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A typical bento bought from a grocery store

A bento (弁当, bentō)[1] is the Japanese iteration of a single-portion take-out or home-packed meal, often for lunch. Outside Japan, it is common in other East and Southeast Asian culinary styles, especially within Chinese, Korean, Singaporean, Taiwanese cuisines and more, as rice is a common staple food in the region. The term bento is derived from the Chinese term biandang (便當, pinyin: biàndāng), which means "convenient" or "convenience".[2]

A traditional bento typically includes rice or noodles with fish or some other meat, often with pickled and cooked vegetables in a box.[3] Containers range from mass-produced disposables to hand-crafted lacquerware. Dividers are often used to separate ingredients or dishes, especially those with strong flavors, to avoid them affecting the taste of the rest of the meal. A typical divider is green plastic grass, also known as the 'sushi grass'. This also works to slow the growth of bacteria.[4]

Bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops (弁当屋, bentō-ya), railway stations, and department stores. However, Japanese homemakers often spend time and energy on carefully prepared box lunches for their spouses, children, or themselves. Outside Japan, the term bento box may be used (e.g., on English menus for Japanese restaurants). 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 comparable forms of boxed lunches in other Asian countries such as in China, Taiwan and other Sinophone communities known as héfàn (盒饭) or biàndāng in Mandarin and piān-tong in Taiwanese Hokkien or in Korea as dosirak (Hangul: 도시락). Other Asian countries would either just use bento as a loanword or hokben, which means steaming bento. 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 in the Kanji 弁当. The word itself originates from the Chinese Song dynasty slang term 便当 (便當, pinyin: biàndāng), meaning "convenient" or "convenience" (This sense is still used in Wu dialects such as Shanghainese[5]). When it was imported to Japan, it was written with the ateji 便道 and 弁道.[2][6] The word "bento" has been used since the 13th century, and the container itself, also called "bento", has been known since the 16th century.[2] In modern times, the term is commonly used in East and Southeast Asia. In mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, "bento" remains written as the original name 便當 (pinyin: biàndāng). In other Sinophone communities, both biandang and bento are often interchangeably used.



The increased popularity of bento and its term can be traced back to the 12th century during the Kamakura period, when cooked and dried rice called hoshi-ii ( or 干し飯, literally "dried meal") was developed, to be carried to work.[3] 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 century, wooden lacquered boxes were produced, and bento would be eaten during a hanami or a tea party.

Hanami bento in the Edo period

In the Edo period (1603–1867), bento culture spread and became more refined. Travelers and sightseers would carry a simple koshibentō (腰弁当, "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.[7] 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 (駅弁当 or 駅弁, "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 (pickled radish) wrapped in bamboo leaves. As early schools did not provide lunch, students and teachers carried bentos, as did many employees.

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 after 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.[8]

Aluminum bento box, 1961. Lid fits closely. Small compartment for condiments.

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 recent years, bento has seen a variety of trends in Japan. Often, these trends lead to remarkable transformations in the consumption behavior of the Japanese. The following are examples of some of the trends in Japanese bento and their timeline.

Kyaraben (2000s–present) – cute bento shaped like characters.

High-quality nori bento (2010s–present) – Luxurious bento made with high-grade nori seaweed.

Single-serving size bento (2010s–present) – Large bento for large appetites.

Taco Rice Bento (2010s–present) – Bento featuring taco rice, a local dish of Okinawa Prefecture.

Frugal bento (2020s–present) – Bento boxes that are simple and unique are becoming popular.

In other countries




The Chinese word for boxed lunches is héfàn (盒饭), though biàndāng as a re-borrowing from Japanese may also be used. There are numerous regional styles, ranging from Northeastern Chinese lunch boxes[9] to the Hong Kong "two dishes with rice" lunch box.[10] Packed lunches would traditionally be carried in boxes known as shí hé (食盒) which translates to "food box". Shí hé ranged from basic styles to elaborate, multi-tiered designs.



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.[11] The Japanese name was borrowed into Taiwanese (piān-tong) and Hakka (phien-tông). A modern 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.[11] 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 year, the annual revenue from bento distribution is 370 million NTD (approx. 10 million USD).[12]



In Korea, the packed lunch boxes are called Dosirak (also spelled "doshirak") (Hangul: 도시락) and they are either made at home or bought at the store. They are similar to Chinese and Japanese variations with some slight differences. 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.[13]



In Singapore, such packed lunch boxes are often acculturated and localised with cuisines slightly different to Japan. These may include roasted pork (similar to char siew) and soy eggs, as well as fried rice.[14] It has been a common method of meal preparation within Singaporean cuisine as early as the start of the 20th century, which was intensified during the Japanese occupation and cultural influences in subsequent decades, with Japanese-style bento also being common in the country today.

In 2021, the Singapore Food Tech Event showcased as to how bento of the future might look like for a sustainable food system.[15]



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.[16] It is often a social expectation of mothers to provide bento for their children, to create both a nutritionally balanced and aesthetically pleasing meal.[17] This activity is expected of the mother and emphasized by society at large,[17] 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 (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.[citation needed]



Many scholars have written about the bento since the late 20th century. The foundation of their approach is based on the idea that food can carry many different meanings.[18]

In the 1970s, 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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]


Hinomaru bento (just one umeboshi in the center)
Shōkadō bentō

By ingredients

  • Hinomaru bento (日の丸弁当) 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.
  • Noriben (海苔弁) is nori dipped in soy sauce covering cooked rice.
  • Sake bentō (鮭弁当) is a simple bento with a slice of broiled salmon as the main dish.
  • Tori bento (鳥弁当) consists of pieces of chicken cooked in sauce served over rice. It is a popular bento in Gunma Prefecture.

By style or container

  • Kamameshi bentō (釜飯弁当) are sold at train stations in Nagano Prefecture. It is cooked and served in a clay pot. The pot is a souvenir item.
  • Kyaraben (キャラ弁) is a bento with the contents arranged to look like popular characters from anime, manga, or video games.
  • Makunouchi bentō (幕の内弁当) is a classic style of bento with rice, umeboshi, a slice of broiled salmon, and a rolled egg.
  • Shōkadō bentō (松花堂弁当) is a traditional black-lacquered bento box. It inspired IBM's (later sold to Lenovo) ThinkPad design.[22]
  • Wappameshi (わっぱめし) a cuisine served in a special round wooden bento-styled container.[23]
  • 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.[24]

By where they are sold

  • Ekiben (駅弁) is a bento sold at railway stations (eki) or onboard trains. There are many kinds of ekiben. Most are inexpensive and filling.
  • Hokaben (ホカ弁) 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.
  • Shidashi bentō (仕出し弁当) 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.
  • Soraben (空弁) is a bento sold at airports.

  • Hayaben (早弁), literally "early bento", is eating a bento before lunch and having another lunch afterward.

See also



  1. ^ "Bento". Dictionary.com.
  2. ^ a b c Bento 弁当(べんとう) 語源由来辞典 (Etymology Dictionary)
  3. ^ a b "Bento: Changing New York's Lunch Culture," Chopsticks NY, vol. 27, July 2009, p. 10-11.
  4. ^ Gordenker, Alice, "The Actual Reason There’s Plastic Grass in Your Bento", Japanese Food Guide
  5. ^ Xu, Baohua; Tao, Huan (1997). 上海方言词典 [Shanghai Dialect Dictionary]. Nanjing: Jiangsu Educational Press. p. 119. ISBN 7-5343-3122-6.
  6. ^ Bento (Lunch Box) Archived 2020-10-03 at the Wayback Machine, Japan Hoppers, Retrieved on 29 May 2017
  7. ^ "Japanese Lunch Boxes - History". web-japan.org. Kids Web Japan. Retrieved 9 December 2013.
  8. ^ Buck, Stephanie (2016-09-09). "The controversial history of the bento box". Medium. Retrieved 2019-10-01.
  9. ^ irenelovesya (2023-05-23). "Dongbei Lunchbox: A Budget-Friendly Viral Lunch Option". www.thebeijinger.com. Retrieved 2024-02-09.
  10. ^ Editorial, Business Digest (2023-03-23). "【兩餸飯】兩餸飯為香港經濟不景氣產物?談兩餸飯的起源". Business Digest (in Chinese (Hong Kong)). Retrieved 2024-02-09. {{cite web}}: |first= has generic name (help)
  11. ^ a b Chen, Karissa (2019-03-06). "Taiwan's Train Food Puts Amtrak to Shame". Eater. Retrieved 2019-06-05.
  12. ^ 劉文駿, 王威傑 & 楊森豪 (2003), pp. 137-142.
  13. ^ "Korean lunchbox recipes from Cooking Korean food with Maangchi". www.maangchi.com. Retrieved 2020-12-13.
  14. ^ "Events and listings: CNY food deals, Nafa open house, Singapore Art Week events | The Straits Times". www.straitstimes.com. 14 January 2022. Retrieved 31 January 2022. Takeaway bento sets are also available, including Salted Egg Prawns with Egg Fried Rice and Honey Chicken Char Siew with Egg Frice Rice.
  15. ^ Ho, Sally (3 September 2021). "Singapore Food Tech Event Showcases Alt-Protein Innovations and Serves Bento Box of The Future". Green Queen. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  16. ^ Siegel, Bettina (28 September 2010). "The Adorable Lunch, Part 2: My Interview With Bento Moms". The Lunch Tray. Retrieved 13 December 2016.
  17. ^ a b Allison, Anne (2000). Permitted and Prohibited Desires. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 81–104.
  18. ^ a b Noguchi, Paul H. (1994). "Savor Slowly: Ekiben: The Fast Food of High-Speed Japan". Ethnology. 33 (4): 317–330. doi:10.2307/3773902. ISSN 0014-1828. JSTOR 3773902.
  19. ^ Yi, Ŏ-ryŏng (1984). Smaller is better : Japan's mastery of the miniature (1st English ed.). Tokyo: Kodansha International. ISBN 0-87011-654-1. OCLC 10723642.
  20. ^ Barthes, Roland (1982). Empire of signs. Howard, Richard (First American ed.). New York. ISBN 0-8090-4222-3. OCLC 8587789.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  21. ^ Tobin, Joseph Jay (1992). Re-made in Japan : everyday life and consumer taste in a changing society. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-05205-7. OCLC 25048328.
  22. ^ Golden, Peter (January 1, 1999). "Big Blue's big adventure". EDN. Archived from the original on June 20, 2012. Retrieved 2007-03-24.
  23. ^ "Savor Japan" (PDF). Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan. 2018-09-21. p. 13. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2021-08-11. Retrieved 2021-08-11.
  24. ^ "Revenge bento show us it's a dish best served cold (and boxed) with insults and hidden chilies". SoraNews24. 2015-02-28. Retrieved 2017-07-11.
  25. ^ "Food and Dishware as Landscapes". Highlighting Japan. Public Relations Office of the Government of Japan. 2021-01-02. Archived from the original on 2021-01-20. Retrieved 2021-08-11.
  26. ^ "Information warehouse of history 32. Hanami bento" 花見弁当 [bento for hanami (flower-viewing picnic)]. Mie Prefecture (in Japanese). Mie, Japan. Archived from the original on 2015-09-23. Retrieved 2021-08-11. (rough translation): ..."hanami bento", formally called "sagejū" is...


  • 劉文駿; 王威傑; 楊森豪 (2003). 百年台灣鐵道 (in Chinese). 果實. ISBN 986-7796-11-X.