Digesting Japanese History: Metaphors Behind Bento

To understand Japanese design, we could start with an everyday item broadly used by the populace, bento (便當).

Bento is a traditional item. It has a more ancient history than lunchboxes in many countries. It silently conveys the implicit message of the chef and, like many agricultural countries, embodies traditional values like veneration of nature and gods. It is a metaphor, a ritual, and a cultural product in Japanese culture.

Despite its ancient history, bento has been passed down for decades, and has stood steadfast against the invasion of global fast-food culture. It is crafted for consumer needs and evolves, not just because of its exquisite appearance. Therefore, the Japanese continue to value classic or modern bento boxes as takeout or personal lunchboxes in their daily lives. People continue to preserve and redevelop traditional tableware and dining culture for everyday use, which has inspired neighbouring countries such as the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and India to develop similar lunchboxes.

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 bentos, people used to make dried rice ball and wrap them 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 were originally designed for picnics, such as cherry blossom viewing and tea parties; as a result, bentos are single-tiered and artistically designed.

  • Edo Period (江戶時期, 1868-1803)

    Kabuki (能劇 Noh theatre) and Bunraku (文樂 puppetry) were popular forms of entertainment during the calm Edo period. Since the audience had the opportunity to meet the actors during intermission, some people would make special bentos with fine food as gifts for their favourite actors. The trend turned the intermission time into an elegant socialising time. Later, the gorgeous, plentiful “makunouchi bento” (幕內便當, makunouchi means intermission) became a tactic for theatres to compete for audiences, and it influenced the banquet-style bento that was later introduced on formal occasions.

    Makunouchi bento

    The literary “柳庭記” from the same era also revealed the origin of the word, bento: “備便而充其用 (prepare convenience and fill when its use)”, referring to something that makes distribution easy during warfare, demonstrating bento’s oldest use.

  • Meiji Period (明治時期, 1868-1972)

    The emperor undertook a massive restoration to advocate learning from the West, which led to the industrialisation and development of advanced transportation and railway systems, allowing people to work far away from home. Passengers would buy “ekiben bento” (駅便當 station bento) at the station to eat while travelling. Ekiben bento continues to play an important role in promoting local foods and agricultural goods through bento today.

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

    With the industrialization of Japan, the need for metals for industrial and military purposes grew rapidly. Aluminium bento boxes became available in the market. It was pricey but easy to clean. However, food shortages following World War 1, only a fraction of the population could afford aluminium bento boxes, causing in social discrimination.

  • The Modern Age

    As microwaves and convenience stores became more common, the fast-food culture grew exponentially. Plastic has replaced wooden or metal bento boxes in many cases, making it more portable. In recent years, however, the Japanese have become more environmentally conscious, using recyclable tableware in schools and offices to reduce pollution.


What’s Inside the Bento?

Materials

Bento boxes 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, bringing peace to Japanese crafts.

When Japan began to industrialise, aluminium and stainless steel bento boxes were popular as status symbols. However, the current generation has become aware of the social and environmental consequences of bento boxes, and prefers recyclable materials to disposable ones.

Contents

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

The bento culture has existed for quite some time. However, the food inside is adaptable and changes with seasons and occasions, yet it always insists on being natural and unique, with no artificial elements. It uses food to silently represent nature and seasons. Furthermore, serving in a small portion allows you to eat conveniently and elegantly in one bite, with no traces or signs of eating. The thoughtfulness and introspection behind them are recognised 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 form of indoctrination, regulates people to eat in a rectangular box. It demonstrates that both the external and internal of the bento embody Japanese order and formality.

Although the appearance of the bento box is set, the food can always be changed, and utilise the space with the puzzle layout. In modern bento design, you can now also include plates, saucers, cups, pitchers, or chopsticks into a bento box. It turns out that bento turns out to be fun and functional.


Philosophy Hidden in the Bento Box

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

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In Japanese culinary philosophy, aesthetics and flavour are valued above all else. To make food delicious-looking, chefs incorporates the five colours of white, black, yellow, red, and green, and the five flavours of sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty into taste and presentation. Sometimes pink or red foods can’t be paired with green foods to create a more harmonious colour scheme. It is also important to avoid overloading with too many elements to maintain the overall harmony. These strict rules instil harmony and tranquilly into the bento, which is why people are impressed and hesitate before eating it.

For food choice, bentos are traditionally made up of basic ingredients like tofu, eggs, vegetables, rice, dried fruits, raw fish, and so on. These ingredients are affordable and little, embodying one of the Japanese design philosophies, “small yet powerful”.

Japanese style does not have a polished aesthetic. It’s gorgeous and simple, harmonic and reflective of nature, seasons, and Zen.


The Japanese have lived on a small island for a long time. Since they couldn’t communicate well with Westerners, they learned new things by looking through the structure, thinking with eyes than heads, and observing or thinking about the details.

Bento is a great example to illustrate this.

We never thought of the lunch box as anything special, but for the Japanese, bento is a frame for capturing the scenery on food, and its beauty has never existed outside a seasonal context. Thus, the bento serves as a means of communication . People used to send bentos as gifts to their favourite celebrities or sicknesses, while today, parents prepare cartoon bento for their children, and many young couples still express their love with bento, just as they did in the past. Even though bento has evolved into a new, non-classical form, its meaning has remained unchanged over the years. In response to the new century, bento culture has adopted to the new millennium.


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