To understand Japanese design, we can begin with a ubiquitous item used by many people: the bento box.
Bento is a traditional item with a long history in many countries. It conveys the implicit message of the chef and, like many agricultural countries, embodies traditional values such as respect for nature and gods. It is a metaphor, a ritual, and a cultural product in Japanese culture.
Despite its long history, bento has been passed down for decades and has resisted the global fast-food culture. It is crafted to meet consumer needs and evolves, not just for its appearance. Therefore, the Japanese continue to value classic or contemporary bento boxes as takeout or personal lunchboxes in their daily lives. People preserve and redevelop traditional tableware and dining culture for everyday use, inspiring neighbouring countries such as the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and India to develop similar lunchboxes.
The History of Bento
Late Kamakura Period (鐮倉時期, 1185-1333)
Before Bentos, people made dried rice balls and wrapped them with a cloth called “furoshiki” (風呂敷) for work or long trips.
Azuchi-Momoyama Period (安土桃山時期, 1568-1600)
Bento boxes were originally created for picnics, such as cherry blossom viewing and tea parties. As a result, they are typically single-tiered and decorated with care.
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 peaceful Edo period. Audiences had the chance to meet the actors during intermission, so some people would bring special Bentos with fine food as gifts for their favourite actors. This trend transformed intermission time into an elegant socialising time. Later, the luxurious, abundant “makunouchi bento” (幕內便當 makunouchi means intermission) became a tactic for theatres to attract audiences, and it influenced the banquet-style bento that was later used for formal occasions.
The literary “柳庭記” from the same era also revealed the origin of the word bento: “備便而充當其用 (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 initiated a major restoration to embrace knowledge from the West, which resulted in industrialisation and the development of advanced transportation and railway systems, enabling people to work far away from home. Passengers would purchase “ekiben bento” (駅便當 station bento) at the station to eat while travelling. Ekiben bento still plays a significant role in promoting local foods and agricultural products through bento today.
Taisho Period (大正時期, 1912-1916)
With the industrialization of Japan, the need for metals for industrial and military purposes increased drastically. Aluminium bento boxes became available in the market, although expensive but easy to clean. However, due to food shortages following World War 1, only a tiny portion of the population could afford aluminium bento boxes, leading to social discrimination.
The Modern Age
As microwaves and convenience stores became more widespread, the fast-food culture grew exponentially. Plastic has replaced wooden or metal bento boxes, making them more portable. The Japanese have recently become more environmentally conscious, using recyclable tableware in schools and offices to reduce pollution.
What’s Inside the Bento?
Bento boxes can be made from a range of materials. Lacquered wood is the most expensive for traditional bento boxes, followed by oak, magnolia, bamboo leaves, pine, and plum. Pine, bamboo, and plum are known as the “lucky triad” of Japanese art, symbolizing peace.
When Japan began industrializing, aluminium and stainless steel bento boxes were popular as status symbols. However, the current generation knows bento boxes’ social and environmental impacts and prefers recyclable materials over disposable ones.
The earliest bentos contained only rice or rice balls with red fruit in the centre to represent the Japanese national flag. The classic makunouchi bento includes 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 western dishes such as pasta and hamburgers. When celebrating cherry blossoms, people share bento food in the shape or colour of cherry blossoms with family and friends.
The bento culture has been around for a while. However, the food inside is adaptable and changes with the seasons and occasions. It always emphasizes being natural and unique, with no artificial elements. It uses food to silently represent nature and the seasons. Furthermore, serving in small portions allows you to eat conveniently and elegantly in one bite, with no traces or signs of eating. The thoughtfulness and introspection behind them are recognized as a typical Japanese style.
Bento is divided into several compartments, and many Japanese crafts also follow a similar box layout. This organization encourages people to eat in rectangular boxes, demonstrating the Japanese emphasis on order and formality. The appearance of the bento box is fixed, but the food can be changed to make the most of the space. Nowadays, bento boxes can also include plates, saucers, cups, pitchers, or chopsticks, making them both fun and functional.
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, aesthetics and flavour are valued above all else. To make food look and taste delicious, chefs incorporate the five colours of white, black, yellow, red, and green and the five flavours of sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty. It is important to pair colours harmoniously and to avoid overloading with too many elements. These rules create harmony and tranquillity in the bento, which is why people are impressed and hesitate before eating it.
Bento boxes traditionally contain basic ingredients such as tofu, eggs, vegetables, rice, dried fruits, and raw fish. These ingredients are affordable and small, embodying the Japanese design philosophy of “small yet powerful”.
Japanese style has a natural beauty that is both simple and harmonious. It reflects nature, the changing seasons, and the Zen philosophy.
The Japanese have lived on a small island for a long time. As communication with Westerners was difficult, they developed new ways of learning by observing the structure, using their eyes rather than their heads and paying attention to details. Bento is a great example of this.
We never considered the lunch box anything special, but for the Japanese, bento is a way to capture the beauty of food in a seasonal context. It serves as a form of communication. People used to give Bentos as gifts to their favourite celebrities or those ill. Today, parents make cartoon bento for their children, and many young couples still express their love with bento, just as they did in the past. Despite its evolution into a new, non-classical form, its meaning has remained unchanged. In response to the new century, bento culture has been adapted to the new millennium.
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