The ultimate act of love? The truth behind Japan’s charaben culture

Editor’s Note: Joshua Paul Dale is a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University. He is co-editor of “The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness”, and the editor of “Cute Studies,” a special issue of the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture.

Story highlights

Japanese culinary culture is influenced by kawaii -- the feeling of joy in adorable things

Kawaii images have appeared in Japanese literature and art for over 1,000 years

Elaborate "kyaraben" bento boxes take kawaii to the extreme

CNN  — 

The menu at the Pom Pom Purin Café in Tokyo is the epitome of “kawaii”.

On sale are rice omelets molded in the shape of the cafe’s Golden Retriever cartoon character namesake and a puppy face made of rice floating in a plate of curry.

This café isn’t alone. Adorable “kawaii” food is uniquely ascendant in Japan.

In eateries across the country, diners feast on dishes made to resemble Snoopy, Moomin, and Peter Rabbit. Bakeries sculpt sweet and savory treats into the shapes of other beloved cartoon characters.

Elaborate kawaii bento boxes are commonplace in Japan.

And “wagashi” – traditional sweets made from pounded rice and sweet bean paste – are formed into small beribboned bears.

At home, mothers often slice the ends of hot dogs into the splayed legs of an octopus, adding eyes from tiny pieces of dried seaweed.

But why has kawaii cuisine taken off in Japan – and why do adults embrace the trend as much as children?

The answer, it seems, lies in the heritage of a cuisine that has for centuries been eaten with the eyes as much as the mouth.

Cute vs kawaii

A word that originated with the lower classes, rather than the social elite, “kawaii” entered into common usage in the 19th century, around the same time the word “cute” arrived in English.

A derivation of acute (meaning to show shrewd insight), the English word retains the connotation of cleverness with a bit of guile.

But this is not the case in Japanese.

Kawaii literally means “able to be loved” and has no negative connotations.

The word communicates the unabashed joy found in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.

Too cute to eat?

Kawaii images have been showing up in Japanese literature in relation to food for a long time.

Over 1,000 years ago, author and royal court attendant Sei Shonagon wrote about cuteness in “The Pillow Book”, citing examples including a child’s face drawn on a melon.

At least 600 years ago elite samurai feasted on “honzen ryori”. At these highly ritualized banquets each artfully arranged dish contained a literary reference – food was consumed with the eyes and mind, as much as the tongue.

A century later, elaborate multi-course “kaiseki” meals enacted seasonal changes on the plate – for example, a maple leaf might be added to a dish in the fall, or an edible flower in the spring.

By the mid-Edo period (1603-1867), food was being combined with cute performances.

“Amezaiku” taffy makers, for example, attracted customers on the street by pulling, bending and folding handfuls of starchy sugar syrup into exquisite animal shapes, and blowing it like glass to form fish or birds in the few minutes before the boiled sticky mass solidified.

After World War II, kawaii culture took off in the form of manga comics and consumer commodities such as fictional character Hello Kitty.

It wasn’t long before kawaii made its way into food culture, too.

Eat with your eyes

Today, kawaii has been well integrated with the traditional aesthetic codes that guide the presentation of all Japanese cuisine – small separated portions, contrasts of color and shape, and reminders of the season.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the contemporary phenomenon of “charaben” – character bento.

These elaborate boxes feature well-loved popular culture characters such as Mickey Mouse, painstakingly portrayed using sculpted rice and carefully cut pieces of seaweed, processed ham, cheese and vegetables – all held together with picks made of toasted spaghetti or daubs of mayonnaise.

Such creations can take hours and many mothers make them for their children on a daily basis.

Love in a lunchbox

A bento box is much more than simply lunch.

In Japanese culture, emotions are often not openly expressed, and while it’s possible to say “I love you”, to many it just feels awkward.

One way for mothers to express love for their children is with the daily bento box.

A child who opens an intricately prepared lunch box is believed to feel the love and affection of their mother “pop out of the box”.

And from a nutritional perspective, the theory is that giving a child food in a recognizable and loved form encourages him or her to eat the entire meal – even the vegetables.

Social factor

Bento boxes, and kawaii food in general, have increasingly become a staple of social media in Japan.

After all, these creations prove a mother’s dedication towards her child, not to mention her creative prowess.

Considered the queen of charaben in Japan, Tomomi Maruo has been honing her craft for 13 years.

She runs character bento classes and posts how-to videos on her YouTube channel, where Maruo has about 3,000 followers.

Likewise Ran, the mother behind Konel Bread, has turned her hobby into a viral sensation.

A Charlie Brown "illustration" loaf from Japan's Konel Bread.

Ran bakes illustration loaves, inspired bykazari zushi” art sushi.

Each slice reveals a colorful illustration, featuring everything from Pokemon to bears, hearts, reindeer, Snoopy and even her son’s drawings.

The social media savvy mom has amassed more than 122,000 followers on Instagram and published her own recipe book.

Kawaii, it seems, greases the rails for a new form of communication – it is instantly digestible and, due to the pure nature of kawaii cuteness, almost never misunderstood.

Cuteness makes you smile, and finding new ways to share this rush of warmth is key to Japan’s highly advanced culture of kawaii.

Joshua Paul Dale is a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University. He is co-editor of “The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness”, and the editor of “Cute Studies,” a special issue of the East Asian Journal of Popular Culture.