Considering how much Japan loves food and cute things, it’s no surprise that the country is in the middle of a chara-ben boom. Chara-ben, bento boxed lunches with their contents arranged like popular characters such as Hello Kitty and Doraemon, are a hit with adults and children alike, as parents seem to be having as much fun making them as their kids are eating them.

But not everyone loves this trend of culinary creativity, though, as some preschools and day care centers have started banning chara-ben.

Chara-ben first started getting national attention a few years ago, with online photo collections and media reports adding to the craze. The hobby has never been easier to get into than it is today, thanks to websites where cooks can share tips and a variety of kitchen gadgets to help you get everything looking just right.

Still, no matter how good your tools are, turning lunch into a work of art takes a lot of time and effort. While most people would applaud parents’ dedication in making chara-ben for their kids, some children’s institutions aren’t so happy about the other requirement, worrying that the lengthy chara-ben production process means the meals aren’t very sanitary.

On websites where fans share photos of their chara-ben, it’s not uncommon to find an adorable example that the creator spent well over an hour putting together. Getting the shape of the face and body just right means precisely placing and arranging the ingredients, and some preschools are worried about the large number of times the food gets touched as a result. Precautions such as wearing gloves can reduce the chance of food poisoning, but when everything is sitting out for 90 minutes as you mold it into a smiling Disney character, anti-chara-ben schools argue you’re still putting your child at risk.

Could character bento be so cute they literally make you sick?

Even if they’re not dirty, others have voiced their concerns over whether or not chara-ben are healthy. Rice is by far the easiest medium to work with, and some say this leads to a tendency to pack too many carbohydrates into chara-ben, pushing out space for healthier vegetables.

Realistically speaking, though, it’s probably a little late to be trying to talk people in Japan out of eating so much rice.

Still others fear that kids who regularly eat chara-ben will focus too much on the appearance of the character, making it more difficult for them to cultivate an appreciation for the flavor of the ingredients in and of themselves.

Again, this seems just a tad hypocritical when you take into account how much effort Japan puts into presentation of meals for adults.

But what seems like the most likely reason preschools are cracking down on chara-ben is the potential for squabbles or cliquishness among kids. As a mother-son project, one woman decided to try her hand at making a Winnie the Pooh rice omelet with her child. As we’ve seen before, though, chara-ben don’t always go so smoothly. When lunchtime came around and the son opened up his bento box, the child sitting next to him laughed at the misshapen Pooh Bear peeking out, causing the woman’s son to burst into tears. The school has since asked parents not to drop their kids off with chara-ben.

On the opposite side of the coin, having a perfectly made chara-ben can cause problems too. Many kids like being the center of attention, and if one starts showing off his awesome chara-ben, at least some of his classmates will follow suit. While that may be fun for those that can join in, some kids’ parents don’t have an extra hour or two to spend intricately arranging rice, fish, and croquettes into a smiling face. Keeping those children from feeling left out is one more reason some preschools don’t allow chara-ben. Other institutions are keen to avoid fights over which character is the coolest, or kids getting saddled with an unwanted nickname that matches that of the character their bento is modeled after.

“My name is Yuta, but everyone calls me Pikachu.”

Taking a more individual-centered stance, you could argue that all of these are counterproductive to learning how to interact with others, which in many Western countries is considered a very, if not the most, important part of pre-elementary school education. But while that’s a goal of preschools in Japan too, the country places a pretty strong emphasis on academic learning at even the preschool level.

You might hold that learning how to handle insults is something kids should be getting experience with at a young age, or that preventing teasing from happening is the responsibility of the preschool staff, regardless of what parents put into their children’s lunch boxes. On the other hand, you could make a case that since the artistic embellishments of chara-ben don’t serve any functional purpose, their designs have an effect similar to a toy or fashion accessory. Both of those are restricted in whole or part by schools in countries all over the world on the grounds that they constitute distractions to the learning process.

How’re you supposed to concentrate on arithmetic when Rilakkuma is showing you how much better it would feel to just take a nap?

Still, all those rationales are probably little comfort to the kids who’d otherwise be enjoying a chara-ben in the middle of their day. That doesn’t always mean their parents sympathize with them, though. “I knew my daughter’s preschool didn’t allow chara-ben before I enrolled her,” revealed one mother who spoke with reporters. “Honestly speaking, I was relieved. I’m pretty clumsy, and I couldn’t make a chara-ben even if you asked me to.”

Sorry, kid. If you want to eat Totoro for lunch, it looks like you’ll have to wait until the weekend, and then make the chara-ben yourself.

Source: Nico Nico News