The Origins of the Japanese Bento

Posted by on June 2, 2016 – Japanese Study

The Bento, from Convenience to Love

You would be very mistaken to think that a bento – Japanese packed meal, is merely a quickly prepared meal for busy people. In essence, the Japanese home packed meal called bento is not different than our lunch box. However, the characteristics of a bento show that it’s an important part of Japanese food culture and cannot be simply resumed to a packed meal. The word bento (弁当), imported from Chinese, means the “useful thing”, “convenient” and has a double meaning, standing for both the container and the content.

The worker’s lunch & the noble’s snack

Historians have found that the tradition of preparing conveniently packed meal goes back at least to the XIIth century when dried rice was prepared to be eaten outside. Far from being refined, those meals were carried by people who were working outdoors – farmers, fishermen… . However, the habit spread to the high society. The bento became the convenient meal of the traveler during the Edo Era, and more importantly, a must for outdoors excursions, tea party, and theater – plays could last several hours. The famous “ekiben”, from bento and eki, train station, first appeared during the Meiji period although historians are divided about which station first sold it. However, the XXth century between the wars and the food shortage saw the decline of what could be seen as a luxury. The development of school canteens for students chased away the homemade lunch. The bento owns its salvation in the 80s to the emergence of the microwave and convenience store. Once again, the homemade (or industrial) lunch box became a common sight at school and at work.


A style for everyone’s taste

One thing is sure, a bento cannot possibly be monotonous. First of all, you have plenty of choices to buy your box, from the traditional lacquered one to the rather cheap plastic models, aluminum or bamboo boxes. The market follows trending fashion and designers’ imagination seem to never meet an end. The box is usually divided into several parts that can hold several dishes, usually rice, fish or meat and vegetables, pickles etc. The dishes are usually prepared and packed in a way that they will not move when the box is carried and they will tolerate the ambient temperature. The most important characteristic of all is certainly the importance of the visual presentation based on colored assortment. Japanese take pride in preparing visually appetizing bento and the style is left to one’s imagination. From mass production to cooking book and presentation, bento covers a wide range of style. Let’s see some few emblematic examples:

  • Ekiben (駅弁): A bento sold at railway stations.
  • Kyaraben (キャラ弁 short form of キャラクター弁当):
    A bento elaborately arranged to feature a popular character of popular culture, animals, plants… –  Makunouchi bento (幕の内弁当): traditional the style of bento that was served at the theater. I, a pickled plum, fish, and egg.
  • Makunouchi bento (幕の内弁当): The traditional style of bento that was served at the theater. It contains several dishes: rice, meat, fish, egg, a pickled plum, vegetables.
  • Noriben (海苔弁): A classic bento, very simple, with less than 4 ingredients. The rice is covered by nori.
  • Hinomaru bento (日の丸弁当): A bento resembling the Japanese flag, the pickled plum being in the center of the rice.


The Bento of Love

Nowadays, the Japanese bento is the symbol of picnics – in particular during the Hanami season, and parties, as packed in advance – yet elaborated, dishes are very convenient for large groups of people. But beyond the convenience of a prepared meal, the bento stands as an essential communication tool in Japanese society.

A homemade bento, prepared with care and attention, conveys the feelings of the maker to the eater. What best than a nicely prepared dish to tell your love to someone? In a society where rather than speech, the value is given to action, the bento is the perfect example of the Japanese way of communicating. The kind mother, who takes the time to prepare her child’s meal with an appealing presentation to encourage her child to eat even disliked eggplants… Or, on a more funny note,  the revengeful wife who prepared a rice only lunch for her husband, to signify her anger.

The word bento is very emblematic of Japanese culture and has been adopted abroad, with a broader meaning. From take-out services to IT company, the “bento” stands now for a useful, convenient and modern tool box.

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