Have you ever heard of the Japanese word, bento? Bento is a full meal in a lunchbox. These days this Japanese bento culture is being adopted in more western countries. I wonder why this Japanese bento culture is so focused on now because taking our own lunch to work or school by itself is not unique at all. So let me explain what makes bento so special and why Japanese people love it so much.
The origins of Japanese bento
Japanese people are thought to have started to make bento for soldiers, fishermen and farmers after the 5th Century. In old Japanese stories & pictures you can see people using leaves to wrap their food at that time. The leaves were used to try and stop their food from going bad. After the 17th Century bento became a part of the average person’s life. One of the most remarkable examples is Maku-no-uchi bento, which means “interlude bento”. This was eaten by audience of kabuki (Japanese traditional play) in the time between each play. In the 19th Century, people started to sell bento at train stations (eki) for travellers. Now this is called eki ben and entertained a lot of people visiting those train stations as the menu usually reflects local food. My father is a huge fan of eki ben. I vividly remember that as a child on a train journey he sometimes got off the train for 30 seconds when it stopped and came back with eki ben in his hand. We shared it together and it always made my day! Thus nowadays, bento is not just something we eat to survive or fulfil ourselves, but a bit of excitement we appreciate everyday.
Sad memory of bento
In the past Japan was male-dominated and bento was supposed to be made by mothers. Women had to do all the house work, and take care of their children. There was a famous saying: “jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji”, which means that people shall be scared of earthquakes, thunder, fires and fathers. The status of “father” was extremely respectable in their families. They were rarely cooperative, often got drunk and acted very violently. So women, especially mothers, had to arrange everything for their families by themselves, even though their husbands used most of their money for drink.
Some families suffered because of their irresponsible fathers; especially in times of war. At schools, the state of pupils’ bento was indicative of their family life. Some of them could not afford to have bento every day. Mothers must have felt ashamed to let their children go hungry. However, the children knew that their mothers were trying hard for them, and dreamed to become successful one day to give their mothers a good life.
People at my grandmother’s age often say that they miss this time with their mothers. Even though they were poor, they had a nice time when they were together. Their small miserable bento was both a bad memory of a difficult time and a precious one of their mothers’ love.
Changes of bento in modern culture
Since WW2 ended our lives have been getting better, and now, mothers have so many choices when it comes to bento. There are even supermarkets which sell frozen food specifically for bento, or shops which sell freshly made sandwiches. Some people have even stopped making bento completely.
Have these changes made people’s life better? In fact, these changes have made their own problems: modern children have lost interest in food and bento is not special anymore. Without their mothers spending time to make bento for them, it lost its significance. Several years ago public opinion forced the Japanese government to make a policy to try and improve this situation. After that more people, including husbands and young guys, started to make bento by themselves again. At what seemed to be the end of bento history, we found out that the most important aspect of bento was love from whoever made it.
Bento can show your love
It is a stereotype for Japanese people to be shy. We do not hug or kiss to show our affection. We do not say “I love you”, maybe because we are taught to show our feelings to others without words. It is not respectable to show your feelings all the time, and people who do this are considered unreliable. We think a cool person should be quiet and perfectly perform their job; like a samurai. However, it does not mean Japanese people dislike how westerners display affection (my grandmother was so excited when my English husband gave her a hug to say goodbye!). Instead, we express our feelings with letters and post cards.
We should not forget that bento plays an important role in this too. Making bento is a Japanese tradition for females to show their love. Even now, in fact, it works quite well!
There is a famous story of a mother who made bento with messages every day for her difficult teenage daughter. Their conversations only took place on bento box at school: when the daughter opened the box there were always messages from her mother written with food like “why didn’t you clear up your dish last night?” By finishing her bento every day, the daughter tried to wait for her mother to give up. This stupid battle ended when the daughter graduated from the school and the mother gave her an award (of course written with food on bento!) for patience for the “bento harassment”. This story has been published now and many people have re-recognized the importance of love from bento.
I make bento for my husband every day, but that is not just because I am his wife. I make it because I believe that my bento will deliver my love to him. To me making bento has the same meaning as when western people hug or kiss. It is more difficult to wake up early and prepare lunch every day, and that’s why bento is special. I feel sorry when I imagine that my busy husband has to eat disappointing sandwiches from shops.
Whatever you make for bento, whoever you make bento for, bento should be fulfilling with lots of love. I hope this article will help you to have lovely bento life from tomorrow.