Typically held on the second Monday of October, Sports Day is a national Japanese holiday known for athletics and, surprisingly, food. Despite the event’s namesake physical activity, the bento box lunches are often where the real competition lies.

Sports Day

On Sports Day, many schools host athletic meets or undokai. Usually, many schools invite students’ families to watch their kids play various sports. Sometimes, parents will even take part themselves. At the National Stadium in Tokyo, the government organizes Sports Day events that involve basic physical activities tests like sit-ups and jumping.

Originally on October 10, Sports Day commemorated the anniversary of the opening day of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the first Olympic Games ever held in Asia. Eventually, the government moved the date to the second Monday in October. It was part of the national move toward designating more Mondays as holidays to create more three-day weekends.

Sports Day Bentos

In addition to watching their kids play, families get to eat Japanese boxed lunches together. If you’re thinking of a brown paper bag hastily stuffed with two halves of a sandwich and a whole apple, however, think again. Unlike the western school lunch, Japanese mothers painstakingly prepare bento boxes. In fact, oftentimes the bento boxes themselves turn into the highlight of Sports Day. A laborious process, children’s bentos are thought to be a tangible measure of a mother’s devotion to her child.

These elaborate packages should be not only nutritious but aesthetically pleasing, as well. Children’s bentos often include small portions of seasonal fish and vegetables in addition to a selection of meat, rice, pickles, and other items. Moms carefully pack and arrange each item into a pleasing unit. Some bentos, known as kyara-ben, even feature foods that have been shaped to resemble pop culture characters: think rice-based Pikachus with seaweed eyes and crab-stick cheeks; Poké Balls made by sticking half a cherry tomato to half a quail’s egg then winding a strip of seaweed around it, and finally topped off with a smaller circle of cheese.

Bentos have a long history. Even as late as the 1940s, these lunches were simple. They might have only included a cup of milk, koppepan (a loaf of sweet bread), rice, and soup. However, it’s now common for moms to spend 45 minutes or more crafting these miniature creations. A poor lunch can bring ridicule. So mothers invest their time and effort in producing outstanding bentos for their families, on Sports Day or otherwise.

Learn the history of bento box today!