In Japan, packing a school lunch is much more than throwing a bag of carrots in a brown paper bag. Like many other aspects of Japanese culture — from clothing to flower arranging — it's about colors, textures and finding a balance in the simplicity of presentation. When it comes to children's lunches, which get packed in plastic food containers called bento boxes, there's one more aspect to factor in for the Consulate General of Japan in Los Angeles' latest contest: cuteness.

Like Hello Kitty, tiny cell phone charms and giggling schoolgirls, Japan's pervasive culture of cuteness has finally hit homemade food in the form of so-called “cute bento,” a practice that encourages you to play with your food. This means mom's are free scissor-cutting vegetables, hand-molding mashed potatoes, pen-knifing nori sheets and buying teddy bear faces to stamp into sandwich bread in an attempt to make the cutest school lunches you've ever seen. 

In celebration of this “cute and cool food culture,” the Japanese Consulate is hosting a contest seeking photos of cute and creative character bentos decorated in a food container. Now through February 22, entries will be accepted through the contest's microsite, with 10 winners being chosen by both the Consulate and representatives from co-sponsor, BentoUSA.

Winners will be chosen in March from the following categories: three bread-based bento, three rice-based, two pasta-based and two bento that do not fall under the other categories. The winners will be awarded with prizes like an all expenses paid trip to Tokyo, top-shelf rice cookers, food gift bags and cookbooks from Kinokuniya Book Stores of America.

The winning photographs will then be printed on large display boards and hung at the Japan Foundation of Los Angeles as part of a bento photo exhibition that will launch March 13 with a lecture and demonstration from bento expert Sirinut “Jee Jee” Donham.

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