The Origin of Bento — Hoshii (dried boiled rice)
People in Japan started preparing meals to eat while out traveling or when outside the home around the 5th century. Historical records show that people had prepared hoshii and onigiri (rice balls) at home so that they could eat them while out hunting, farming, or waging war. Hoshii is a type of preserved food prepared by drying rice after first boiling it. When it was time to eat, the hoshii would be put in cold or boiling water, or sometimes even eaten as-is.
According to Japan's oldest historical record, the Nihon Shoki (720 A.D.), falconers substituted their falcon's feedbags as a bag for their bento boxes whenever they would go out hawking. Also, the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise), a tenth-century collection of lyrical stories, there are depictions of people eating hoshii during their travels.
The word "bento" is often said to have originated with a sixteenth-century military commander named Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), who fed the large numbers of people at his castle by having food handed out to each individual. The word “bento” was coined to describe the simple meals that were distributed in this manner.
Traditionally, people working outdoors—whether in the fields, in the mountains, on fishing boats, or in town—carried their lunches with them because they did not have time to go home for meals. These bento were typically built around such staples as white rice, rice mixed with millet, or potatoes, depending on the region.
The Makunouchi Bento of the Edo Period, and the Ekiben of the Meiji Period
During the Edo period (1603-1867), people considered bento an essential accompaniment to outdoor excursions or the theater. Makunouchi bento are a popular, traditional type of bento in Japan; the word makunouchi literally means "while the curtain is closed," and the term originally referred to bento that were eaten while the curtains were closed during plays.
When railroads were introduced in Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912), a type of bento sold at train stations, called ekiben, appeared. The first ekiben—rice balls with pickled apricots inside—was reportedly sold in 1885 at Utsunomiya Station in Tochigi Prefecture.