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The Bento Box: A History

If you are a fan of Japanese culture, one of the notable Japanese crafts that would come to mind would be the bento box, or the Japanese lunch box. It is commonly used in authentic Japanese restaurants as well, which orignated from the traditional bento of home packed meals or single meal takeouts. A typical bento box usually contains rice, meat or fish, with vegetables that is either cooked or pickled. Bentos usually range from mass produced disposable ones to lacquerware that is especially handcrafted. Bentos can be seen all over, from convenience shops to department stores, even at railway stations. However, despite its wide availability, Japanese homemakers actually devote a lot of their time and energy in carefully preparing bento boxes for their kids, husband, or for themselves.

The early days of the bento

The beginning of the bento goes as far back as the fifth century, when Japanese men left their homes to hunt, fish, tend to their fields, or fight a war, as this meant they needed to bring packed lunch with them to eat. These lunch boxes usually included lunch staples like potatoes, rice or rice with millet.

The Kamakura Era

This period saw the rise of the Hoshi-ii, which translated to dried meal. Hoshi-ii was composed of dried and cooked rice packed in a tiny container and was meant to be consumed as is or upon rehydration with hot or cold water.

The Azuchi Momoyama Era

In this era, the wooden lacquered bento was born. Meals in bento boxes were offered during tea parties and cherry blossom viewing parties also known as hanami.

The Edo Era

With the prosperity of this era, the bento became more popular. The bento was used during outdoor travels or even brought to theaters. Japanese travelers would carry with them the koshibento, which translates to waist bento, containing onigiri covered in bamboo leaves or placed inside a bamboo box. The more widely known makunouchi bento, or the between-scene bento, contained onigiri with sesame seeds together with a lot of other side dishes. It was also during this era that the use of the bento has evolved into an art form.

The Meiji Era

It was during this period that saw the rise of the railway system, which also led to the birth of the ekiben, or the station bento. The early versions of the ekiben contained rice balls and takuan, together with umeboshi fillings that were tuck into bamboo leaves. Until now, various types of ekiben are being sold at different railway stations.

The Taisho Era

This era gave birth to the very first aluminum bento box, which was looked upon as a luxury item because of its silver like appearance. It was also easier to clean. Because of the World War I, the difference between the rich and the poor became more distant, and the bento being carried by Japanese kids to school became a symbol of their families’ wealth. A movement put an end to this type of discrimination and after WWII, the bringing of bento boxes to school eventually died out.

The bento boxes of today

Nowadays, bento boxes can still be seen both in schools and workplaces. However, mothers have been busier and therefore lesser time devoted to creating ornate bento boxes, hence the rise of the ready made bento boxes being sold in convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants and department stores.

The bento boxes of today are made of various materials such as aluminum, plastic, with the traditional wooden bento still available. Bento boxes are not just rectangular anymore but there are also those oval and circular shaped. Designer bento boxes are now also available such as those with famous cartoon characters like the well-loved Hello Kitty. Sold along with bento boxes are matching chopsticks, pouches and cloths called furoshiki that wrap up everything.