The bento box might just seem like a trendy Japanese meal with a cute presentation, but bento boxes have been a staple of Japanese culinary history for centuries -- about 10 centuries, in fact!
The word “bento” is derived from the Chinese word biàndāng, a Southern Song dynasty slang term which means “convenient,” and refers to both the bento meal and the bento box itself. The earliest and most basic iteration of the bento can be traced back to the Kamakura period (1185 to 1333), when people carried cooked and dried rice in small sacks to eat at work. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period (1568-1600), the classic wooden lacquered bento boxes began being produced and used. Over the next few hundred years, bento gained in popularity and prominence, and was used not only to pack simple lunches but became more refined and elegant. Specially prepared bento were used for tea services, theater intermissions, travel, entertaining, and more. During the Edo period (1603-1867), numerous cookbooks began being published dedicated to how to prepare, cook and pack bento for special occasions.
The bento became a staple during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) among schoolchildren and teachers as well, as early schools did not provide lunches. Bento boxes also began being sold at train stations during this time. During the Taishō period (1912-1926), the aluminum bento box became popular, and was seen as both a luxury item and a topic of social controversy. Disparities in wealth were seen all to easily, particularly in schools -- the aluminum bento box as well as the type of bento meal (rich, varied foods vs simple and roughly made foods) became status symbols. Food shortages began sweeping the country as well, and after WWII the practice of bringing bentos to school declined as schools began providing lunches for students and staff.
Bentos regained popularity in the 1980s, in large part due to the emergence of the microwave and rapid increase of convenience stores. Many bento shops and sellers replaced expensive wood and metal boxes with inexpensive polystyrene bento boxes. Handmade bentos have also made a comeback; they are seen fairly commonly in schools, are still used by many workers as a packed lunch, by families on day trips, school excursions, and are quite popular on social media! You can find bentos nearly anywhere in Japan today, from convenience stores to train stations to airports to shops and restaurants that specialize in bentos.
Throughout its long history, the bento box has been about convenience and a nutritious, portable meal. From very simple and basic to meticulously planned, prepared and decorated, the bento is a cornerstone of Japanese culinary history that has spread around the globe to be enjoyed by people everywhere!