Nursery schools carefully oversaw lunch. The entire obento must be eaten, and everyone had to wait until every child had finished — an important lesson in the importance of the group over the individual. Thus, part of the mother’s job was to make the food appealing and easy to consume, in an effort to encourage her child to eat and avoid the embarrassment of holding up the rest of the class from after-lunch recess. Making food brightly-colored, in various shapes, and in small portions helped with this process. If a child failed to eat the entire lunch, or ate slowly, both the child and mother were held accountable. More than just a lunch, then, Allison argues that obentos served as a form of socialization into ideas of what it meant to be Japanese, particularly the emphasis on the collective and the importance of meeting expectations. Indeed, her son’s teacher viewed him as successfully assimilating to Japan not when he learned the language or made friends, but when he began routinely finishing his obento.
Talking to Japanese mothers — and making obentos for her own young son — Allison found that designing obentos was often viewed as a creative outlet, a way to express themselves and their love for their child. The small group she spoke with generally described it as a fulfilling part of motherhood. But the stakes were also high, since making a sub-par or merely utilitarian obento could stigmatize them as bad mothers. The quality of a mother’s obento became a symbol of the quality of her mothering and her commitment to her child’s educational success.