Inside the Bento Box: Exploring the Art of Charaben (#キャラ弁)

To see more photos of beautifully decorated bentos, browse the #キャラ弁 hashtag.

For many Japanese people, having home cooked bentos, or boxed meals, for lunch is a part of everyday life. Often parents will wake up early in the morning to prepare and pack the lunches into individual bento boxes for the whole family before they go to school or work. In recent years, the daily endeavor to prepare a balanced and appetizing meal has evolved into an artistic talent. These have taken the form of “charabens" (キャラ弁), short for "character bentos."

Charabens are bentos that are arranged to resemble famous characters, animals or other cute icons using the ingredients of the meal. Charaben making originally started as a way to encourage fussy kids to eat everything in the bento, including vegetables. Nowadays, with more cooking ideas and specialized tools at hand, this elaborate style of bento creation has become a hobby for many mothers. The bentos are increasingly sophisticated with rice balls shaped into rabbits, eggs baked to form stars and seaweed carved out into kids’ favorite manga characters. Skilled charaben are also beginning to gain recognition for their craft as many mothers have taken to writing blogs and cookbooks about their work, producing new cooking utensils or even entering charaben cooking contests.