The Love Language That is a Japanese Bento Box

I’ll never forget the joy of receiving a bento box from my mom

Illustrations by Kaki Okumura

I was cleaning out my room, when I came across an old childhood journal. And like most big room clean outs, it soon became a trip down memory lane.

I thought I’d just find cute entries of carefree days spent outside with friends, but instead I was reminded of a life that didn’t feel like all sunshine and rainbows. Changing schools and having no close friends at first, being overweight, and being the token Asian in a very white community was not always easy. Oh right, children experience intense emotions too.

We tend to see children as happy beings — joyful and worry-free individuals whose biggest problems in life tend to be getting the wrong (ie. not your favorite) color calculator for math class, or getting seated next to the funny-smelling kid during the school assembly. It’s supposedly easier to make friends, they don’t have the responsibilities of an adult, and the big life questions — such as what is the purpose of life — don’t need serious consideration.

A life of innocent childhood bliss, right? But I was reminded that just because we’re young, doesn’t mean our emotional experiences aren’t as valid.

Instead of dismissing my struggles, or outright trying to solve all of my problems for me, my mom instead chose to simply support me with love, through the love language that is a homemade bento box.

And not just any bento box, but one that would instantly cheer me up.

It’s not your Lunchables, and it’s not your Sweetgreens

The modern bento box was developed in Japan in the 1500s, but it was first considered a utilitarian invention as jobs increasingly required individuals to work away from home. Afterwards, as Japan grew wealthier and more children began going to school, carrying a homemade bento box came to be an act of love and care.

If you’ve ever seen a typical school child’s bento box, you’d find that they aren’t necessarily filled with “kid-friendly” pleasure foods like crackers and string cheese, but aren’t necessarily designed with health and convenience at the forefront, like a takeout salad box. Instead, it’s a balance of health with joy.

Homemade bento boxes are often filled with plenty of vegetables, but for children, they’ll also often have cute embellishments and decorations to entertain: a fun arrangement of carrots cut into flowers, rice balls with nori smiley faces, or sausages boiled into the shape of cartoon octopuses with sesame seeds for eyes.

It can feel like a small and useless thing, to take the time to punch out a flower or leaf with a cookie cutter, but for me, there wasn’t a purer form of love. In fact, it would turn my whole day around.

How a parent can support a child through an isolating time

Today, homemade bento boxes aren’t just food, but they’ve become almost a Japanese national symbol for parental nurture and comfort.

Because when a child is struggling, the solution is not always to solve their problems, but to help them know that they’re being supported through it. And in an era where entertainment is instantaneous and information lays at the convenience of our fingertips, what better way is there to communicate love than through the time-consuming act of homemade food? Nurturing food that is not just about pleasure, but about nourishment. Food that is not just about health, but was created to bring joy.

My memories of my mom’s childhood bento boxes still bring warmth to me to this day as an adult — it’s an act of love I hope to pass down to my own kids.

Because it doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, and it doesn’t need to take more than 15 minutes to put together, but one extra smiling detail or a fun-shaped decorative toothpick can create long-lasting memories of your loved one feeling cared for during a time that they may’ve otherwise felt alone.

To just do what we can for our loved ones — that’s where life counts.

Born in Dallas, raised in New York and Tokyo. I care about helping others learn to live a better, healthier life. My site: 🌱

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