A is a single-portion take-out
or home-packed meal of Japanese
origin. Outside Japan, it is common in Chinese
cuisines, as well as in Southeast Asian cuisines
is the main staple food. A traditional ''bento'' may contain rice or noodles with fish or meat, often with pickled
and cooked vegetables in a box.
["Bento: Changing New York's Lunch Culture," ''Chopsticks NY,'' vol. 27, July 2009, p. 10-11.]
Containers range from mass-produced disposables
to hand-crafted lacquerware
. ''Bento'' are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience store
s, , railway stations, and department store
s. However, Japanese homemakers
often spend time and energy on carefully prepared box lunches
for their spouses, children, or themselves. ''Bentos'' can be elaborately arranged in a style called "''kyaraben
''" ("character ''bento''"), which are typically decorated to look like popular characters from Japanese animation (anime
), comic books (manga
), or video games
. Another popular ''bento'' style is "''oekakiben''" or "picture ''bento''". This is decorated to look like people, animals, buildings and monuments or items such as flowers and plants. Contests are often held where ''bento'' arrangers compete for the most aesthetically attractive arrangements.
There are somewhat comparable forms of boxed lunches in East Asian countries including mainland China and Taiwan (''biàndāng'' in Mandarin
and "piān-tong" in Taiwanese Hokkien
) and Korea (''dosirak
''), and in Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines (''baon'') and Thailand (pin-tou). Hawaiian culture has also adopted localized versions of ''bento'' featuring local tastes after over a century of Japanese influence.
There has also been discussion regarding what the bento means for Japanese society and what it represents. The analyses range from a simple semiotic
approach to one that outlines the deeper ideological meanings behind the bento.
In Japan, "''bento''" is written as . The word originates from the Southern Song slang
term ( ()), meaning "convenient" or "convenience". When imported to Japan, it was written with the ateji
語源由来辞典 (Etymology Dictionary)
The word "''bento''" has been used since the 13th century, and the container itself, also called "''bento''", has been known since the 16th century.
In modern times, bento is commonly used in Western countries and East Asia. In mainland China
, Hong Kong
, "''bento''" is written as ().
The origin of ''bento'' can be traced back to the 12th century during the Kamakura period
, when cooked and dried rice called ''hoshi-ii'' ( or , literally "dried meal") was developed, to be carried to work.
[ ''Hoshi-ii'' can be eaten as is or boiled with water to make cooked rice, and is stored in a small bag. By the 16th centhury, wooden lacquered boxes were produced, and ''bento'' would be eaten during a ''hanami'' or a tea party.
In the Edo period (1603–1867), ''bento'' culture spread and became more refined. Travelers and sightseers would carry a simple ''koshibentō'' (, "waist ''bento''"), consisting of several ''onigiri'' wrapped with bamboo leaves or in a woven bamboo box. One of the most popular styles of ''bento'', called ''makuno-uchi bentō'' ("between-act ''bento''"), was first made during this period. People who came to see ''Noh'' and Kabuki ate specially prepared ''bentos'' between ''maku'' (acts). Numerous cookbooks were published detailing how to cook, how to pack, and what to prepare for occasions like ''hanami'' and ''Hinamatsuri''.
In the Meiji period (1868–1912), the first ''ekibentō'' or ''ekiben'' ( or , "train station ''bento''") was sold. There are several records that claim where ''ekiben'' was first sold, but it is believed that it was sold on 16 July 1885, at the Utsunomiya train station, in the northern Kantō region of Japan, and contained two ''onigiri'' and a serving of ''takuan'' wrapped in bamboo leaves. As early schools did not provide lunch, students and teachers carried ''bentos'', as did many employees. European style ''bentos'' with sandwiches also went on sale during this period.
In the Taishō period (1912–1926), the aluminum ''bento'' box became a luxury item because of its ease of cleaning and its silver-like appearance. Also, a move to abolish the practice of ''bento'' in school became a social issue. Disparities in wealth spread during this period, following an export boom during World War I and subsequent crop failures in the Tohoku region. A ''bento'' too often reflected a student's wealth, and many wondered if this had an unfavorable influence on children both physically, from lack of adequate diet, and psychologically, from a clumsily made ''bento'' or the richness of food. After World War II, the practice of bringing ''bentos'' to school gradually declined and was replaced by uniform food provided for all students and teachers.
''Bentos'' regained popularity in the 1980s, with the help of the microwave oven and the proliferation of convenience stores. In addition, the expensive wood and metal boxes have been replaced at most ''bento'' shops with inexpensive, disposable polystyrene boxes. However, even handmade ''bentos'' have made a comeback, and they are once again a common, although not universal, sight at Japanese schools. ''Bentos'' are still used by workers as a packed lunch, by families on day trips, as well as for school picnics and sports days. The ''bento'', made at home, is wrapped in a ''furoshiki'' cloth, which acts as both bag and table mat.
In other countries/regions
The ''bento'' made its way to Taiwan in the first half of the 20th century during the Japanese colonial period and remains popular to the present day.
The Japanese name was borrowed as (Taiwanese: ''piān-tong'') or Mandarin ''biàndāng'' (便當). Taiwanese bento always includes protein, such as a crispy fried chicken leg, a piece of grilled mackerel and marinated pork chop, as well as the side dishes. Taiwan Railway Bento is a well known bento manufactured and distributed by the Taiwan Railways Administration at major railway stations and in train cars. It is estimated that, with five million boxed meals sold per annum, the annual revenue from bento distribution is 370 million NTD (approx. 10 million USD).
In Korea, the packed lunch boxes are called Dosirak (also spelled ''"doshirak"'') and they are either made at home or bought at the store. They are similar to Japanese bento but slightly different. Korean bento boxes are usually made with a few different vegetable and meat side dishes. The special ingredient is Kimchi which adds the Korean element to the bento box.
In Japan, it is common for mothers to make ''bento'' for their children to take to school. Because making ''bento'' can take a while, some mothers will prepare the ingredients the night before, and then assemble and pack everything the following morning before their children go to school. It is often a social expectation of mothers to provide bento for their children, to create both a nutritionally balanced and aesthetically pleasing meal.
This activity is expected of the mother and emphasized by society at large, and is common in nursery school institutions.
The traditional bento that is eaten at school or at work, is most often prepared by the mother or the wife. However,it can also be bought in konbini (mini-markets) or from street vendors who appear on street corners at lunchtime. For those in a hurry who have to spend their lunch time aboard the shinkansen (Japanese bullet train,) there is also the bento ekiben which, as its name suggests, is on sale in the train stations. Bento is also present in more solemn moments, even on the Japanese New Year's table for example. Then called osechi, it comes in two or three levels and contains expensive dishes that are eaten at this high point of the Japanese calendar.
Interpretations of Bento
Many scholars have had a take on the bento in the late 20th century. The foundation of their approach is based on the idea that food can carry many different meanings.
In the 1970’s, Chie Nakane used the ekiben, a specific type of bento sold in train stations, as a metaphor for group organization in Japan. By comparing this variant of bento to groups in Japan, he considered how different organizations in Japanese society often include identical components so it does not depend on any other groups for its success. For O-Young Lee in 1984, the bento is utilized to present the reductionism tendencies of Japanese culture. All the food in this Japanese style lunch box is only able to be reduced to fit in a little box due to it being Japanese food; it naturally lends itself to being tightly packed. Roland Barthes, on the other hand, used a symbolic approach to describe the lack of a centerpiece in Japanese food. He described the distinct contents of a bento box as a multitude of fragments or ornaments that are thrown together to beautify each other. Joseph Jay Tobin in 1992 discussed how the meticulous assembly of individual bentos has been aided by the reinterpretation of Western goods, practices, and ideas through a process he classified as domestication.
Bento and the ideological state apparatus
In 1991, Ann Allison gives an interpretation of the obento, another variant of the bento, as an “ideological state apparatus” that is a conduit for motherhood, education, and the state
in her book ''Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan''. She has stated that the mother, who is the producer of the obento, and the child, who is the consumer, are both under heavy scrutiny by the institutions surrounding them. Thus, their roles in society are further cemented through the ideological and gendered meanings embedded with the obento.
The basis for Allison’s argument is from a concept created by Louis Althusser. The idea behind an ideological state apparatus is that they are able to exert power through ideology through items like mass media and education rather than through repression. The ideology becomes effective as it manifests into one’s identity instead of it remaining as an outside thought.
Allison structures her thoughts into three sections, with the first being an investigation of Japanese food as a cultural myth. She presents old Japanese obento magazines and journals that describe concerns on the strains that the obento puts on the mother and the child which segue into her point that the significance of this Japanese lunch box goes much deeper than that of mere sustenance which is appoints as the first-order myth. Since one of the codes regarding the presentation of Japanese food emphasizes the look of naturalness over genuine naturality, Allison articulates that this is how Japanese food can be subject to cultural and ideological manipulation. This is where it becomes a second-order myth as the practice of the obento is able to serve a different end. As a result, she takes the presence of an order to the food to suggest a fundamentally correct way to do things in society.
Allison builds upon the previous statements and presents a third order that deals with manipulation and the rituals surrounding the obento: the school system instills the routine with the obentos in order to assimilate the mothers and their children to the gendered roles that are expected of them by the state. It is believed that schools shape children’s views on the world and that the rules and patterns of group living in Japan are introduced to a child starting in nursery school. As a result, the obento becomes a test for the child as finishing the entire obento in a timely manner is encouraged and enforced by the nursery school teacher. Furthermore, the successful integration into the Japanese school system can be seen to depend on the child’s deference to authority and learned knowledge to obey rules through the obento practice. Even if a child is caught misbehaving in school, the teacher may describe the child’s progress on his or her obento instead of directly referencing the wrongdoing that was committed.
This discussion wraps up by relating motherhood to the obentos. A child would not be able to take an obento to school without the labor of the mother. On average, mothers spend anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five minutes every morning preparing their child’s obento and even more time is dedicated to preparing on the previous day. Allison interprets this as a sign of a woman’s commitment to being a mother which in turn should influence her child to be a good student. It is taken one step further by explaining the experience of making the obento becomes a part of the mother’s identity. As this process starts at the nursery school level, Allison determines that motherhood becomes institutionalized through the child’s school. This means that the obento is not only a test for the child, but it also becomes a representation and product of the mother herself.
* ''Chūka bentō'' () are filled with Chinese food and often used as an appetizer or a midnight "snack".
* ''Hinomaru bento'' () is the name for a ''bento'' consisting of plain white rice with an ''umeboshi'' in the centre. The name was taken from the ''Hinomaru'', the Japanese flag, which has a white background with a red disc in the centre. Pure ''Hinomaru bento'' only consists of rice and ''umeboshi'' to flavor rice without any other side dishes. The metal ''bento'' boxes, once popular in Japan, were often corroded by the acid of ''umeboshi'', eventually making a hole in the middle of the lid.
* ''Kamameshi bentō'' () are sold at train stations in Nagano Prefecture. It is cooked and served in a clay pot. The pot is a souvenir item.
* ''Makunouchi bentō'' () is a classic style of ''bento'' with rice, ''umeboshi'', a slice of broiled salmon, and a rolled egg.
* ''Sake bentō'' () is a simple ''bento'' with a slice of broiled salmon as the main dish.
* ''Shidashi bentō'' () is made in a restaurant and delivered during lunch. This ''bento'' is often eaten at a gathering like a funeral or a party. It is usually packed with traditional Japanese foods like tempura, rice and pickled vegetables. A ''shidashi bento'' packed with European-style food is also available.
* ''Shōkadō bentō'' () is a traditional black-lacquered ''bento'' box. It inspired IBM's (later sold to Lenovo) ThinkPad design.
* ''Tori bento'' () consists of pieces of chicken cooked in sauce served over rice. It is a popular ''bento'' in Gunma Prefecture.
* ''Kyaraben'' (キャラ弁) is a ''bento'' with the contents arranged to look like popular characters from anime, manga, or video games.
* ''Shikaeshiben'' (仕返し弁) is a "revenge" ''bento'' where wives make ''bentos'' to get back at their husband by writing insults in the food or making the ''bento'' inedible.
* ''Ekiben'' () is a ''bento'' sold at railway stations (''eki'') or onboard trains. There are many kinds of ''ekiben''. Most are inexpensive and filling.
* ''Hayaben'' (), literally "early ''bento''", is eating a ''bento'' before lunch and having another lunch afterward.
* ''Hokaben'' () is any kind of ''bento'' bought at a take-out ''bento'' shops. Freshly cooked hot (''hokahoka'') rice is usually served with freshly prepared side dishes. The name was popularized after a pioneering take-out ''bento'' franchise in the field, Hokka Hokka Tei.
* ''Noriben'' () is ''nori'' dipped in soy sauce covering cooked rice.
* ''Soraben'' () is a ''bento'' sold at airports.
File:Kyaraben panda.jpg|An ''oekakiben'' containing rice balls decorated to resemble pandas
File:Jūbako.jpg|A set of stacking boxes for ''bento'' called ''jūbako''
File:Bento at Hanabishi, Koyasan.jpg|''Bento'' served at a restaurant in Japan
File:Home made Bento.jpg|Two typical home made ''bento'' (one open, one wrapped); note the ''furoshiki'' cloths
File:Chicken Teriyaki Bento Ichiban Sushi.jpg|A ''bento'' consisting of salmon ''sashimi'', chicken ''teriyaki'' and ''gyoza'', served in a Japanese restaurant in Jakarta.
File:Tōge no Kamameshi 02.jpg| ''Tōge no kamameshi bento''
Orizume bentō SETSUGEKKA served by Ningyocho Imahan Co,. Ltd. 01.jpg|''Orizume bentō'' (1)
Orizume bentō SETSUGEKKA served by Ningyocho Imahan Co,. Ltd. 02.jpg|''Orizume bentō'' (2)
* Plate lunch
* Tiffin carrier
* TV dinner
Photos of bento
Category:Food storage containers
Category:Serving and dining