Bento Box History
The bento box history is a fascinating journey that mirrors the cultural and social changes in Japan.
In this article, we'll explore how this unique form of meal presentation has evolved from its origins in the Kamakura period to its modern-day variations in the Reiwa period, with shifts in both box material and what goes in a bento box.
Let's delve into the rich history of the bento box and discover how it became an integral part of daily life in Japan.What this article covers:
Bento Box Origin
The origin of the bento box is deeply rooted in Japanese history, reflecting the nation's evolving culinary practices and societal changes.
Let's begin by investigating what is a bento box. Initially, the concept of a bento emerged as a convenient way to store and transport food. Over time, it evolved into an art form, showcasing not only the practicality but also the aesthetic appeal of Japanese cuisine.
As we explore the different periods in Japanese history, we'll see how the bento box transformed in design, content, and cultural significance, adapting to the needs and trends of each era.
The bento box began its journey during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). These early bentos were simple and portable, primarily carried by workers and warriors.
The meals typically included foods like white rice, millet, or potatoes, and were carried in small sacks made of leaves, wickerwork baskets, or wrapping fabrics.
One of the key components was dried white rice, known as Hoshi-ii, which could be rehydrated and eaten with other ingredients. This raised the question, are bento boxes eaten cold? Typically, yes. But as we will learn, they can also be heated in later iterations of the bento.
In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1568–1600), the bento box underwent a significant transformation, becoming a symbol of luxury and artistic expression. This period saw the introduction of wooden lacquered bento boxes, which were considered luxury items used by the upper class.
The bento boxes of this era were not just for carrying food; they were elaborately decorated and often used in social settings such as tea ceremonies, theater intermissions, and cherry blossom viewing parties.
These bento boxes were equipped with small dishes, chopsticks, and cups for sake, along with a variety of culinary offerings. The emphasis was on creating a holistic experience that engaged all the senses, not just the taste.
The Edo Period (1603–1867) marked an advancement in the culture of bento boxes, integrating them into everyday life in Japan. This era was characterised by peace and prosperity.
Based on our observations, a notable development was the introduction of the "koshin bento", a simple waist bento that included several Japanese rice balls (onigiri) encased in a bamboo box. These were commonly carried by travelers, tourists, and the general public for outdoor excursions.
Another major innovation during this period was the "makunouchi bento", or "between-act bento." This type of bento emerged as a special treat for spectators watching live theater.
During intermissions or between acts, these bento meals were served, featuring lavish assortments including rice sprinkled with sesame seeds and a wide variety of side dishes such as fish, meat, eggs, cooked or pickled vegetables, and umeboshi (salt pickled plum).
The Meiji Period (1868–1912) was a pivotal time in the history of the bento box, marked by the introduction of the railway system in Japan. This advancement led to the creation of the "ekibentō" or "ekiben", which translates to "train station bento."
The first ekiben was sold on July 16, 1885, at the Utsunomiya Train Station in the Kantō region, Tochigi Prefecture. This bento typically included takuan (pickled radish) and two onigiri rice balls with an umeboshi (pickled plum) filling, wrapped in bamboo leaves.
The convenience and popularity of ekiben quickly spread to railway stations across Japan, with the first regular ekiben being sold at the Himeji Station in the summer of 1888.
During the Meiji Period, bento also became popular in schools, as they did not provide lunch for students. Teachers and general workers also carried bento to work.
During the Taishō period (1912–1926), Japan experienced rapid growth and prosperity. This era saw the introduction of aluminum as a material for making bento boxes.
Aluminum bento boxes were considered luxurious due to their silver-like appearance, light weight, durability, heat resistance, and ease of cleaning. They became a status symbol among the wealthy, reflecting a clear distinction between the affluent and the less fortunate in Japanese society.
The popularity of aluminum bento boxes in schools highlighted the economic disparities among students, as these boxes were affordable only to wealthy families. This led to a social issue where the type of bento box a student carried could indicate their family's wealth.
As a result, there was a movement in schools to eliminate bento boxes to address this issue. The use of bento boxes in schools decreased, and they were eventually banned, leading to a decline in their popularity until the introduction of plastic bento boxes in later years.
During the Shōwa Period (1926–1989), the bento box experienced a resurgence in popularity, particularly in the 1980s. Our research indicates that this resurgence was largely due to the widespread availability of disposable plastic bento boxes, which were introduced as a more affordable and convenient option.
These plastic boxes were a response to the growing number of convenience stores and supermarkets that began offering inexpensive takeaway meals and TV dinners.
These meals were typically packaged in portion-controlled bento trays, containing a main course accompanied by vegetables, potatoes, and side dishes.
While traditional homemade bento boxes continued to be prepared, they were mostly reserved for special occasions or those seeking an authentic Japanese culinary experience.
In the Reiwa Period, starting in 2019, bento boxes have continued to evolve, becoming a versatile solution for various packaging needs. This period has seen bento boxes being used for both traditional Japanese meals and a wide range of food packaging purposes.
The Reiwa Period has witnessed a diversification in the materials used for bento boxes, including plastic (alongside the many disadvantages of storing food in plastic containers), wood, bamboo, and recycled materials.
Our findings show that bento boxes are now used in general packaging for various products available in supermarkets. Their use has even extended to serving meals during air travel and space, where astronauts use bento trays.
This period has also seen the popularity of "kyaraben" or character bento, where lunches are prepared with foods resembling anime, manga, or cartoon characters, and "oekakiben," which translates to picture bento, featuring arrangements resembling pets, famous people, or landmarks.
Top Bento Boxes
Now that you understand the origins of the bento tradition, you may like to try your hand at making one. If so, why not explore our range of environmentally friendly bento boxes? They are all BPA-free, dishwasher safe, and are made from 304 food-grade stainless steel.
Our Stainless Steel Single-Layer Lunch Box is suitable for beginners and experts alike.
Tailored for those who are environmentally conscious and appreciate the elegance of simplicity, this lunch box features a leakproof seal to keep your food fresh and a removable divider to create a two-compartment system. Plus, for those wondering about bento box dimensions, it is available in a regular and large size, holding up to 800ml and 1200ml respectively.
If you need a little more space for extra sides, look no further than our stainless steel bento box. Available in two sizes, this box features a unique two-layer design to keep your food separate and intact.
The regular size has a total capacity of 1340ml, with the top half holding 540ml and the bottom half 800ml.
The large size offers a total capacity of 1960ml, with the top half accommodating 760ml and the bottom half 1200ml. This larger version provides ample room for all your favourite food items.
If you want something with a more traditional feel, our Stainless Steel Bento Box with Silicone Seal is your go-to. Measuring 255mm x 188mm x 50mm, it has been designed with five compartments and is perfect for a school lunch.
The removable silicone seal is a standout feature, ensuring that each compartment is leak-proof, which keeps your meals fresh and prevents any mix-up of flavors.
The journey of the bento box through Japanese history is a vivid reflection of the nation's evolving culture and society.
From its humble beginnings in the Kamakura Period as a practical solution for workers to its transformation into a symbol of luxury and artistic expression in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, the bento box has consistently mirrored the changing times.
At Activated Eco, we recognise the importance of such cultural and historical treasures in shaping our understanding of sustainable practices and ecological mindfulness.
Let's carry forward the legacy of innovation and sustainability that the bento box symbolises. Visit us at Activated Eco to purchase your first bento box today.
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