Bento-It! (Or Cool Ways to Pack Your Lunch and Save Some Money)

Dec 30, 2010

弁当/べんとう(bento) is a take-away or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine.

A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container.

Containers range from the disposable mass-produced to hand-crafted lacquerware.



Although bentos are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops, train stations, and department stores, it is still common for Japanese homemakers to spend time and energy for their spouse, child, or themselves producing a carefully prepared lunch box.

Moreover, bentos can be very elaborately arranged in a style called キャラ弁(kyara-ben).

Kyara-ben is typically decorated to look like people, animals, or characters and items such as flowers and plants.

Bento contests are often held where bento makers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements. Various enterprises in Japan sponsor the bento contest.



The history of the Japanese bento

The origins of the bento can be traced back to the late Kamakura Period (1185 to 1333), when cooked and dried rice called hoshi-ii was developed.

糒[Hoshi-ii] can be eaten as it is, or boiled with water to make cooked rice, and is stored in a small bag.

In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 to 1600), wooden lacquered boxes like today's were produced and bento would be eaten during a hanami or a tea party.

In the Edo Period (1603 to 1867), bento culture spread and became more refined.

Travellers and sightseers would carry a simple 腰弁当(koshibento), consisting of several onigiri wrapped with bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box.

One of the most popular styles of bento, called 幕の内弁当(makuno-uchi bento) - ("between-act bento"), was first made during this period.

People who came to see 能 (Noh) and 歌舞伎(Kabuki) ate specially prepared bento between maku (acts).


Makunouchi Bento


Numerous cookbooks were published detailing how to cook, how to pack, and what to prepare for occasions like 花見 (Hanami).

In the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912), the first駅弁(ekiben) was sold.

292 Japanese Ekiben


And. as early schools did not provide lunch, students and teachers carried bentos, as did many employees. A "European"-style bento with sandwiches also went on sale during this period.

In the Taisho- period (1912 to 1926), the aluminum bento box became a luxury item because of its ease of cleaning and its silver-like appearance. Also, a move to abolish the practice of bento in school became a social issue.

Disparities in wealth spread during this period, following an export boom during World War I and subsequent crop failures in the Tohoku region.


293 Sandwich Bento  

A bento too often reflected a student's wealth, and many wondered if this had an unfavorable influence on children both physically, from lack of adequate diet, and psychologically, from a clumsily made bento or the richness of food.

After World War II, the practice of bringing bento to school gradually declined and was replaced by uniform food provided for all students and teachers.

It is called 学校給食[Gakkou-Kyuushoku].

And, Gakkou-Kyuushoku continued into present Japan.

The bento regained its popularity in the 1980s, with the help of the microwave oven and the proliferation of convenience stores.

In addition, the expensive wood and metal boxes have been replaced at most bento shops with inexpensive, disposable polystyrene boxes.

But, even handmade bentos have made a comeback, and they are once again a common, although not universal, sight at Japanese schools.

Bentos are still used by workers as a packed lunch, by families on day trips, for school picnics and sports days etc.

I will show you my bento next time.


This post was originally published on Japanese Element Symbols in May 2010.