The History of the Bento Box

Wooden Bento Box Kit - The History of the Bento Box

Whether you have visited Japan, have Japanese friends, or just love eating Japanese food, you may well have heard of the bento box but do you know The History of the Bento Box? Did you know that it originated over 15 centuries ago? Whatever your knowledge level, here is what you need to know about the bento box and its history.

What is bento?

Bento is a one-person portion of food that may be home made or prepared as a takeaway. It has its origin in Japan but it is also common in a number of other cuisines where rice is eaten as a staple of the diet, such as in China, Taiwan, Korea, and Southeast Asian countries.

The origins of the bento box

The History of the Bento Box – The bento box began its life in Japan during the 5th century when farmers, warriors, and hunters packed lunches to give them the energy they needed for their endeavours. These meals usually consisted of dried rice or rice balls.

The original bento box design came from seed boxes used by farmers and it is still normal for them to have numerous different compartments, separating dishes such as fish, vegetables, and rice.

The bento tradition has since spread far beyond the fields of Japan, to the likes of the Philippines, Korea, and China, amongst others. The word ‘bento’ is said by some to come from the slang term biàndang. This dates back to the days of the Southern Song Dynasty and the word means ‘convenient’.

There is another common belief that the term bento actually came from Oda Nobunaga, who was a military commander in the sixteenth century. He handed out food to the people from his castle and these simple meals were known as bento.

Historically, the bento box was filled with various dishes according to the cultures of the people using it but there was always the idea that it should contain a balanced and varied lunch.

Bento became a popular choice at social events and cultural events, including religious holidays, theatre events and festivals. Bento was an essential addition to theatre trips and outdoor excursions in the Edo period and this is when makunouchi bento was born. This is typically made up of rice balls with sesame seeds, along with a selection of side dishes. The bento was named after makunouchi, the interval in a play.

Another type of bento is ekiben or station bento. These lunches arrived in railway stations during the Meiji period between 1868 and 1912. The first station bento was made up of rice balls with pickled apricots and was apparently sold in 1885. Ekiben continue to be sold in huge quantities in railway stations in Japan today.

A new era for bento

Bento boxes were generally made of the likes of basket material or lacquered wood but aluminium became popular in the Taisho period, which started in 1912. This is when bento became a luxury rather than a simple lunch.

As Japan dealt with economic inequality after the First World War, wealthy children went to school with nutritious food packed in shiny bento boxes, whilst their poorer counterparts found bento out of their price range. Some less well-off parents resorted to filling lunch boxes with traditional porcelain cups and dishes.

School lunch transformation

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Ministry of Education in Japan recognised the need for all school children to receive nutritious meals and by 1945 school lunches became standard. As Japan began to reconstruct after World War II, the school lunch programme saw children generally receiving a lunch of bread, butter, rice, soup, and milk. Children would take in a large fabric napkin to use as a makeshift plate and these soon became a status symbol in the same way that bento did.

The resurgence of the bento box

In Japan, a thirst for convenience and the growth in TV dinners led to a resurgence of bento’s popularity. The western world had also learnt about bento after workers at sugar plantations transferred the lunchtime tradition to the US.

Character bento, known as kyaraben, emerged in the 1990s and continue to be popular today. Instagram is filled with these edible creations, whilst the likes of Pinterest and other internet sites are bursting with ideas for panda shaped-rice balls and other creatures. Again, bento has become a status symbol with some parents spending almost three quarters of an hour making elaborate bento for their children, according to Christopher D. Salyers, who wrote Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes.

Bento Box Recipes

Why not try some of our Bento Box Recipes!

Read more about Traditional Japanese Fashions

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