Bento (lunch box) (弁当)

Bento is a kind of portable food and is the equivalent of one meal. It can be classified broadly into two kinds: Homemade and ready-made bento which is on sale. This section mainly describes Japanese bento.

Origin of the word (etymology)
Bento' is derived from informal language '便當' in the Chinese Southern Sung dynasty which means 'convenience' or 'usefulness.'
便當' came into Japan, and Kanji such as '便道', '辨道' were applied to it.
Because it has the meaning of 'prepared and applied for use' '弁えて(そなえて)用に当てる,' the Kanji characters '辨當' were applied and then were considered to have been used as the meaning of '辨當箱.'


Custom of carrying cooked food is found worldwide. Examples of the simplest kind include tsampa of Tibet.

India has the custom of carrying chapati and curry in stackable containers called dabbawala while United States (mainland) has the custom of carrying a light sandwich with peanut butter and jam (called peanut butter and jelly sandwich) and fruit in a lunch box.

Japan has a long history of bento, and its development has been unparalleled in the world's history of bento. Probably this is because Japonica-origin rice (generally eaten in Japan) tastes relatively good even when it becomes cold (after cooked) unlike india-origin rice. Traditional Japanese bento comes with rice, seafood, and meat as a side dish, and tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables) like umeboshi (pickled ume (plum) as a relish. Bento filled with rice ball or rice stuffed with sushi is also popular.
The portable container used to put ingredients in is called a 'lunchbox.'
Lunchbox in Japanese is literally translated into English as 'bento.'
Traditional Japanese bento is prepared by each family. Preparing bento used to be one of the most important roles for housewives.

During the Meiji period, in Japan, railway stations started to sell bentos, and supermarkets and the above-mentioned outlet stores started to sell them after World War II. In Japan, a bento store (vendor) which specialized in takeout bento or convenience stores emerged from the late 1980's to the 1990's. Then, the number of people who purchased ready-made bento from these stores increased. Suppliers that deliver bentos to convenience stores operate 24 hours a day.

Some suppliers make tens of thousands of bentos a day. There are also many catering restaurants and fancy Japanese-style restaurants that can respond to events such as group tours or memorial services (Buddhist service) where large quantities of and certain levels of luxurious diet bentos are required.

Also, when neighboring nations were annexed by Japan, bento culture was spread outside Japan.

In Taiwan, the custom of using bento including Ekiben (box lunch sold on trains or at stations) took root there when the nation was governed by Japan. Therefore, there are now many bento stores in urban area and on National Routes which are prosperous (though it is written as '便當' not 弁当). It is thought that the spread of Bento in Taiwan is partly because the rice variety such as Chi Shang rice, similar to Japanese rice, was introduced. Unlike Taiwan, South Korea does not have many bentos available except Ekiben (called dosirak). Even so, bentos are sold in convenience stores. China did not have the custom of eating cold rice at all.

In recent years, however, the habit of adding a main ingredient to rice in a lunchbox and warming it in a microwave oven to eat, has been formed. In Shanghai unlike other areas of China, bento is becoming more popular because convenience stores mainly Japanese convenience stores have been selling bento intending to spread it as '便当' which is the origin of a word '弁当' (bento).
(TV Program called "NHK Special: Win the hearts and minds of 1.3 billion consumers!" which aired on March 5, 2005)


The origin of bento goes back to the Heian period. At that time, besides 'tonjiki' (egg-shaped glutinous rice ball), cooked dried-rice called 'dried boiled rice ('干し飯' (ほしいい or '糒' - ほしいい) was used as a potable food. Dried boiled rice could be kept in a small container, and could be eaten as is or after cooked in water. After the Azuchi-Momoyama period, a lacquer lanchbox that can still be found Today was introduced.

After that, bentos came to be used for occasions like cherry blossom viewing or a tea ceremony.

During the Edo period when universal peace was maintained, bento became a wide ranging culture and at the same time a graceful culture. Travelers and tourists prepared a simple 'packed lunch' to carry around. Packed lunch was a set of rice balls wrapped in bamboo sheath or placed in a bamboo basket. Makunouchi-bento' is still popular and which also emerged in the Edo period. There is a theory that the name Makunouchi-bento comes from the fact that people who saw Noh and Kabuki (traditional drama performed by male actors) enjoyed this special bento during intervals (between acts), that is, Makuai, and this theory is widely accepted.. It is said that many how-to books on bento were published during that time. These books covered the detailed and specific instructions on how to cook, wrap, and decorate bentos intended for people who prepared for the Doll Festival or cherry blossom viewing.

Unlike Today, during the Meiji period when school lunches were not available and the food service business had not been well developed, government officials working at administrative institutions still went to work carrying a packed lunch like ones used during the Edo period.
Therefore, a low-paid lower ranked government official was called 'packed lunch.'
Because schools in the Meiji period did not provide school lunches, students and teachers had to bring their own bentos. At this time, the first Ekiben were put on sale. There are several theories regarding where Ekiben was started. Therefore it is not certain when, but it has been estimated that Ekiben were started from the late 1870's to the early 1880's. Initial Ekiben was quite simple as it included only rice balls and takuan (pickled radish) wrapped in a bamboo sheath. At this time, a European style bento like sandwich came to be available.

In the Taisho period, there were moves to discard the custom of bringing bento to school, and it developed into a social problem. After World War I and following continuous poor crop yield, the number of migrants from Tohoku region to urban area increased. Therefore, the income gap was widened, and large gap between rich and poor had emerged. People at the time thought this phenomenon could give undesirable influence to children both physically and mentally.

In the Showa period, an anodized aluminum lunchbox was developed. The lunchbox was bright silver as described in the novel "Twenty-Four Eyes Trailer" written by Sakae TSUBOI, and furthermore maintenance was easy. So it became the envy of people of that time. When many elementary schools used a stove as a heating appliance, anodized aluminum lunchboxes brought to school were directly placed onto the stove in order to keep it warm or heat it up.

After World War II, lunch at school was replaced by school lunches that came to be available for all students and teachers in schools. This gradually reduced the custom of bringing bento to school. Today, however, school lunch system was abolished in some areas due to the public administration's effort to reduce the cost. Then, the custom of bringing bento from home is said to have been revived. Preparing bento used to be work done by housewives. Then, due to increased woman's chance of working outside, the number of students who buy rice balls or bread at a convenience store to take to school have increased. In the 1970's, with the help of the Discover Japan campaign launched by the Japan National Railways (JNR), the number of tourists who used the railway increased.

With this increase, Ekiben became diversified by using local products, local dishes, or something related to a particular tourist spot. Vendor that delivered bentos to small businesses which did not have their own cafeteria became popular.

During that time, a jar type thermos lunchbox was developed and sold. The spread of this type of lunchbox allowed one who brought bentos to their workplaces or schools to enjoy a warm bento. However, this type of lunchbox was disadvantageous in that it was too large to put in a bag. Therefore, one had to carry a lunchbox over one's shoulder besides a bag in order to have a warm bento at lunchtime. There was also the problem if dropping a lunchbox, it would damage what was inside.

From the late 1970's to the 1980's, Bento reappeared in new markets.

One was the rise of takeout bento (so-called Hokaben). It is notable that Hokka-Hokka Tei founded in 1976 dramatically increased its sales using the franchise system. The other were the sales at convenience stores that had spread rapidly. Its sales point was you could warm a bento in a microwave oven there to eat. Meanwhile, bentos also became available on sozai corner (selling corner of daily dish) at supermarkets.
These created a new trend of 'taking a bento home to eat.'

Then number of vendors who came to sell lunches to the inner city, with few dining halls, increased rapidly. Bento businesses boasting warm bento delivered at specified times also became available. In response to such a move, heat-resistant plastic lunchbox gradually replaced metal lunchbox typified by a packed meal in an oversized lunch-box.

In the 1990's when the Heisei period started, convenience stores as well as warm bentos became popular in local areas, Ekiben heated by chemical reaction became available. Since about 2003, soraben (box lunch sold at airports) had been experiencing a boom. Passengers eat it while waiting to board their airplane. Since about 2005, kyara-ben (character bento), bento with love (mainly from mother to child) had become prevalent.

Since about 2007, low-priced 250 YEN bento had been available in shops along the street, and became prevalent in the center of metropolitan areas where economically sensible. Low-priced bentos had been available before 2007, but it was these days that this type of bento was established as one of the categories.

In 2008, due to the recession, the number of people who brought their own bento increased in an effort to cut corners. That year spawned a new word 'bento boy' which meant a single man who prepared bento by himself. Furthermore, the thermos lunchbox developed and released in the 1970's further evolved, and it was not what used to be (large lunchbox of a decade ago) but a new type of thermos lunchbox slim enough to slip into a man's bag. In recent years, colorful and fancy downsized thermos lunchboxes for woman are appearing.

How to prepare bento

Mainstream bento now available, such as Makunouchi-bento, reflects the traditional Japanese dietary habit of having rice as staple diet.
There is no specific set pattern but as a typical example, the volume of those bentos are set in the ratio of 4,3,2,1:
Four for rice. Three for an accompanying dish consisting of fish or meat. Two for vegetables; one for tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables) or dessert.

To prepare bento, the most important thing is to prevent food poisoning. Especially during summer, you have to be very careful. Several preventive measures should be taken. First, food must be fully cooked or heated. Hot rice and an accompanying dish must be cooled before it is sealed. Moreover, bento must be kept in a cool place with less moisture. To prevent spoilage, pickled ume (plum) is often used.

Moist food must be carefully packed or completely avoided. If not, liquids are mixed with other accompanying dishes, and might cause misery. If a bento contains rice, you must try to cool it by ensuring a proper airflow. This is because accompanying dishes become watery due to condensation from the rice if the bento is sealed.

Various bentos

Aisai bento
Packed lunch made by one's beloved wife's fair hands

Ekiben (box lunch sold on a train or at a station)
Soraben (box lunch sold at airports)
Hayaben (locally prepared box lunch sold at an expressway service area)
Informal kaiseki (meal served during the doeml tea ceremony) which contains various foods in a crosswise-partitioned lunchbox.

Nori-bento (Seaweed Lunch Box)
Box lunch with dried seaweed placed on rice.

Box lunch with a red pickled plum in the center of white rice that represents the Japanese national flag. This is one of the simplest box lunches.

Lunch provided to a film crew on location


There is a place-name called Fukumuro aza Bentoniban, Miyagino Ward, Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture. Bentoniban' is the part of a place-name, and 'niban' is not a lot number. The place-name (koaza: small administrative unit of a village) originated because ashigaru (common foot soldier) of the Sendai Domain had bento there a long time ago. There used to be Bentoichiban through Bentosanban. However, Bentoichiban is no longer available because of changes in the addressing system.

Vulgarly, the suspended time of imprisonment or prison terms are sometimes called 'Obento.'
(For example, with two-year-obento)
Name of personal computer software 'Bento' produced by FileMaker came from bento.

So, the icon is designed in the motif of a lunchbox.

Typical bento chain store in Japan

Origin Toshu Co., Ltd.
Don Don
Hirai Co. Inc. (food manufacture)
Hokka-Hokka Tei: the third largest chain in the industry
Honke Kamadoya: the largest chain in the industry
Hotto Motto: the second largest chain in the industry

[Original Japanese]