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Row over FamilyMart's 'Mom's Diner' ready meals fuels implicit bias debate in Japan

Packages from "Mom's Diner," a series of ready-made meals by FamilyMart, are seen in Tokyo on Jan. 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazushi Machidori)

TOKYO -- An online petition demanding a change to the name of the controversial "Mom's Diner" ready-made meal range sold by major convenience store chain FamilyMart Co. has been drawing attention in Japan.

    The signature-collecting campaign was launched out of concern that the products may "implant in society the view that cooking is a task a mother should be in charge of." On the other hand, some have opposed the calls for change, and said that "pressing a private firm for a name change is excessive political correctness."

    I went to a FamilyMart store in my neighborhood, and found a diverse lineup of products in the "Mom's Diner" series, including mince patties, stir-fried shrimp in chili sauce, mapo tofu, and pickled vegetables. I bought myself a burdock root salad, stewed meat and potatoes, simmered chicken and vegetables, and a bag of frozen fried rice. The four packs came to 761 yen (about $7) including tax -- a low price for a wide variety. I prepared the meal at home in about 10 minutes, after heating the packages in the microwave and arranging them onto plates. They were all delicious.

    Last year, a group of female high school students started an online petition demanding the Mom's Diner series change its name. They said the brand runs the risk of "implanting the view that it's natural for mothers to do the cooking," and that "there are many men who think it's OK to just work, and they sometimes don't notice the burden mothers have."

    A meal prepared using products from "Mom's Diner," a series of ready-made meals by FamilyMart, are seen in Tokyo on Jan. 17, 2021. (Mainichi/Kazushi Machidori)

    They also insisted that the current product name could aggravate unconscious biases surrounding gender. As for why they were seeking the name change, the group explained, "If a major firm that everyone knows engages with this issue and changes the name, it will have a large impact." The group has collected over 7,200 signatures in support.

    Meanwhile, some have raised their voices in criticism and opposition to the petition, and multiple online signature-collecting drives countering the original campaign and calling for the Mom's Diner name to be "protected" have emerged. Although only up to around 900 people voiced support for one of these counter-movements, arguments against the change have been flooding social media, with posts like: "The actor Shingo Katori who appears in the commercials is a man, and the commercials express that men also cook and do household chores," and, "I don't get why the name 'Mom's Diner' leads to the idea that mothers must do the cooking." Furthermore, there was strong opposition questioning the move as one of excessive political correctness.

    The Mainichi Shimbun contacted FamilyMart to hear its views on the controversy. A public relations representative at the firm said, "It's a brand that provides delicious, safe and reliable meals and ingredients prepared while considering the wellbeing of families. We're aiming to create the image of a cozy diner, where customers can enjoy delicious meals at ease."

    The Mom's Diner series started in September 2017, and currently includes around 350 products in its lineup. According to a news release from the time of the series' launch uploaded on Sept. 25, 2017 on FamilyMart's website, the company's vision for the series included the two elements of aiming to offer "delicious dishes that are natural and warm like a childhood meal from a mother," which can also function as "meals that mothers busy balancing between work and child care can prepare for their kids and family with peace of mind."

    Although the term "Mom" does carry a nostalgic image, the second objective can be interpreted as assuming that it is the mother, not the father, who prepares meals. When asked about this, the convenience store giant replied, "Regarding the inquiries on the Mom's Diner case at hand, as a company, we'd like to say that we have taken note of them as valuable opinions, and will determine our course of action while listening to a number of views moving forward, but as of now decisions are yet to be finalized."

    Yuiko Fujita, professor of sociology at Meiji University, said, "I think that names like it should be done away with," but asserted that the essence of the issue is not the name itself. "The fact that the tendency for women to be in charge of cooking remains firmly rooted in Japanese society, despite there being this much of an increase in working women, should be at the center of the debate," insisted Fujita. If both partners in a marriage work, it is natural for them to divide up time for household chores equally between them, and that is how it should be.

    But the reality is different. According to a white paper on gender equality approved in a Cabinet decision last year, the time wives spent on chores was as much as 2.8 to 3.6 times that of husbands, while the time women spent caring for their children was between 2.1 and 2.7 times greater in households of married couples with children.

    In this way, data also suggests that old customs and views that women handle chores have continued. If so, the criticism currently encircling Mom's Diner that claims it approves the current twisted reality may be unavoidable.

    However, there is the question of why such strong opposition arose in response to the signature-collecting campaign demanding the name change.

    Momoko Nakamura, linguistics professor at Kanto Gakuin University and an expert on the relationship between gender and language, said, "Among Japanese vocabulary pointing to women, the term 'Mom' can be said to be a word with positive connotations. Those who criticized the idea of changing the name may have felt such a positive association, and that their own nostalgic image of a mother was being dismissed.

    "They may have felt as if they were being ordered not to use such a positive word. It depends on each individual whether they associate a positive image with mothers and women who make warm meals for you at home, but I think that this issue brought into focus the reality that while increasingly more women work, values on family and the sharing of household tasks remain unchanged from the old days."

    (Japanese original by Kazushi Machidori, Integrated Digital News Center)

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