A Few Words on Aesthetics (I)

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While procrastinating at work this summer, I managed to read the articles that I didn’t have time to read during the school year. It was also during this time that I got to read things outside my usual research interests. I dug up two older articles from Journal Storage on the obento and the ekibento.  After school started, I also borrowed a book on Japanese cuisine and did some more reading.  Not having any background in Japanese, anthropological, or cultural studies, I thought these were fascinating reads. They also prompted me to rethink the definition of “bento.”

Although online discussions on cooking (i.e. recipes, ingredients) and packing (i.e. containers, storing methods) in the Anglophone bento community are abundant, the same cannot be said for aesthetics. What I would like to share with you now is a brief summary of the scholarly discussions on Japanese food aesthetics.  In particular, I will attempt to relate these notions with the bento. Those of you who are already acquainted with the subject will find no surprises here, as this is only based on my limited reading. My ultimate goal is to explore these ideas from the perspective of a beginner and to facilitate a discourse with fellow bento-ers.

“Smallness, Separation, and Fragmentation”

All the readings mention the lack of a totalizing centre in Japanese food presentation. Rather than having attention drawn to a particular point, there is no apparent “centre dish.” This concept is especially true for bentos, where food is divided and reduced into manageable morsels.

Through this fragmentation and lack of a centre, the viewer’s eyes are drawn instead to the relations between individual components. In this perspective, the bento is another excellent example of the Gestalt principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each component becomes “an ornament of the other,” mutually influencing their overall appearances. Like in a pattern, each discrete part is viewed in relation to others. Visual harmony is sought through maintaining the relationships between them.

This leads to the question of defining the bento. Even though some popular types of bentos, such as the hinomaru or omurice bento, do pose a challenge, I think that fragmentation and the subsequent need for thoughtful organization are nonetheless general defining features of a bento. Last spring, an anonymous complaint on the quality of the bentos made by those in the Livejournal bento community sparked a heated debate on what constitute a bento. I do not agree that a bento has to be beautiful to be one, and I do not want to romanticize the practice. However, I disagree with the claim that a bento is merely a “packed meal.”

If one day I decided to fill my two-tier bento box with egg fried rice and nothing else, can I still call my lunch a “bento?” It is certainly a “packed meal,” but is it a “bento?” For those who do not typically converse in Japanese, we can also ask why we choose to label our meal a “bento” instead of using a corresponding term from our native languages. The employment of a term involves not only its dictionary definition but also the (social and cultural) meanings and connotations that it carries.

Hence, the bento is not simply a “packed meal” and is accompanied by an additional set of expectations that are by no means static or inflexible. One attitude that remains stable is the heightened appreciation for food and its process of consumption. The attentive planning and organizing of fragments is, in this perspective, an indication of this special attention.

Contrast >>

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Sources consulted:

Allison, Anne. “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus.” Anthropological Quarterly 64, no. 4 (October 1991): 195-208.

Ashkenazi, Michael and Jeanne Jacob.  “Aesthetics.”  In The Essence of Japanese Cuisine: An Essay on Food and Culture.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Noguchi, Paul. “Savor Slowly: Ekiben: The Fast Food of High-Speed Japan.” Ethnology 33, no. 4 (Autumn 1994): 317-330.

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10 comments

  1. skimmer8

    Ha! A woman after my own heart — combining anthropology and bento. : )

    You make some very good points. There IS significance in the fact that we (in the livejournal bento community)choose to use the word bento rather than a word that exists in English to describe our lunches. Presumably the lunches have something that differentiates them from lunches that we are accustomed to bringing to school and work.

    The idea that in bentos, there is often not one central item, but rather parts that make the whole, is another very interesting point — particularly in light of cultural considerations.

    I agree that asthetics (arrangement, color choice and texture) are a key element in bento.

    I would add variety or diversity as well.

  2. commoi

    skimmer8: Thanks for your response!

    I agree too that variety/diversity is definitely a key feature of bentos (a reason why bentos are described by some as a treasure box).

  3. Hello, fellow social scientist ;) Those look like great articles on JSTOR btw.

    I agree that aesthetics is important to bento. The rationale, cultural significance and method of packing bento is just as important as the actual food that are placed inside. But of course how that aesthetics is defined is open to interpretation and debate :)

  4. commoi

    nilmandra: Actually, I’m more of a student of history than of the social sciences (gasp!). XD

    I agree with you that aesthetics is by no means a fixed entity, especially when we consider the introduction and adaptation of “non-tradition” bento-approrpiate foods. The problematization of existing notions on food presentation is itself a worthwhile exercise.

  5. Hi commoi,

    In case you haven’t seen this one yet:
    Anne Allison, _Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan_ (University of California Press, 2000)

    Chap.4 ‘Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch Box as Ideological State Apparatus’.
    – Cultural Ritual and State Ideology – Japanese Food as Cultural Myth – School, State and Subjectivity – Nursery School and Ideological Appropriation of the Obento – Mothering as Gendered Ideological State Apparatus

  6. niceties: I’ve read the “Japanese Mothers and Obentos” one, but I haven’t yet seen the other one. The title looks interesting; I’ll definitely follow up on it when my wave of schoolwork is over.

    Thanks for the heads up!

  7. Hi again commoi,

    Ah, so you’ve already seen it :)! ‘Japanese Mothers and Obentos’ is actually Chap 4 from the Anne Allison book, and is broken down into the sub-headings I listed. Chap. 5 is also about the role of mothers in everyday education, but the rest of the book is about manga and sexual desire.

  8. Hi commoi,

    Another couple of readings that might interest you if you haven’t seen them already (I’ve not looked at them myself):

    Ekuan, Kenji and David B. Stewart, eds. The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

    Tsuchiya, Yoshio. The Fine Art of Japanese Food Arrangement, trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2002.

  9. niceties: Thank you for sharing these with me! I had never heard about the Ekuan reading until now! Will definitely go check these out. :)

  10. Pingback: Bacon-Wrapped Green Onion Bento

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