Plenus “kome” Academy

What is Bento

What is Bento

Portable meals are not necessarily unique to Japanese culture, but to Japanese people, Bento is more than just a portable meal. It is, rather, an authentic and distinct food culture. People look forward to the act of opening the box before eating. Some even call it "a jewel box full of the family's heart". Bento comes in a variety of forms such as Bento lunch at schools and work places, the always popular Makunouchi Bento, Bentos sold on trains and airplanes, and seasonal Bentos for enjoying cherry blossoms and fall foliage. Bento plays an important role in showcasing people's memories. Originally, Bento was meant simply to fill one’s stomach, but it has evolved into an integration of flavors, presentation, nutritional balance, convenience and functionality over the years. It is not only Japanese people who enjoy Bento today. Japanese Bento has become a trend in N.Y. and Paris recently and Bento culture is expanding throughout the world.

Despite Bento's popularity around the world, enjoying food used to be a privilege available only to certain people. Recipe and representation technique were family secrets among Shogun families and the families of feudal lords. Bento evolved through the ages before becoming what it is today.

Here, our library introduces the history and beauty of Bento culture, in which Bento develops from a pure portable food to an authentic and distinct food culture.

History of Bento

History of Bento

When was the word "Bento" invented?
In a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary published in the beginning of Edo period already listed the word "Bento". Some say there was another term that meant the same as Bento even before the Edo period, but as far as existing documentation goes, this Japanese-Portuguese dictionary is the earliest record available.

Let's look into the roots of Bento.

  • Jomon period

    Jomon period
    Yayoi period
    Kofun period
    Asuka period
    Nara period

  • Heian period

    Heian period

  • Kamakura period

    Kamakura period
    Nan-Boku-cho Muromachi period

Till 1600's, most of Japanese people ate twice a day, breakfast and dinner, thus lunch was not part of Japanese custom. However, "Engishiki", a book published in 927 about rituals at court in the Heian period, records after a heavy labor people ate rice as snack.

Triangle carbonized rice had been excavated from a 2000 years old ruin of the Yayoi period and it makes us presume that rice ball, a standard of Bento, was eaten even in ancient days.

Here, we look into the historical records of portable meals.

Since normal rice won't last long, people dried rice and baked rice while it still had husks on in order to preserve as well to bring with one's long journey. They ate it as is or put it back in water again.

Tonjiki is a ball of steamed rice. And hard working public officials in the Kamakura period used to eat them. It is said people ate more than 600 grams of rice a day.

Aduchi-Momoyama period
Edo period

There are many documents existing after the Edo period, beginning in 1600s, and we can learn what people ate as Bento back then. It was about the same time that people started to eat three times a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Bento had become popular among common people.

Collection of Oe Library, Tokyo Kasei Gakuin University "Edo Meisho Zukai" depicts the farming areas in the Edo period. In the book, there are pictures of farmers eating Bento as their lunch in the countryside. It is believed to be around today's Kanazawa Bunko in Kanagawa Prefecture. One of the pictures show rice balls packed in one tier of lunch boxes and chopsticks in another tier. That suggests Nishime, vegetables and chickens cooked in broth, soy sauce, sugar, sake and sweet cooking wine, and pickles are packed as well.

edited by Jesuit missionaries
puclished in 1603 to 1604
Japanese translation is published by Iwanami Shoten.

A Japanese dictionary edited by Jesuit missionaries. Written in Portuguese, it includes about 32,000 words. The word “Bento” is already listed in the book and the definition is "fulfilling and plenty" and "a portable food box, similar to a tool box, with drawers”.

Edo period
Meiji period
Taisyo period
Showa period

By 1800s, variety of dishes was invented thanks to the development of cooking books and restaurants. Bento side dishes became more varied accordingly. In addition, people started to go out for not only work but also for leisure such as cherry blossom viewing, boat ride and visiting temples and shrines. All the aspect led to the maturity of Bento culture.

Bento for Visiting Shogun Castle
There is a description of Bento among the record of food Nobuoki Anbe, Okabe feudal load at the end of the Edo period, ate for the year of 1866. It was the Bento he took from his residence in Eco to visit Shogun castle. Inside was shiitake mushroom, dried gourd shavings, Japanese radishes pickled with miso and rice balls. It seems the content of Bento differed from everyday scene to special occasion. When one visited houses of feudal loads and Zojo-ji Temple, the content of Bento was fancier than usual.

In the Edo period, going to theater was a whole day activity since one program started at 6am up till 5pm. Thus, eating in intermissions was part of excitement of the day. Rich people who could afford to sit in balcony seats ate at theater's house restaurant. Whereas, ordinary people enjoyed "Makunouchi (between-act )Bento".

Nishiki-e of Nakamura-za Theater by Toyokuni Utagawa, 1817
Collection of Collection of Ajinomoto Foundation for Dietary Culture

The bottom is a reliving of Makunouchi Bento described in "Morisada Mankou", an encyclopedia of people's life and things in the Edo period. The content of the Bento is 10 rice balls, konjac, baked tofu, dried gourd shavings, taro, minced and steamed fish and rolled egg.

(Heisei period)

Invented in 400 years ago, Bento has evolved into much more everyday diet for Japanese people over the years. Today, people eat it as lunch at schools, work places, picnics etc. From "Kyaraben", character Bento, to convenient take-out Bento, Bento has developed taking part of Japanese food culture. And its popularity is spreading across the world.

The history of Bento demonstrates the fact life of Japanese people has become richer. And Bento conceals Japanese formality and aesthetic in the sometime artistic and other time functional box. That is probably why people all over the world find the small cosmos fascinating.