Bento Boxes: Japan’s Amazing Cuisine Culture!

Published November 2nd, 2021

Nihongo Master Podcast Recap: s2 e5

In Season 2 Episode 5 of our podcast episode, we’re all about that packed lunch in a box, also known as a bento (弁当). When I was growing up, a lunch box wasn't the coolest thing you could bring to school.In Japan, however, the situation is totally different — opposite, in fact.

Lunchboxes are the norm, and if you don’t bring one, you’ll be the one getting looks. Bento culture is a thing — not only does it save you a few bucks throughout the day, bentos are often curated with a balanced diet in mind, the ideal nutritional value and lots of love.

This article is a recap of what we talked about in our podcast episode: how this bento craze came about, what it signifies, the various types of bentos there are, and just a few do’s and don’ts when making one for yourself. For the full info, tune in to the original episode!

History of Bentos

Packed lunch in Japan has been around for about ten centuries, dating back to the Kamakura period of 1185 to 1333. The word “bento” comes from a slang word of the Chinese Song Dynasty, “biàndāng”, to mean “convenient”. In the early days, people carried around sacks of cooked and dried rice to eat at work.

The Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568 - 1600) was when the iconic lacquered boxes were produced. These boxes were used to store and hold food, and oftentimes they were used for occasions like hanami (cherry blossom viewing), koyou (autumn leaves viewing) and outdoor tea ceremonies. They were like really fancy picnics.

The bento craze was full on during the Edo period (1603 - 1868) — it became an essential part of not only outdoor events but general travel as well. There was even a type of waist bento called koshibento that was used to carry around onigiri rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves!

Bento only became more popular as time went by, and by the time the Meiji period (1868 - 1912) rolled around, it was a staple for everyone, from students to workers. This was also the time when rail systems in Japan were booming, and a type of bento box made of aluminium started selling at stations. Bento became a status symbol over the next couple of decades, depending on what nutritional food the bento consists of and how it’s prepared.

Then, in the 1980s, plastic boxes were used in place of metal ones, thanks to the amazing creation of microwaves that eliminated the need for heat resistant boxes. Wooden bento boxes were used less as well. We also have to thank the convenient konbini scattered everywhere in Japan for the boom in bento popularity.

And so that brings us to today — bento is used for basically every occasion under the sun.

Types of Bento

We looked at a few types of bento boxes. The first one is the Makunouchi. Makunouchi is what one refers to when talking about a traditional Japanese bento. Popping up in the Edo period, this type of bento box includes small onigiri with sesame seeds sprinkled on it and a couple of side dishes to go along.

The next bento type is probably the oldest one on the list — sageju is a type of bento that was used back in the Azuchi Momoyama period for outings, fully equipped with wares like dishes, chopsticks and sake cups. It’s like a neatly-packed, multi-functional box with everything you need for a picnic. Lacquered wooden bako is often used for this type of bento.

Then there’s the eki-ben, probably second to makunouchi when it comes to popularity. Dating back to the Meiji era, this type of bento is the one that’s sold on train stations during the blooming days of railway systems. The first ever eki-ben sold is believed to be in Tochigi Prefecture back in 1885, at a station called Utsunomiya Station.

The original eki-ben was just a simple meal — an onigiri with bamboo sheath wrapped around it. It evolved to become a part of local tourism, with lunch boxes made using local ingredients, featuring local specialties and sometimes promoting local aspects of the city on the box itself.

Significance of Bentos

A bento is more than just a packed lunch box. It takes up a huge part of Japanese culinary culture that it’s quite significant. For Japanese people, bento is like a form of communication between the maker and the eater. You can feel the thought and care, and literally see the effort put in to making the bento just for you.

In Japan, some parents and partners get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning just to orchestrate the perfect onigiri shaped to your favourite cartoon character, or cut the nori in cute shapes.

Do’s & Don’ts

Back in the day, bento wasn’t solely a meal to be eaten; it was a whole experience that tingles all the five senses. While there is tons of content out there dedicated to help you curate the perfect bento, I have a few do’s and don’ts to set you off on the right foot.

First off, make sure you prepare a bento with popping colours. And while you’re choosing the food, harmonise the flavours — don’t have all the varieties be strong in flavour; have some delicate ones that complement each other.

Above all, you have to think about crafting the perfect balanced diet with the right nutritional value. Have some food that is cooked, some raw (if you fancy) and even pickled — variety is always welcome.

The first don’t is to never have both rice and bread in one bento — it’s never good to have too many carbohydrates, and plus, it makes the bento look dull with the neutral colours.

Depending on the situation, try not to make a bento which contains food that needs to be heated up. If you’re making for your kid, there’s a solid chance they don’t have a microwave in class. But if your partner’s office has one, then that should be no problem at all.

Also, opt for food that doesn't really have a strong fragrance!

Vocab Recap

We introduced a few new vocabulary words in the episode, so here’s a quick vocab recap in the form of a list:

Hoshi-ii (干し飯) — cooked and dried rice, but it literally translates to “dried meal”

Bako (箱) — box

Hanami (花見) — cherry blossom viewing

Koyou (紅葉) — autumn leaves

Koshibento (コシ弁当) — waist bento

Onigiri (オニギリ) — rice ball

Makunouchi (幕内) — a classic Japanese bento

sageju (さげじゅ) — a type of bento that was used in the old days for outdoor events

Eki-ben (駅弁) — bento sold at train stations

Ensoku (遠足) — school outings

Kyara-ben (キャラ弁) — character bento

Okazupan (おかずぱん) — savoury bread

Okashipan (お菓子ぱん) — sweet bread

Iro (色) colour

Aji (味) — taste

Gyoza (餃子) — fried dumplings

Korokke (コロッケ) — similar to the French dish, croquette

Onigirazu (おにぎらず) — sushi sandwich

Now you’re a bento expert — from the different types of bento and how the culture came about, to the tips and tricks to making the perfect bento! If you’re interested in knowing more about bentos and Japan’s crazy bento culture, tune in to Nihongo Master podcast Season 2 Episode 5!