History of the Japanese bento, an “offering” of love and care

Photo: Magewappa, which are made of molded cypress and cedar wood, preserve the freshness and flavor of food by absorbing excess moisture while maintaining some humidity in the container. ©AussieFoods/amanaimages

The word “bento” has become a near-universal term, what with the recent popularity of Japanese food overseas. Here, we look back on the history of the bento and its many variations, offered in all manners of settings and occasions - from homemade bentos to the classic Shokado bentos offered in hospitality settings.

Bentos are portable meals that you eat while outside of the home. A history book compiled at the start of the 8th century showed that people would carry hoshii with them on their travels. Hoshii refers to steamed rice dried under the sun. It was lightweight, doesn’t take up much room, keeps well, and can be eaten as is or blanched in cool or hot water. Hoshii was an excellent portable meal, and is considered to be the very first bento in Japan. It continued to be a staple of portable meals long after the 8th century. It’s said that it keeps for up to 20 years, and even now, it is used in stockpiles of food for disasters.

Hoshii, or dried steamed rice, was used as a portable meal during travels. Photo provided by: Plenus “kome” Academy

Until the end of the 17th century, Japanese people usually ate only two meals a day - breakfast and dinner - and did not eat lunch. The shift to three meals a day happened in the mid-Edo Period (1600-1868), around the start of the 18th century, when the widespread availability of kerosene lamps, and the light they provided at night, lengthened the amount of time many people spent awake and active. As work hours and settings expanded, people began to bring their own bentos with them to work.

Farmers filled menpa, or bent wooden containers, with food such as barley rice and pickled plums, and brought these with them to work. These containers were excellent at absorbing moisture and providing ventilation, and kept meals fresh and delicious even when they had cooled. For work that involved villagers working together from sun-up to sun-down, such as rice-planting, people would usually bring along a large oke (traditional Japanese wooden bucket), filled with rice balls and okazu (Japanese-style side dishes), which everyone would eat together. Fishermen who worked on the ocean would bring along seven go (a Japanese cup, or about 180 milliliters) of rice in a funabento, a two-tiered, tub-shaped container made of Japanese cypress. The okazu in this case were the fish they caught. The work of fishermen is weather-dependent and fraught with danger. Indeed, the funabento container also served as a lifesaving floating device when fishermen fell into the ocean due to shike (rough waters) or typhoons, and as a tool to scoop out water when the boat flooded. Logging, performed by lumberjacks that work in the mountains, is also strenuous work. Lumberjacks filled the main container and lid of menpa with five go, or one sho (about 1.8 liters) of rice each, and brought these with them to work. Hunters, called matagi, who hunted bears in the mountains in the winter, brought along a special food called kanemochi. Kanemochi were rice cakes made with certain wild plants that did not freeze even in the extreme cold of the winter mountains, tens of degrees below freezing. This portable meal helped keep these hunters alive when all other food sources had run out.

The role of bentos, however, was not limited to providing energy to working people. They were also something people for pleasure on special occasions. One such occasion is hanami, an annual tradition that Japanese people look forward to every year. Hanami, a Japanese custom in which people view and appreciate cherry blossoms, began in the Heian Period as a form of leisure amongst aristocrats and samurais. By the mid-Edo Period, the practice had also begun to spread amongst the common people. At the start of the 18th century, the shogunate planted a large amount of cherry trees throughout Edo (former name of Tokyo), allowing people to enjoy the blossoms of cherry trees growing in clusters around the area. With hanami thus encouraged, people went out in droves to see the cherry trees in bloom. They set up banquets under the trees, loosening up, and drinking and eating together. A central feature of these banquets were bentos. They stuffed jubako (tiered Japanese food containers) full of delicacies for everyone to eat, and brought them along with them. Hanamibento, as they were called, were designed to be seen, or “presented” to the group, with special considerations for color and decoration, preparation techniques, flavor, and more. Sageju, or jubako with handles on them, also emerged, making it easier for people to carry around these bentos. Sageju were traditionally used as containers for the nobento (outdoor bento) of aristocrats and feuderal lords during outdoor outings, and are thus made up of different combinations of jubako, sake cups, and serving plates. They became popular amongst the common people in the latter half of the Edo Period, with beautiful, elaborate creations emerging around this period.

Sageju evolved from the nobento used by nobles and feudal lords for hanami. The surface of sageju were exquisitely decorated. ©Alamy /amanaimages

Kabuki* was by far the most popular form of entertainment amongst the common people in the Edo Period. Watching a kabuki play was a day-long affair that started in the morning and ended in the evening. Theatergoers would spend the whole day enjoying themselves - eating, drinking, and chatting amongst themselves. The admission fee included the price for food and drinks, with bentos served during the intervals between segments. These bento, which were made up of yakionigiri (grilled rice balls), kamaboko (Japanese fish cakes), and nimono (simmered side dishes), were called Makunouchi bentos. These bentos, which have white rice and side dishes in the same container, are still a staple of bentos today.

*A traditional Japanese form of theater that was developed in the Edo Period. Many kabuki plays are based on historical stories or dramas, with distinct movements defined by kata (stylized forms), colorful costumes; and more.

The central feature of the Makunouchi bento during the Edo Period was white rice, alongside side dishes like tamagoyaki (Japanese rolled omelette), kamaboko (Japanese fish cakes), and nimono (simmered side dishes). Photo provided by: Plenus “kome” Academy

1872 (Meiji 5) saw the establishment of the railway. While trains were a convenient mode of transportation, they were still quite slow, with the trip from the Ueno to the Utsunomiya area taking about three and a half hours. This resulted in the emergence of ekiben - bentos that passengers could take with them on the train. The very first ekiben was sold in Japan at Utsunomiya Station in 1885 (Meiji 18). It consisted of two rice balls and two slices of takuan (pickled radish) wrapped in a bamboo sheath. The Japanese railway system gradually expanded throughout the country, and with it, the sale of ekiben. In the early days, ekiben mostly consisted of rice balls, sandwiches, and other easy-to-eat meals. From the mid-Meiji Era (1868-1912), however, ekiben started being offered in the style of Makunouchi bento, packaged in boxes made of thin wood. Because the food in these bentos tended to be the same throughout the country, the focus came to be on the kakegami, or wrapping paper, placed on the box to give the bento a regional flair. As such, many of the kakegami produced during this period were adorned with beautiful designs meant to evoke the culture of the region. The thought and care put into the design of these kakegami, which are removed and discarded when the bento is actually eaten, is an expression of a distinctly Japanese sense of beauty. Ekiben made with local specialty ingredients began to emerge in around 1897. This was the start of Japan’s distinct ekiben culture, in which people enjoy local delicacies while admiring the scenery through the windows of moving trains. There’s the taimeshi (sea bream rice) at Shizuoka Station, the shumaibento (Chinese dumpling bento) at Yokohama Station, the ikameshi (rice-filled squid) at Hakodate Station... Nowadays, there are over 3,500 types of ekiben offered in Japan.

Another appeal of ekiben is the containers. The bento boxes used in ekiben are not just functionally excellent - in terms of retaining heat, for instance. They are also made with an eye for design and beauty, and are eco-friendly to boot, with examples that include “Toge no Kamameshi” at Yokokawa Station in Gunma Prefecture, which comes in an earthen pot; the “Masunosushi” at Toyama Station, which comes in a wooden bucket wrapped in bamboo leaves; the “San’in Tottori Kanimeshi” at Tottori Station, which comes in an eco-friendly, biodegradable plastic container; and the “Kuroge Wagyu Motaro Bento” at Matsusaka Station in Mie Prefecture, which plays a music box melody when you open the lid. Nowadays, ekiben is garnering considerable attention even overseas as an exquisite and distinctly Japanese form of food culture.

The Shokado bento, which emerged at the start of the Showa Era (1926-1989), revolutionized the bento scene. It transformed the bento, which until that point had been a portable meal for everyday use, into a meal for motenashi (Japanese-style hospitality). The Shokado bento is made up of a lacquered square box with a black lid, divided into four sections, with each section containing a different dish. This specific design allows for warm and chilled dishes to be presented together, for the flavors and colors of the different dishes to be kept separate, and more. This bento box is then filled with kaiseki, the traditional motenashi cuisine presented at tea ceremonies. It was chef Teiichi Yuki who came up with this type of bento. Yuki, who was also a tea ceremony master, used the spirit of the tea ceremony to come up with the cooking and serving utensils used in the bento, and served it at tea ceremonies to great acclaim. In doing so, he had offered what had once been just a portable meal, in a motenashi setting. The Shokado bento is thus imbued with the spirit of motenashi, - the sincere desire to offer a quality experience - and various cooking techniques. It was Yuki’s wish that Japanese households incorporate Shokado bento in their everyday lives, so that more people would be able to enjoy it. Nowadays, this wish has been fulfilled, with the bento offered not just in tea ceremonies, but also in many Japanese restaurants that have inherited this tradition, and which offer it in a more casual setting. It is a form of motenashi cuisine that is enjoyed in a casual manner due specifically to its format as a bento.

Shokado bento are a type of bento divided into four sections, with small dishes of different colors placed in each section. This type of bento box allows more liquid-y dishes, cool dishes, and warm dishes, to be offered alongside each other. Photo is of the “Shokado Boxed Lunch ‘KICHI.’” © Kyoto Kitcho

The end of the 1990s saw the emergence of the kyaraben, a type of homemade bento. Kyaraben (character bento) is a type of bento in which the bento serves as a “canvas” for depicting characters in popular media - from anime main characters to animals, plants, and more - with various ingredients. They emerged out of the desire of Japanese mothers to give their young children another way to enjoy their bentos. As kyaraben became increasingly creative and imaginative, individuals began to post photos and recipes of their kyaraben on blogs - which had recently become popular - with kyaraben emerging for adults, and even as works of art. In this way, kyaraben transformed bento-making from a necessity into something more akin to a hobby, made with joy and creativity.

A kyaraben with riceballs, nori (dried seaweed), sausages, and usuyaki tamago (thin Japanese omelette) in the shape of an animal, alongside star-shaped carrots, and broccoli for color. ©Photolibrary

Looking back on the history of bento, it is evident that bento are the result of generations of wisdom and ingenuity. They convey a desire to keep those will eat them safe, and the hope that they will enjoy their meal. Their beauty also conveys a distinctly Japanese sensibility and sense of beauty. You could even say bento are a form of communication that connect people’s souls.

Try Japanese-style bento-making!

When making homemade bentos, the standard is rice, with three or more okazu (Japanese-style side dishes). To have a balanced set of okazu, it is good to have one main okazu made of meat or fish, and two side dishes made of vegetables, fish, and/or fish paste products. As bentos are usually eaten several hours after they are made, any meat, fish, or egg included in the bento should be cooked thoroughly. Seasoning these dishes well will also help prevent them from going off. When filling the bento box, the trick is to put in the rice first, then the main, larger okazu, then the other side dishes around it. Making the bento look good is another important part of the process, and having red, green, and/or yellow as colors will help make it look more vibrant. Also remember to cool the food in the bento completely before putting on the lid, in order to prevent them from getting sticky from moisture.

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A quick and easy recipe for the Japanese staple food, rice balls, that don’t involve shaping

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A staple bento okazu (Japanese side dish), loved by all

Grilled Miso-Flavoured Cod
A dish that is seasoned well and keeps well

Japanese Rolled Omelet
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Source: Japanese Bento Culture: A Microcosm of Wisdom and Aesthetics (Hosei University Press), Mieko Gondai

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