Kids Web Japan

Bento Boxes

Containers Filled with One Meal for One Person

A bento box is a compact container designed to hold a single serving of rice and several side dishes. In ancient times, lunches were wrapped using such materials as oak leaves, magnolia leaves, bamboo leaves, and bamboo sheath. Later, wooden boxes came into use. In some regions, fancy bento boxes with lids were made by interweaving thin strips of bamboo or willow, or by bending strips of wood into shape. These bento boxes are still produced and sold today as traditional handicrafts.

During the Edo period (1603-1867), prosperous merchants would attend flower-viewings or plays with elegant, tiered bento boxes; these boxes would come in two to five layers, and would be filled with vibrantly colorful foods. From this time forth, bento served on special occasions—such as during celebrations in the home, at Buddhist memorial services, and for entertaining guests—evolved into a unique, sophisticated art form. They were used particularly often in the tea ceremony.

Bento Boxes Made from Bent Sheets of Wood

This type of curved bento box is made by carving cedar or cypress, bending it into this shape, and then attaching a separate piece of wood for the bottom. This type of curved box has existed since the Yayoi period (10th to 3rd century B.C.) and has been used throughout the centuries in both everyday life and making offerings to the gods.

This is a picture of a curved bento box used nowadays. There is a divider in the middle; rice goes in one half of the box, while side dishes go in the other.

A bento box made from bent sheets of wood

Bento Boxes Woven from Thin Bamboo Strips

In the past, large wicker boxes weaved from willow or bamboo were used for storing clothes, while small ones were used as bento boxes. Large wicker boxes are rarely used today, but the smaller ones are still enjoyed today by some who appreciate the feel of a box made from natural materials.

A kori bento box made from thin, woven bamboo strips

Bento Boxes of Various Designs and Made of Various Materials

The bento boxes used by most families nowadays are made using materials including wood, metals like anodized aluminum, and plastic. The boxes are usually rectangular or circular in shape, and are often two-tiered containers. Many other varieties also exist, such as bento boxes with tight seals for soups and other liquids, boxes meant to keep food warm, boxes that can be put in the microwave, and miniature trunk-like bento boxes that also have small canteens in them.

An aluminum bento box. Modern bento boxes are made from a variety of materials, but the most common was anodized aluminum.

Before plastic-based bento boxes became commonplace, most people used bento boxes made of metals like anodized aluminum just like this, and the word "bento" would conjure up this type of image.

There are also many bento boxes that are focused on certain product brands or popular characters such as Hello Kitty, and users often enjoy collecting matching hand-held bags meant for their chopsticks, forks, and the bento boxes themselves.

Bento and other goods with characters on them
Hello Kitty is popular among both children and adults. The bento box, chopsticks case, chopsticks, fork, and spoon—all have Hello Kitty on them.
Bento-related goods
The bento box bag, hand towel, and canteen—all have a popular character (Cinnamoroll) on them

The Half-Moon Bento Preferred by Sen no Rikyu

One traditional type of bento box still in use today is the hangetsu (half moon) style container, said to have been favored by Sen no Rikyu, who established the art of the tea ceremony in the latter half of the sixteenth century. Another is the chabako (tea box) bento. The tea box is a vessel for storing the implements needed in an open-air tea ceremony, and this type of bento uses the chabako as the container. Also there is the Shokado bento, inspired by the partitioned paintboxes that Shokado Shojo, a monk and painter of the early Edo period (1603-1867), used regularly. The food that goes inside these boxes varies according to the season and the occasion, but the food is always beautiful to look at as well as delicious to taste.

Hangetsu bento (Tankuma Kitamise)

In Japanese restaurants, bento boxes are used to present individual servings of kaiseki ryori, the exquisite food served at traditional Japanese sit-down parties. These restaurants use bento boxes mainly as a means of serving individual meals compactly, rather than as a convenient means of carrying food outside the home.

Shokado bento