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History of Traditional Bento Boxes

Japanese or not, everyone is familiar with now trendy bento boxes. Bento boxes were created simply to pack lunches, but recently they have become something of a culinary art as many people make creative designs with the food they prepare in the bento boxes. But where does bento come from?

How bento boxes came to be

The origin of the word “bento" is a murky one. Some claim that the name is of Taiwanese origin, from a slang term for a word meaning “convenience.” Some scholars believe it was coined by military commander Oda Nobunaga during the 16th century to describe the meals that he distributed to a large number of people in his castle. While their name remains a mystery, bento boxes began to be used in Japan almost a thousand years ago.

During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), people began to pack dried meals, called hoshi-ii, when going out to work or hunt. “Bento” during this time was merely a small bag used to store dehydrated rice that was either eaten dry or rehydrated. The Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568 – 1600) is when the typical wooden lacquered bento boxes appeared, though instead of packing lunches, they were used mainly for storing food at gatherings and parties.

During the Edo Period (1603-1868), bento boxes become common. During this age of cultural flourishing, people have not only sought to use bento for entertaining, at tea ceremonies, and at Buddhist memorial services, but also for travel lunches, as their ancestors had. Tourists and travelers commonly carried bento, especially if they planned to go to a theatre or engage themselves in any outdoor activity, like picnics and excursions. Travelers usually packed what is called a koshibento, a bento box hung from the waist. A typical lunch would consist of rice balls, chestnuts, seafood, mushrooms, pickles, and bamboo shoots.

In the Meiji Period (1868-1912) came the Japanese railway system. People took advantage of this transportation system and its crowds of passengers by selling ekiben near the stations. A typical ekiben meal is composed of takuan, a pickled daikon radish, and rice balls with pickled ume fruits that were wrapped in bamboo leaves. As time passed, ekiben dishes grew in variety, and eventually people even sold European-style bento with sandwiches instead of rice balls.

In the Taisho Period (1912-1926), bento became a symbol of wealth disparity. During World War I, many people went through financial hardship due to the crop failures in the Tohuku area. Bento boxes became far less popular, as wealthy individuals were the only ones who could afford to bring them to school or work. Hence, while aluminum bento boxes were designed and introduce during these times, they became a symbol of luxury and wealth of the people who used them and were not widespread until later. It was only in the 1980s that bento boxes were again able to gain popularity due to the convenience of microwave ovens and falling prices.

The use of traditional bento boxes has started a long time ago in Japan. It became a symbol of packed meals, fun outings 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.