The meaning of Japanese bento culture

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 people have lunch everywhere. I want to explain what makes Japanese bento special, so that you will know why Japanese people love bento so much.

  1. The origins of Japanese bento

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It is said that Japanese people started to make bento for soldiers, fishermen, and farmers after the 5th Century. In old Japanese stories & pictures you can see that people used 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. Makunouchi-bento, which means “interlude bento”, was eaten in the time between each play(maku) of Kabuki and this is still the case today; although name of makunouchi is used just for “luxury”. In the 19th Century, people started to sell bento in train stations(eki) for travelers; it was called eki-ben. And nowadays, bento is eaten every day by people from all different walks of life.

  1. Sad memory of bento

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In the past Japan was male-dominated and making bento was thought to be a woman’s job. Women had to do all the house work, and take care of their children by themselves. There is a famous saying: “jishin, kaminari, kaji, oyaji”, which means that people should be scared of earthquakes, thunder, fires and fathers. The status of “father” was really 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. In school, state of people’ bento was indicative of their family life. Some students could not afford to have bento every day. Mothers felt ashamed to let their children go hungry but they had to be strong to endure this for their children. Although these children were going hungry they knew their mothers were trying hard for them. They dreamed to become successful and give their mothers a good life.

Older people say they miss this time with their mothers. Even though they were poor, they had a nice time when they were together. Their small miserable bentos were both a bad memory of a difficult time and a precious one of their mothers’ love.

  1. Changes of bento in modern culture

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Since WW2 ended our lives have been getting better. And now, mothers have a lot of choice when it comes to bento. There are even supermarkets which sell food specifically for bento which helps many mothers to reduce the time it takes to make bento. Shops also sells things like sandwiches so some people have stopped making bento all together.

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 a special thing 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. At what seemed to be the end of bento history, we found out that the most important aspect was that bento needed love from whoever made it.

  1. Bento can show your love

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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. Although it does not mean Japanese people hate how westerners display affection (my grandma was so excited when my English husband gave her 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 an old Japanese tradition for a females to show their love. Even now, in fact, it works a lot!

There is a famous story of a mother who made bento with messages every day for her difficult teenage daughter. The daughter suddenly started to ignore her mother after she started high school. The only conversation between them was during lunch time in the school: when she opened her bento there were messages from her mother written with foods like “keep your room more tidy!” By finishing her bento every day, she tried to wait for her mother to give up. This stupid battle ended when the daughter graduated and noticed that finishing her bento every day had made her healthy and that meant that she had lost. 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’s not just because I’m 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, but that’s why bento is special. I feel sorry when I imagine that my busy husband has to eat disappointing sandwiches from shops or have a lonely lunch. He can never be alone at lunchtime if he has my bento.

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Whatever you make for bento, whoever you make bento for, bento should be tasty with lots of love. I hope this article will help you to have lovely bento life from tomorrow. xx