When mentioning the topic of Japanese food there are probably a few things that immediately come to mind. Ramen, sushi, sashimi, tempura, soba, mochi. However, another Japanese culinary form that has grown in worldwide popularity in recent years is the bento.
For those unfamiliar, bento are essentially portable meals neatly packed into multi-compartment containers, in other words a more organized alternative to the bag lunch, and refers to both the meal in the container and the container itself.
Now, when searching the term bento, one can easily find any number of videos on YouTube, or pictures on Instagram, Pinterest, and other social media sites using colorful ingredients cut and shaped into all kinds of elaborate designs, formed into characters (known as kyaraben or character bento) and detailed arrangements. Not to mention that there are numerous online recipes and even printed cookbooks geared towards parents making school lunches, people trying to lose weight, and any trending diets one can think of from paleo to vegan.
As ubiquitous as bento boxes might have become, these ready-to-eat portable meals have a much deeper culinary history than Pikachu, octopus shaped hotdogs, and weight loss goals.
Although the origin of what would come to be known as the bento isn’t quite clear, the concept dates back centuries in Japan, stringing along a complicated history in its wake.
While there are different origin theories for the term “bento” itself, one popular theory says that it came from a Taiwanese slang wordbiàndāng,meaning convenient, while another says that the 16th century military commander Oda Nobunaga coined the term for the simple meals he had prepared and distrusted en masse for the many people living in his castle.
Wherever the term was derived from, the idea of convenient, balanced meals has always been a core characteristic of bento and that has most definitely survived the test of time.
The earliest iterations of “bento” were probably small bags containing dried meals that people took with them when travelling, working, or hunting in the 5th century all the way up until the 12th and 13th centuries. These most often consisted of dried rice which was eaten as-is or rehydrated with some boiling water.
The boxed form of bento we now know today was most likely derived from the containers used by farmers to carry seeds, inspiring the multiple compartments in which to separate different ingredients and dishes. It was in the late 16th century that these boxes came into fashion among the courtly elite. However, the difference with these first bento was that rather than packing utilitarian lunches in ordinary containers, the elite used carved, lacquered wooden boxes to store food at parties and other gatherings.
Moving into the 17th century, the bento made its way back to its humble roots, embraced once again as a convenient way to transport food during travel or work (usually carried at the waist in what was called a koshibento.) People took them along for picnic and festivals and even when they went to the theatre. In fact, to this day one of the most popular styles of bento in Japan is the makunouchi bento which literally means “between acts bento.” This style has its origin in the kabuki and noh theaters as they were served during the intermissions of the long, sprawling plays. Now, bento sold under the name makunouchi can contain any number of ingredients (and are usually a little more expensive than their regular counterparts) but just like in the Edo period, they usually consist mainly of rice (often sprinkled with sesame seeds with an umeboshi,or pickled plum, nestled on top) and several side dishes including fish, vegetables, pickles, and eggs.
The Edo period was also the beginning of the bento’s boom in popularity all throughout Japan with the creation of manuals and books detailing methods for preparing bento, much in the same way blogs and cookbooks dedicated to the subject exist today.
Moving into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the advent of railway systems in Japan led to the creation of one of the most beloved types of bento, the ekiben, or train station bento. Today train stations throughout Japan usually have their very own ekiben that people travel from across the country just to try. It is estimated that there are somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 of these unique bento and they often contain the dishes and ingredients that the region is best known for and can only be purchased at those stations. Therefore, any extended trip, by shinkansen bullet train or otherwise, would be thought incomplete without the inclusion of an ekiben.
Despite its resurgence in popularity, bento went through a controversial change at the beginning of the 20th century. Around WWI access to food became tough and bento became a sign of growing income disparities as poorer families could no longer afford the once simple meals that filled both their own and their children’s lunchboxes. To add to this, a rise in aluminum production led to the creation of metal bento boxes, which shone like silver, only adding to the shame of the poorer families who could not afford them.
During this time, bento became a luxury rather than a convenience, which even led to a ban of the metal containers in schools until the 1980s to prevent the embarrassment some families and students might have felt.
The fall in popularity of bento in schools was also aided by the implementation of standard school lunches during the WWII reconstruction period of the 1950s. Even now many schools still provide school lunches for their students, some even requiring their students to partake rather than bring their own lunches, but despite that, the controversy surrounding bento hasn’t completely disappeared. This is because a certain competitiveness has risen between parents, most often mothers, who spend at times upwards of 45 minutes preparing their children’s bento each morning to make their kid’s lunch the most kawaii in the classroom. Much of this competitiveness stems from incidents of bullying where students will tease each other about their food, and teachers even reprimanding students for bringing in lunches that don’t quite meet their standards. Thus, the bento has in some ways once again become a status symbol within classrooms for both child and parent, an issue that seems exacerbated by the presence and pressure of social media.
Despite these issues, the bento is in all other ways still a regular part of modern Japanese life. Sold at convenience stores, restaurants, supermarkets, and train stations, bento are everywhere and not just limited to traditional varieties. It’s just as common to find a Western style bento with a sandwich or pasta instead of rice, or a juicy hamburg steak as opposed to a slice of grilled fish. And like any other kind of food, bento have been escalated to what some might even consider a fine dining level, becoming as expensive as their ingredients and preparations. That being said, most remain at a humble, accessible price, giving the diner a delicious, quick, balanced, and often generous meal.
It is this idea of convenience, nutrition, and balance coupled with an element of Japanese aesthetic concerning attention to detail, precision, and process that has allowed the bento to flourish worldwide. They have become another outlet for creativity and culinary expression, a way for the maker to show their affection or care for whoever they’re making it for. Whether it’s a child excitedly opening their lunch with a smile to see what character waits inside, or a loved one ready for a good lunch from home, that bento might just become the favorite part of their day.
About the author:
The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@kevinjkilcoyne) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food.