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Bento Boxes: A Nation’s Cultural Lunchbox

The beauty and work that goes into a schoolchild's lunch


What's going on?

Bento boxes are a recognizable icon of Japanese culture. They are so prevalent that every year, nearly five billion bento boxes are made at home for children’s lunches in Japan. It is part of a process where mothers all over Japan fashion stunning and colorful lunches for their schoolgoing children. The origin of these meals is thought to be from the Edo period in the 1600s. Elegant lacquer containers, the forerunner of today’s bento boxes were brought to theatres and leisure activities such as picnic as a display of wealth.


The usual bento boxes feature compartments where ingredients such as rice, vegetables, meat, and fish are combined to form intricate patterns and characters. There is even a popular form of bento called character bento or chara-ben, where the food is arranged to form faces or cuddly animals such as pandas or bears. With the immense emphasis on food presentation, it can be overwhelming for busy mothers to keep up with this practice.


The function of a bento box has evolved and now, the main driving force for the beautiful arrangement of the food is to persuade fussy children to eat their vegetables. Teachers and school authorities have also been known to be concerned when parents don’t make bento boxes for their children – thus adding pressure on overworked mothers who may have to juggle this with their daily job responsibilities.