Digesting Japanese History: Metaphors Behind Bento

To understand Japanese design, we could start with an everyday object widely used by the public, bento (便當).

Bento as a traditional object, it has longer history than lunchboxes in many countries. It silently conveys the implicit message of the chef and, like many agricultural countries, embodies traditional values like worship of nature and gods. It is a metaphor, a ritual, and a cultural product in the Japanese culture.

Despite its long history, bento has been passed down for centuries, standing firm against the onslaught of global fast-food culture. Not only because of its elegant appearance, but it is also made for user’s needs and it will evolve over time. Therefore, the Japanese continue to cherish classic or modern bento boxes as takeout or personal lunchboxes in daily lives. People keep preserving and redeveloping traditional tableware and dining culture to cope with modern use, which had influenced countries nearby, such as the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and India to develop their lunchboxes in a similar form.

Taiwan bento
Taiwan bento: by ayustety from Tokyo, Japan – IMG_1075, CC BY-SA 2.0, Credit

The History of Bento

  • Late Kamakura Period (鐮倉時期, 1185-1333)

    Before there were bentos, people made dried rice and wrapped it into balls. They kept these rice balls with a cloth called “furoshiki” (風呂敷) when they went to work or on long trips.

  • Azuchi-Momoyama Period (安土桃山時期, 1568-1600)

    Bento boxes of this period were for picnic occasions, such as cherry blossom viewing and tea parties, therefore bentos are single-tiered and look artistic.

  • Edo Period (江戶時期, 1868-1803)

    The peaceful Edo period raised a variety of entertainment such as Kabuki (能劇 Noh theatre) and Bunraku (文樂 puppetry). Since the audience could meet the actors during intermission, some of them would give special bento with exquisite delicacies as a gift to their favourite actors. This turned the intermission time into an elegant socializing time. Later, the gorgeous, plentiful “Makunouchi Bento” (幕內便當, Makunouchi means intermission) became a tool for theatres to compete for audiences and inspired the banquet-style bento that used on formal occasions afterwards.

    Makunouchi bento

    The literary “柳庭記” in the same period also told us the origin of the word, bento: “備便而充其用 (to prepare convenience and fill when its use)”, referring to something that makes convenience on distribution good during warfare, illustrating the earliest use of bento.

  • Meiji Period (明治時期, 1868-1972)

    The emperor carried out a large-scale restoration to advocate learning from the West. This led to the industrialisation and invention of advanced transportation and railway system, which allowed people to work far away from home. Passengers would buy “Ekiben Bento” (駅便當 station bento) at the station to enjoy during the journey. Today, Ekiben Bento still plays an important role in bringing and promoting local food and agricultural products with bento.

    Ekiben bento
    By Photocapy – The advantages of rail travel, CC BY-SA 2.0. Credit
  • Taisho Period (大正時期, 1912-1916)

    Japan gradually became an industrial city, with a high demand for metals in both industrial and military use. Aluminium bento box became available in the market. It was expensive, but easy to clean. However, after World War I, Japan faced food shortages and only a fraction of Japanese could afford aluminium bento boxes, causing discrimination in the society.

  • The Modern Age

    The birth of microwave ovens and convenience stores contributed to the fast-food culture. Many wooden or metal bento boxes were replaced with polystyrene material, making bento boxes more portable. However, the Japanese have become more aware of the environmental issue in recent years; they start to use recyclable tableware in schools and workplaces to reduce environmental pollution.


What’s Inside the Bento?

Materials

Bento can be made of a variety of materials. Lacquered wood is the most expensive material for making traditional bento boxes, followed by oak, magnolia, bamboo leaves, pine, plum or unfinished wood. Among them, pine, bamboo and plum are known as the lucky triad of Japanese art, which brings peace to Japanese crafts.

When Japan entered the industrialisation period, aluminium and stainless steel bento boxes became popular as they could reflect status symbols. However, the new generation noticed the social and environmental problems caused by bento boxes, so they prefer recyclable materials over disposable ones.

Contents

The earliest bento was only filled with rice or rice balls with a red fruit putting in the middle to represent the Japanese national flag; the classic Makunouchi bento contains rice, a few ume fruits, a piece of salmon and sliced rolled eggs. After Japan opened up to the outside world, bento often included a small portion of the western dishes such as pasta and hamburger; when we enjoy cherry blossom, people share bento food in the colour or shape of cherry blossoms with family and friends.

The bento culture has been around for a long time, but the food inside is flexible and changes over time and occasion, yet still insists on natural and original with no artificial elements. It silently reflects nature and seasons with food. Also, serving in small portion lets you eat conveniently and elegantly in one bite, without letting others notice any traces or signs of eating, which the thoughtfulness and introspection behind regarded as a typical Japanese style.

Structure

Bento is well divided into several partitions, and many Japanese crafts are also in a similar box layout. It is a kind of indoctrination, a Japanese table manners which regulates people to eat in a rectangular box. This shows that both the external and internal of the bento embodies the order and formality of the Japanese.

Although the appearance of the bento box is fixed, it is always possible to change the food and utilise the space with the puzzle layout. In modern bento design, you can also place plates, saucers, cups, pitchers, or even chopsticks into a bento box. It turns out that bento becomes a playful, functional art.


Philosophy Hidden in the Bento Box

Making it so delicious-looking you could eat it with your eyes.

Japan Forum Newsletter

In Japanese culinary philosophy, people highly value aesthetics and flavour above all else. Chefs prepare food with the intentions of making it delicious-looking, incorporating the 5 colours, “white, black, yellow, red, and green” and the 5 flavours, “sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty” into flavour and presentation. The 5 colours are originated from nature and sometimes pink or red foods cannot pair with green goods to make colours more harmonious. It is also important not to put too many elements to avoid upsetting the overall balance. These strict rules instill so much harmony and calm into the bento, and that is why people are impressed and hesitate for a few seconds before eating it.

For food choice, a traditional bento would contain basic dishes like tofu, eggs, vegetables, rice, dried fruits, raw fish and so on. These ingredients are affordable, inexpensive and the portion in the bento are little, which has embodied one of the Japanese design philosophy, “small but powerful”.

The beauty in Japanese style is not sophisticated, it is basic but truly beautiful, harmonious and reflecting nature, seasons and Zen.


The Japanese have lived on a small island for a long time. Since they cannot communicate well with Westerners, they used to learn new things by seeing through the structure, thinking more with eyes than heads, being good at observing or thinking the details.

Bento is a good example to illustrate this.

We never thought of the lunch box as anything special, but for the Japanese, bento is a frame to capture the scenery on food, and its beauty has never existed outside a seasonal context. Thus the bento is a way to communicate. In the old days, people sent bentos as a gift to favourite actors, singers or the sickness, while today parents make cartoon bento for their children and many young couples still express their love with bento. Even though bento has changed to another form, no longer classical, a more casual and modernised bento has still preserved its meaning over the centuries, and this is the answer that bento culture responds to the new century.


References

Kenji Ekuan (1998). The Aesthetics Of The Japanese Lunchbox. London: The MIT Press.

李佩玲 (2002). 和風浮世繪 日本設計的文化性格. 台北: 田園文化.

Ngoc (2007). History of Bento. http://www.cookingcute.com/history_of_bento.htm

Eva Lucks (2001). Eating Our Way Through Japanese History — A Brief Study of the Obento. Retrieved from Washington University in St. Louis, Arts and Science website: http://artsci.wustl.edu/~copeland/obento.html