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History of Traditional Bento Boxes

Japanese or not, everyone is familiar with the trendy bento boxes. It was intended to pack lunches but we now somehow associate them to food art. This is because many people make creative designs with the food they prepare in the bento boxes to give their loved ones a delicious yet certainly entertaining meal. But aside from this, what else do we really know about bento boxes?

How bento boxes came to be

There were many questions about how the term “bento” started. Some claim that the name was of Taiwanese origin, as it was a slang term for the word “convenience”. Some scholars say that the term was coined by a military commander name Oda Nobunaga during the 16th century in Japan. It was a term he used to describe the meals that he distributed to a large number of people in his castle. While the term itself is a question of origin, the use of bento boxes actually started during the Kamakura Period in Japan.

During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), there was an introduction of dried meals or hoshi-ii. People would bring packed lunches which consisted mainly of dried rice when going out to hunt, farm or do any other means of livelihood. “Bento” during this time was merely a small bag was used to store dried rice, and eaten as is or rehydrated using cold or hot water.

The Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 – 1600) is when the typical and commonly used wooden lacquered bento boxes came to be. However, it wasn’t really used to pack lunches, but mainly for gatherings, such as hanami or cherry blossom viewing parties, and tea parties.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), the use of bento boxes have become widespread. It became an age of cultural flourish. People have not only sought to use them at home to entertain guests, at tea ceremonies and at Buddhist memorial services, people have also considered using them for their travels.

Tourists and travelers during this era bring bento boxes all the time, especially if they plan to go to a theatre or engage themselves in any outdoor activity, like picnics and excursions.

For travellers, they usually pack what is called a koshibento, a bento box hung from the waist. Inside is usually an onigiri, or rice balls. For everyone going to the theatres, bento boxes were packed so that during intermissions, people can enjoy themselves with a tasty treat. If not for these events though, a typical meal in a bento box would consist of rice balls, chestnut, seafood, mushroom, pickles, and bamboo shoot.

In the Meiji Period (1868-1912) came the Japanese railway system. People took advantage of this transportation system by selling ekiben, or bento sold near the stations. It is composed of takuan, a pickled daikon radish, and rice balls with pickled ume fruits that were wrapped in bamboo leaves. As time passed, however, various dishes of ekiben were sold. People even sell European-style bento which had sandwiches instead of rice balls.

Going into the Taisho Period (1912-1926) bento became a symbol of disparity among people. Due to the export boom in World War I, many have experienced turmoil due to the crop failures in the Tohuku area. Bento boxes were used less and less. Wealthy students were the only ones who brought bento boxes to school. Hence, while aluminum bento boxes were designed and introduce during these times, they were nothing more but a symbol of luxury and wealth of the people who use them.

It was only in the 1980s that bento boxes were again able to gain popularity due to the introduction of microwave ovens and affordable bento boxes.

The use of traditional bento boxes has started a long time ago in Japan. It became a symbol of packed meals, beautiful and unforgettable bonding moments with friends and family, and even wealth. This only goes to show, that even a bento box has a rich cultural past that we should recognize and appreciate, as without Japanese culture and history, we may not be able to enjoy bento boxes that we conveniently use today.