselves apart Secretly snatching only minutes out of any day to
204 ANTHROPOLOGICAL
QUARTERLY
LQ
0T

practice,Minamimissedsingingand told me that 30).


beinga motherin Japanmeansthe exclusionof al- The impulse to work and re-worknature in
most anythingelse.1' these obentois most obviousperhapsin the strate-
Despitethis frustration,however,Minamidid gies used to transform,shape, and/or disguise
not behavelike a frustratedwoman.Rathershe de- foods.EverymotherI knewcame up with her own
voted to her motheringan energy, creativity,and repertoireof such techniques,and every obento
intelligenceI foundto be standardin the Japanese magazineor cookbookI examinedoffereda special
mothersI knew. She plannedspecial outings for sectionon these devices.It is importantto keep in
her childrenat least two or three times a week,or- mind that these are treatedas only flourishes:em-
ganizedgames that she knew they wouldlike and bellishmentsaddedto partsof an obentvcomposed
wouldteach them cognitiveskills, createdher own of many parts. The followingis a list from one
stories and designedcostumesfor afternoonplay, magazine:lemonpieces made into butterflies,hard
and shoppeddaily for the meals she preparedwith boiled eggs into daruma (popularJapaneselegen-
her children'sfavoritefoods in mind. Minamitold dary figure of a monk withouthis eyes), sausage
me often that she wishedshe could sing more,but cut into flowers,a hard-boiledegg decoratedas a
neveronce did she complainabouther children,the baby,an applepiece cut into a leaf, a radishflaked
choresof child-raising,or being a mother.The at- into a flower, a cucumbercut like a flower, a
tentivenessdisplayedotherwisein her mothering mikan (nectarineorange) piece arrangedinto a
was exemplifiedmost fully in Minami'sobentvs. basket,a boat with a sail made from a cucumber,
No two were ever alike, each had at least four or skeweredsausage,radishshapedlike a mushroom,
five parts, and she kept trying out new ideas for a quail egg flaked into a cherry, twisted mikan
both new foodsand new designs.She took prideas piece, sausage cut to becomea crab, a patterned
well as pleasurein her obentohandicraft;but while cucumber,a ribbonedcarrot, a floweredtomato,
Minami'sobenrocreativitywas impressive,it was cabbageleaf flower,a potatocut to be a worm,a
not unusual. carrotdesignedas a red shoe,an applecut to simu-
Examples of such extraordinaryobentv cre- late a pineapple(pp. 57-60).
ations from an obento magazineinclude:1) ("do- Nature is not only transformedbut also sup-
nut obentv"):two donuts,two wienerscut to look plementedby store-boughtor mother-madeobjects
like a worm, two cut pieces of apple, two small which are preciselyarrangedin the obento. The
cheese rolls, one hard-boiledegg made to look like former come from an entire industry and com-
a rabbitwith leaf ears and pickleeyes and set in an modificationof the obentoprocess:completeracks
aluminummuffintin, cute papernapkinadded, 2) or sectionsin storessellingobentoboxes,additional
(wiener doll obenro):a bed of rice with two doll small containers,obentobags, cups, chopstickand
creationsmade out of wienerparts (each consists utensilcontainers(all these with variouscute char-
of eight pieces comprisinghat, hair, head, arms, acters or designs on the front), cloth and paper
body, legs), a line of pink ginger, a line of green napkins, foil, aluminum tins, colored ribbon or
parsley,paperflag of Franceadded, 3) (vegetable string,plasticskewers,toothpickswith paperflags,
flowerand tulip obento):a bed of rice laced with and paper dividers. The latter are the objects
choppedhard-boiledegg, three tulip flowersmade mothers are encouragedand praised for making
out of cut wienerswith spinachpreciselyarranged themselves: obentu bags, napkins, and
as stem and leaves, a fruit salad with two raisins, handkerchiefswith appliqueddesignsor the child's
threecookedpeaches,threepiecesof cookedapple, name embroidered.These supplementsto the food,
4) (sweetheart doll obento-abekku ningyo no the arrangementof the food, and the obentobox's
obentv):in a two-sectionobentobox there are four dividingwalls (removableand adjustable)furnish
rice balls on one side, each with a differentcenter, the orderof the obento. Everythingappearscrisp
on the otherside are two dolls madeof quail'seggs and neat with each part kept in its own place:two
for heads,eyes and mouthadded,bodiesof cucum- tiny hamburgersset firmlyatop a bed of rice;vege-
ber, arrangedas if lying downwith two rawcarrots tables in a separatecompartmentin the box; fruit
for the pillow, covers made of one flower-cut arrangedin a muffintin.
cookedcarrot,two pieces of ham, pieces of cooked How the specificformsof obentoartistry-for
spinach,and with differentcoloredplastic skewers example,a wienercut to look like a wormand set
holdingthe dolls together(Shufunotomo1980:27, withina muffintin-are encodedsymbolicallyis a
JAPANESE MOTHERSAND
JAPANESE MOTHERS AND OBENTOS
OBENTOS 205
205

fascinating subject. Limited here by space, how- who are not only sustaining a child through food
ever, I will only offer initial suggestions. Arranging but carrying the ideological support of the culture
food into a scene recognizable by the child was an that this food embeds. No Japanese man I spoke
ideal mentioned by many mothers and cookbooks. with had or desired the experience of making a
Why those of animals, human beings, and other nursery school obentv even once, and few were
food forms (making a pineapple out of an apple, more than peripherally engaged in their children's
for example) predominate may have no other ra- education. The male is assigned a position in the
tionale than being familiar to children and easily outside world where he labors at a job for money
re-produced by mothers. Yet it is also true that this and is expected to be primarily identified by and
tendency to use a trope of realism-casting food committed to his place of work.20 Helping in the
into realistic figures-is most prevalent in the management of home and raising of children has
meals Japanese prepare for their children. Mothers not become an obvious male concern or interest in
I knew created animals and faces in supper meals Japan, even as more and more women enter what
and/or obentvs made for other outings, yet their was previously the male domain of work. Females
impulse to do this seemed not only heightened in have remained at and as the center of home in Ja-
the obentr that were sent to school but also played pan and this message too is explicitly transmitted
down in food prepared for other age groups. in both the production and consumption of entirely
What is consistent in Japanese cooking gener- female-produced obentv.
ally, as stated earlier, are the dual principles of The state accrues benefits from this arrange-
manipulation and order. Food is manipulated into ment. With children depending on the labor women
some other form than it assumes either naturally or devote to their mothering to such a degree, and
upon being cooked: lines are put into mashed pota- women being pressured as well as pleasurized in
toes, carrots are flaked, wieners are twisted and such routine maternal productions as making the
sliced. Also, food is ordered by some human rather obent--both effects encouraged and promoted by
than natural principle; everything must have neat institutional features of the educational system
boundaries and be placed precisely so those bound- heavily state-run and at least ideologically guided
aries do not merge. These two structures are the at even the nursery school level-a gendered divi-
ones most important in shaping the nursery school sion of labor is firmly set in place. Labor from
obentv as well, and the inclination to design realis- males, socialized to be compliant and hard-work-
tic imagery is primarily a means by which these ing, is more extractable when they have wives to
other culinary codes are learned by and made plea- rely on for almost all domestic and familial man-
surable for the child. The simulacrum of a pineap- agement. And females become a source of cheap
ple recreated from an apple therefore is less about labor, as they are increasingly forced to enter the
seeing the pineapple in an apple (a particular labor market to pay domestic costs (including those
form) and more about reconstructing the apple into vast debts incurred in educating children) yet are
something else (the process of transformation). increasingly constrained to low-paying part-time
The intense labor, management, commodifica- jobs because of the domestic duties they must also
tion, and attentiveness that goes into the making of bear almost totally as mothers.
an obentv laces it, however, with many and various Hence, not only do females, as mothers, oper-
meanings. Overarching all is the potential to aes- ate within the ideological state apparatus of Ja-
theticize a certain social order, a social order which pan's school system that starts semi-officially, with
is coded (in cultural and culinary terms) as Japa- the nursery school, they also operate as an ideologi-
nese. Not only is a mother making food more cal state apparatus unto themselves. Motherhood is
palatable to her nursery school child, but she is cre- state ideology, working through children at home
ating food as a more aesthetic and pleasing social and at school and through such mother-imprinted
structure. The obento's message is that the world is labor that a child carries from home to school as
constructed very precisely and that the role of any with the obentv. Hence the post-World War II con-
single Japanese in that world must be carried out ception of Japanese education as being egalitarian,
with the same degree of precision. Production is de- democratic, and with no agenda of or for gender
manding; and the producer must both keep within differentiation, does not in practice stand up. Con-
the borders of her/his role and work hard. cealed within such cultural practices as culinary
The message is also that it is women, not men, style and child-focussed mothering, is a worldview
206
206 ANTHROPOLOGICAL
ANTHROPOLOGICAL QUARTERLY
QUARTERLY

in whichthe positionand behavioran adultwill as- also noted, in this connection,that the lines of
sume has everythingto do with the anatomyshe/ these obentos resembledthose by which she was
he was bornwith. generally raised: as gender-neutral,treated as a
At the end, however,I am left with one ques- personnot "just as a girl," and being allowed a
tion. If motherhoodis not only watched and
marginto thinkfor herself.Todayshe is an excep-
manipulatedby the state but madeby it into a con- tionallyindependentwomanwho has createda life
duit for ideological indoctrination, could not id America,away from homelandaand
r herself
women subvertthe political order by redesigning r erse in
for n mer, awa ro hoelan
obent? Asking this question,a Japanesefriend, parents,almostentirelyon her own. She lovesJap-
upon readingthis paper, recalled her own exper- anese food, but the plain obents her mothermade
iences. Thoughher motherhad been conventional for her as a child,she is newlyappreciativeof now,
in most other respects, she made her children as an adult. The obentmsfed her, but did not keep
obentvsthat did not conformto the prevailingcon- her culturallyor ideologicallyattached. For this,
ventions. Basic, simple, and rarely artistic, Sawa Sawa says today, she is glad.

NOTES
AcknowledgmentsThe fieldworkon which this article is based are administered (yochien are under the authority of
was supportedby a Japan FoundationPostdoctoralFellowship. Monbusho and hoikuen are under the authority of the
I am gratefulto CharlesPiot for a thoughtfulreadingand use- Koseisho,the Ministryof Health and Welfare) and how both
ful suggestionsfor revisionand to JenniferRobertsonfor invit- feed into the largersystemof education.She emphasizesdiver-
ing my contributionto this issue. I would also like to thank sity: though certain trends are common amongst preschools,
Sawa Kurotanifor her many ethnographicstories and input, differencesin teachingstyles and philosophiesare plentifulas
and PhyllisChockand two anonymousreadersfor the valuable well.
contributionsthey made to revisionof the manuscript. 7Accordingto Rohlen(1989), familiesare incapableof in-
'As Dorinne Kondo has pointed out, however, these doctrinatingthe child into this social pattern of shindan-
cuisinal principlesmay be conditionedby factorsof both class seikatsu by their very structureand particularlyby the rela-
and circumstance.Her shitamachi (more traditionalarea of tionship(of indulgenceand dependence)between motherand
Tokyo) informants,for example,adheredonly casually to this child. For this reason and the importanceplaced on group
coding and other Japaneseshe knew followedthem morecare- structuresin Japan,the nurseryschool'sprimaryobjective,ar-
fully when preparingfood for guests rather than family and gues Rohlen,is teachingchildrenhow to assimilateinto groups.
when eating outsideratherthan inside the home (Kondo 1990: For furtherdiscussionof this point see also Peak 1989; Lewis
61-2). 1989; Sano 1989; and the Journal of Japanese Studies issue
2Rice is often, if not always, included in a meal; and it [15(1)] devotedto Japanesepreschooleducationin whichthese
may substantiallyas well as symbolicallyconstitutethe core of articles, includingBoocock's,are published.
the meal. When served at a table it is put in a large pot or 8For a succinct anthropologicaldiscussionof these con-
electric rice maker and will be spoonedinto a bowl, still no cepts, see Hendry(1987: 39-41). For an architecturalstudy of
bigger or predominantthan the many other containersfrom Japan's managementand organizationof space in terms of
which a personeats. In an obentorice may be in one, perhaps such culturalcategoriesas uchi and soto, see Greenbie(1988).
the largest,section of a multi-sectionedobento box, yet it will "Endlessstudies,reports,surveys,and narrativesdocument
be arrangedwith a varietyof other foods. In a sense rice pro- the close tie betweenwomenand home;domesticityand femi-
vides the syntactic and substantialcenter to a meal yet the ninity in Japan.A recent internationalsurveyconductedfor a
presentationof the food rarely emphasizesthis core. The rice Japanesehousingconstructionfirm,for example,polledcouples
bowl is refilledratherthan heapedas in the preformedobento with workingwives in three cities, findingthat 97% (of those
box, and in the obentorice is often embroidered,supplemented, polled) in Tokyo preparedbreakfastfor their families almost
and/or coveredwith other foodstuffs. daily (comparedwith 43% in New Yorkand 34% in London);
SJapanesewill both endurea high price for rice at home 70% shoppedfor grocerieson a daily basis (3% in New York,
and resist Americanattemptsto exportrice to Japan in order 14% in London),and that only 22% of them had husbands
to stay domesticallyself-sufficientin this nationalfood qua cul- who assistedor were willing to assist with housework(62% in
tural symbol. Rice is the only foodstuffin which the Japanese New York, 77% in London) (quoted in Chicago Tribune
have retainedself-sufficientproduction. 1991). For a recent anthropologicalstudy of Japanesehouse-
4The primarysourceson educationused are Horio 1988; wives in English, see Imamura(1987). Japanesesources in-
Duke 1986; Rohlen 1983; Cummings1980. clude Juristo zokan sogo tokushu 1985; Mirai shakan 1979;
'Neither the state's role in overseeingeducationnor a sys- Ohiras7rino seifu kenkyukai3.
tem of standardizedtests is a new developmentin post-World "?Mycomments pertain directly, of course, to only the
War II Japan. What is new is the nationalstandardizationof womenI observed,interviewed,and interactedwith at the one
tests and, in this sense, the intensifiedrole the state has thus private nurseryschool serving middle-classfamilies in urban
assumed in overseeing them. See Dore (1965) and Horio Tokyo. The profusionof obento-relatedmaterialsin the press
(1988). plus the revelationsmade to me by Japaneseand observations
"Boocock(1989) differs from Tobin et al. (1989) on this made by other researchersin Japan (for example,Tobin 1989;
point and assertsthat the institutionaldifferencesare insignifi- Fallows 1990), however,substantiatethis as a more general
cant. She describesextensivelyhow both yochien and hoikuen phenomenon.
JAPANESE MOTHERSAND OBENTOS 207

"To illustratethis preoccupationand consciousness:dur- orderedto bringtheir obentowith chopsticksand not forksand
ing the time my son was not eating all his obent- many fellow spoons (considered easier to use) and in the traditional
mothersgave me suggestions,one motherlent me a magazine, furoshiki (piece of cloth which enwrapsitems and is double
his teacher gave me a full set of obento cookbooks(one per tied to close it) instead of the easier-to-manageobento bags
season),and anothermothergave me a set of small frozenfood with drawstrings.Bothfuroshiki and chopsticks(o-hashi) are
portionsshe had made in advancefor future obenlos. consideredtraditionallyJapaneseand their usage marks not
'2My son's teacher,Hamada-sensei,cited this explicitlyas only greater effort and skills on the part of the childrenbut
one of the reasonswhy the obentowas such an importanttrain- their enculturationinto being Japanese.
ing device for nursery school children. "Once they become "'Forthe mother'srole in the educationof her child, see,
ichinensei(first-graders)they'llbe faced with a varietyof food, for example,White (1987). For an analysis,by a Japanese,of
preparedwithout elaborationor much spice, and will need to the intensedependenceon the motherthat is createdand culti-
eat it within a delimitedtime period." vated in a child, see Doi (1971). For Japanesesourceson the
'3Ananonymousreviewerquestionedwhethersuch empha- mother-childrelationshipand the ideology (some say pathol-
sis placed on consumptionof food in nurseryschool leads to ogy) of Japanesemotherhood,see Yamamura(1971); Kawai
food problemsand anxieties in later years. Although I have (1976); Kyutoku (1981); Sorifu seihonen taisaku honbuhen
heardthat anorexiais a phenomenonnow in Japan, I question (1981); Kadeshoboshinsha (1981). Fujita'saccountof the ide-
its connectionto nurseryschoolobentos.Much of the meaning ology of motherhoodat the nurseryschool level is particularly
of the latter practice,as I interpretit, has to do with the inter- interestingin this connection(1989).
face between productionand consumption,and its gender "'Womenare enteringthe labormarketin increasingnum-
linkage comes from the productionend (mothers making it) bers yet the proportionto do so in the capacity of part-time
rather than the consumptionend (childreneating it). Hence workers(legally constitutingas much as thirty-fivehours per
while controlis taught throughfood, it is not a controllinked week but without the benefitsaccordedto full-time workers)
primarilyto females or bodily appearance,as anorexia may has also increased.The choice of part-timeover full-timeem-
tend to be in this culture. ploymenthas much to do with a woman'ssimultaneousand
"Fujita argues, from her experienceas a workingmother almosttotal responsibilityfor the domesticrealm(Juristo1985;
of a daycare(hoikuen)child, that the substanceof these daily see also Kondo 1990).
talks betweenteacherand motheris intentionallyinsignificant. "As Fujita(1989: 72-79) pointsout, workingmothersare
Her interpretationis that the mother is not to be overly in- treated as a separate category of mothers,and non-working
volvedin nor too informedabout mattersof the school (1989). mothersare expected,by definition,to be mothersfull time.
"5"Boku"is a personalpronounthat males in Japanuse as 20Nakane'smuch quoted text on Japanesesociety states
a familiarreferenceto themselves.Those in close relationships this male positionin structuralistterms (1970). Thoughdated,
with males-mothers and wives, for example-can use boku to see also Vogel (1963) and Rohlen(1974) for descriptionsof the
referto their sons or husbands.Its use in this contextis telling. social roles for middle-class,urbanJapanesemales. For a suc-
"ln the upper third grade of the nurseryschool (nencho cinct recent discussionof gender roles within the family, see
class; childrenaged five to six) my son attended,childrenwere Lock (1990).

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