Bento: Japanese Box Lunch

Topics: Anime

My personal knowledge of Japanese culture derives mostly from this class as well as through Japanese media, such as anime. Although anime is definitely not a comprehensive view of Japan’s culture, it does, however, offer glimpses into the way of life in Japan. For example, a common image I see time and time again, especially in school settings, is the appearance of bento boxes. Usually, the bento boxes depicted in anime are compact lunches with many different foods packed in one box in an artistic and aesthetic way.

I would like to know what makes a bento box truly authentic, the cultural meaning behind them, and about the different types and styles of bento boxes in Japan. Food culture and palatability differences interest me, and I would love to know what types of food are commonly packed in bento boxes and if it differs regionally.

In order to investigate my interests in this topic and research more, I have found three sources that examine different aspects of the bento box.

first, one that analyzes the aesthetics of bento boxes; next, one that analyzes the Obentō and the ideological and gender roles surrounding it; and finally, one that analyzes the Ekiben and its cultural importance in Japan. The first source, “The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox, written by Japanese industrial designer, Kenji Ekuan, reflects on the “Lunchbox spirit”. Through his concept of the “Lunchbox spirit”, Ekuan provides a deeper intellectual meaning to the bento box. Ekuan’s thesis is that the clever design and aesthetic of the traditional bento box in Japan is a result of Japanese ideals and culture.

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He attributes the compactness of the Makunouchi Bento to the creative and artistic use of limited resources and space.

The Makunouchi bento, Ekuan describes, is the traditional Japanese lunch box made with lacquered wood and quadrants for different foods. Additionally, Ekuan discusses the square and simple design and pleasurable aesthetic of the Shokado bento, or Zen bento, to further his argument. Ekuan finds that these traditional styles of bento boxes evoke “single blossom aesthetic”, which is a minimalistic aesthetic named after a tea master who cut down an entire garden of blossoms just to make the one remaining blossom appear more beautiful and unique by having less. Prideful, he concludes that the bento box represents the Japanese tendency to economize, simplify, and fulfill desires of elegance and aesthetic need in a compact way that does not abuse or deplete resources but is still nutritious and aesthetically pleasing.

The second source, “Japanese Mothers and Obentōs: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus”, written by anthropologist, Anne Allison delves into the cultural standards and aspects of Japanese mothers who make Obentōs, a certain type of boxed lunch typically made for their nursery school children. Allison’s thesis connects motherhood and education through Obento preparations. She argues that the preparation of boxed lunches by mothers for their children has ideological as well as gendered meaning, and she utilizes French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser’s concept of Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) to support her argument. Althusser’s concept theorizes that the Ideological State Apparatus is a power that acts subtly and discretely in such a way that it becomes a part of daily social life, such as an educational institution and mass media.

Through her study and observations, Allison finds that the nursery school’s that oversee the children act as one of the ISA institutions by judging and indirectly influencing both how mothers prepare Obentōs for their children as well as how the children consume them to a certain social standard. The task of preparing a proper Obentō is a something expected for a mother to learn, and this task is a gendered role in Japanese society as it is mostly exclusive to women. Allison found through Japanese media such as books, blogs, and magazines that the art of preparing a proper Obentō is no easy task and something that many mothers worry over. The Obentōs are expected to be nutritious, aesthetically pleasing, and easy for the child to consume.

The child is expected to quickly consume all of the food in the Obentō during the designated lunch time and therefore the portions must be small and easy to eat and only gradually include food that the child does not like yet. The Obentō should be designed to teach the child how to balance meals and develop skills later such as using chopsticks for their meals. Despite the societal pressure to make proper Obentōs and be viewed as a good mother by not only the school but also by the other mothers, Allison found that the preparation of Obentōs is ultimately something that both mother and child enjoy and take pride in. It is a type of creative outlet for mothers and lets them form an aspect of themselves that they can display in their work The final source, “Savor Slowly: Ekiben: The Fast Food of High-Speed” written by author Paul Noguchi analyzes the cultural importance of Ekibentos, or Ekiben for short.

Ekiben is a popular type of boxed lunch and form of fast food served in Japanese train stations. Noguchi’s thesis is that Ekiben act as a way to culturally analyze Japan. He argues that Ekiben, are convenient boxes that are not only tasty, but also capable of offering a look into the people, place, and time surrounding the station they are served at. Through his research, Noguchi compares Ekiben to Western-style fast food. He explains that while Ekiben and Western-style are both considered fast-food because of their affordability and convenience, but they differ in cultural relevance and importance. Noguchi finds that Ekiben represents Japanese daily life by being ordinary in nature and as with most traditional Japanese meals all of the food is served at once.

He observed that Ekiben varies by region so that people on the train can enjoy the local scenery with a local taste as well. In conclusion, although the three sources I selected to learn more about bento boxes all discussed different types of bento boxes, they share a common belief. Each source found that each type of bento box has cultural significance to the Japanese people and that the clever presentation and aesthetic of each bento box are intentional, necessary, and something to be proud of. These sources have helped me gain a greater understanding of Japanese boxed lunch and deepened my interest and appreciation of it.

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Bento: Japanese Box Lunch. (2022, Feb 14). Retrieved from

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