A Japanese Life of Bento

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Bentos are just starting to penetrate the consciousness of people outside of Japan, though judging from the growing interest in bento sites like this one and several others, it’s definitely trending up. However, the bento or obento (the more polite honorific term) in its many guises is an integral part of life in Japan. Here are the many different types of bento that a typical Japanese person might eat at different stages of life.

The Preschool Years

Pre-school institutions in Japan are nursery school (保育園 ほいくえん hoiku-en), which is for children aged about 2 to to 4, and kindergarten (幼稚園 ようちえん yoh-chi-en), for age 5 to 1st grade. Most pre-schools do not have school lunch facilities, so children are required to bring bentos for lunch. For mothers, making bentos every day for their children can be a stressful yet exciting challenge.

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Some mothers (and even a couple of fathers) knock themselves out making charaben or kyaraben (キャラ弁), those highly decorated, cute bentos that still get the lion’s share of attention outside of Japan when it comes to bentos. The most-often stated reason for charaben is to encourage picky eaters to eat their food, but I’ve always thought that their role as a creative outlet for the mothers, as well as the urge to compete against other kids’ bentos (and by extension, their mothers’ bento skills) are just as strong incentives. Every lunchtime can be a contest of sorts as to who has the cutest bento. There are also numerous formal contests that a charaben enthusiast can enter to win prizes, money and more.

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Elementary (Primary) School Years

Most elementary or primary schools (小学校 しょうがっこう shoh-gakkou) have school lunch programs, so mothers are relieved from everyday bento duty. However, bentos are still necessary for school outings (遠足 えんそく ensoku), which occur once or twice every school year. (Read about my ensoku bentos when I was a kid, which were a lot simpler than this one.)

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Another occasion when bentos are needed is the annual Sports Festival (運動会 うんどうかい undohkai). This is a school-wide event where the kids are divided into two teams, Red and White, and compete in various athletic events. Parents are supposed to attend, and at lunchtime the whole family sits somewhere within the school grounds and tucks into a big family bento. This is another opportunity for the creative bentoist to show his or her skills off.

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And of course, during summer vacation the family might go on a trip to the mountains or the seaside, with some onigiri (rice balls) or even a picnic basket.

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The High School Years (Grades 7 to 12 in the U.S.)

High school is divided into junior high, or middle school (中学校 ちゅがっこう chuugakkkoh) and senior high, or upper school (高校 こうこう kohkoh or 高等学校 こうとうがっこう kohtoh gakkoh). Many high schools don’t have cafeterias or school lunch programs, so it’s back to bento again. Boys of this age are growing rapidly and have huge appetites, so their mothers pack them big bentos (ドカ弁 dokaben). The boys are often still hungry, so they supplement their bentos with sweet (お菓子パン)or savory (おかずパン)filled breads like a yakisoba pan (a roll filled with fried noodles), anpan (a roll filled with sweet red bean paste), hotdogs and so on, bought at a convenience store or bakery.

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Some girls are as hungry as the boys (especially if they participate in after-school sports) and require big bentos too, but others like small, pretty bentos that help them to watch their weight (ダイエット弁当, diet bento), made by their ever obliging mothers.

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Ronin-sei and College/University Years

In Japan, the best way to assure future success in life is to enter a good university. Because of this, competition for entry into the best schools like Tokyo University is extremely fierce - so fierce in fact that if someone doesn’t get in on the first try (they can take the entrance exams in their last year of high school) they will try once, twice, even more times, going to exam prep schools. These in-between students are called 浪人生 (ろうにんせい rohninsei), which comes from the word 浪人 (ろうにん rohnin), which were what out-of-work samurai were called in the olden days.

Rohnin-sei, as well as college kids, have notoriously poor eating habits, especially the boys. These students rely a lot on what’s available at their local konbini (コンビニ, convenience store). Konbini stock a lot of readymade bentos. They aren’t necessarily healthy choices, since they tend to have a lot of deep fried or otherwise high-fat foods in them, but they are probably better than cup noodles and hamburgers.

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Girls of this period in life might also go for pretty food with a pseudo-European flair. This is typically served at cafes and is called ‘Cafe style’. Cafe style bentos (カフェ弁当, cafe bento) come in alternate packaging and in small portions. There’s usually a dessert too. (For some reason, desserts, fruit and other sweet things are considered the domain of women in Japan, and not very manly.)

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(See also: Take a virtual bento trip in Japan, a photo trip through a department store food hall’s bento section.)

Young Adults, Newlyweds

After graduating from university, both single guys and girls continue to rely on konbini bento and the like for their sustenance, though many women, and some men, start making their own, health-conscious bentos. (Incidentally, this type of bento is what Just Bento is mostly about!)

Once they get married, a guy might be lucky enough to get a wife who takes the time to make him ‘Loving Wife Bento’, or 愛妻弁当 (あいさいべんとう aisai bento). These tend to be cute, colorful bentos, nutritonally balanced, often with little love messages (edible or not) in them - sort of a grown up version of charaben.

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The honeymoon period does not last long for most couples.

The Child Rearing and Working Years

When the kids come, there’s no time to make heart shapes on Dad’s bento, so his bentos become purely practical, tasty and nutritious. The thermal bento packed with hot rice (hokaben, ホカ弁)is popular amongst men of a certain age.

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Also popular amongst those men of a certain age, but across all ages too, are train station bentos (駅弁, ekiben). Many people dream of taking a leisurely trip around the country, riding local rail lines and enjoying regional bentos. Most people don’t have that kind of time though, so they content themselves by buying ekiben in the food halls of department stores.

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Once the kids are bigger, Mom has a bit more leisure time. She might take advantage of that by enjoying lunches out with her friends. They might enjoy an elegant bento lunch (幕の内弁当, makunouchi bento) at a traditional Japanese restaurant, but might keep it a secret from their husbands. These ladies of a certain age have a lot of influence on which restaurants become popular. (A cliché is that if you see a lot of middle-aged women at a restaurant around lunchtime, that place is bound to be good and a good value too.)

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The Golden Years

A retired couple, if they don’t get divorced (‘retirement divorce’ is an increasing phenomenon in Japan) have a lot more leisure time. With the kids grown up and hopefully gone (though many adult children in Japan continue to live with their parents, especially if unmarried) they can indulge in things like home delivered bento (お取り寄せ弁当) without breaking the bank.

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The older a Japanese person gets, the more they tend to prefer simple, traditional food. Simple onigiri (rice balls), perhaps filled with homemade umeboshi, are a perfect bento snack or lunch. In fact, onigiri are universally loved - they are soul food for Japanese people.

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A few other bento types and vocabulary

  • Kouraku bento (行楽弁当) - any type of bento eaten on an outing, such as for cherry blossom viewing. Can be an elaborate makunouchi bento, or something assembled at a convenience store.
  • Ohanami bento (お花見弁当)- a bento eaten while admiring the cherry blossoms.
  • Omotenashi bento (おもてなし弁当) - bentos served to guests; usually a makunouchi bento type.
  • Shoukadou bento (松花堂弁当)- related to makunouchi bento; a formal bento served at restaurants, where a deep bento box is divided into 4 equal sections, each section with a small serving dish.
  • Hinomaru bento (日の丸弁当)- the simplest kind of bento; the box is filled with white rice, and an umeboshi (pickled plum) is placed in the middle.
  • Jukuben (塾弁) - a light bento eaten in the evening at juku (exam prep school). Most Japanese schoolkids go to a juku at some point in their lives.

And just in case you were wondering, all of the bentos in the photos are Re-ment miniatures.

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For more bento recipes, ideas and tips, subscribe to Just Bento via your newsreader or by email (more about subscriptions).

And visit our sister site, Just Hungry for great Japanese home recipes and more.

32 comments

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Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

This was incredibly educational and interesting! Thanks for this article. Also your re-ment minis are adorable!

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Thanks for the lifespan of bento! I love my mr. bento thermal bottle and onigiri were crack to me when I was in Tokyo. I swear the people at 7-11 knew me by the time I left. I even brought one home and ate it while waiting for my luggage. Don't know why I don't make them myself.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Wow, thanks for the trip through a life in bento ^_^ Very educational, hehe. The minis are so cute!! I had been wondering for a while where you'd gotten them from.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Hi Maki,

Congrats on getting through your move, I just recently moved as well it was tough getting all the things I've acumalated, but it had to be done. I just discovered a bunch of really nice cooking items in my kitchen stash as well and vote to use it soon. Just wondering, where'd you decided to land?

By the way, I love this article, very educational and fun to read, like you always have done, great job!

Ciao,
O

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Hi O, always nice to hear from you :)

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Those are the cutest little things EVER! Very kawaii :)

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Just a quick query for the bentoists, looking at the pictures I noticed that the picnic bento was rather western looking with flat plates and a fork. I'm more used to bento being in sealable containers and eaten with chopsticks. It seems a bit odd because I'd picture the picnic bento being one of the pinnacles of bento making, bento being portable by design and picnic's being one of the few social meals where food must be portable it seems a match made in heaven.

Is an outdoors celebratory meal an introduced concept to Japan? I know here in Australia the picnic can be one of the highlights on the social "eating" calendar, though ours almost always involve cooking at the site on a barbeque, and I would have thought with the "Hanimi" etc, an outdoors meal would have been the time to wheel out the finest bento skills. Maybe I'm just reading into it to much lol, but just curious.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Well yes, there are outdoor celebratory meals in Japan, and have been for hundreds of years. An ohanami bento can be very elaborate, as it was when it was enjoyed by the emperor’s court in the Heian period (8th century - 12th century) when the custom of feasting while admiring the cherry blossoms was probably established, or can be simple too, depending on the occasion and the company (e.g. friends getting together with kombini bento and cans of beer and sake and getting stinky drunk).

I’m sure in Australia you have informal barbeques for friends and family, as well as elaborate ones for special occasions. In the same way, indoor or outdoor bentos can be simple and informal, or formal and elaborate.

I put the picnic bento in there as a representation of a ‘family bento’ (as is the sports festival bento above it). Both are bentos eaten outdoors; one looks more Japanese perhaps than the other to your Western eyes perhaps. I was also trying to make the point that bentos can come in all kinds of guises — if it’s in a box, and/or is portable, in Japan it’s bento. Actually all 3 of the Elementary School Years bentos are outdoors bentos, and in terms of childhood memories all can be quite special.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Thanks for the info Maki. Sorry about the daft question, was very badly worded (was sneakily typing it in during a lunch break when a manager leapt out of nowhere lol) I was just very surprised to see the western style wicker hamper. My limited experience with Bento had me thinking it always referred to meals prepared for single servings, and wicker hampers are used for carrying meals arranged in bulk servings, platters full of sandwiches and the like that everyone picks off of. Didn't know there were shared bento.

I'm heading to Japan in a few months and hopefully will see my first Hanami while I'm there, very curious as to what I'll find under the cherry blossoms.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Hopefully you will not see too many people getting drunk and making a fool of themselves under the cherry trees...but that can happen esp. at night time ^_^; (During the day it's much more family friendly, and of course you see the flowers way better too.) Although there are cherry blossoms everywhere - parks, along roads, etc - if you can, find a place up in the mountains/hills somewhere that has cherry blossoms (ask your hotel if they can recommend a good place that you can get to easily).

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Hi Maki san,

I'm your biggest fan from Dubai. Checking your site becomes my daily routine. I love all your recipes and othe articles. Your bentos really inspire me in preparing my kid's school packed meals. Keep it up Maki san. All the best to you!

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Cecile, one thing I love about running my food sites is that people visit from all over the world. It tickles me pink that you are reading this in Dubai and making your kid's lunches inspired by this site. I'm glad you find the site useful, and thank you! :)

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

How about a recipe for yakisoba pan? :) I saw it on a jdorama and it looked so disgusting yet delicious, I can't get it out of my head.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

There isn't much to it...it's just a soft roll (a hotdog bun would work fine), stuffed with yakisoba made with 'sauce' (like Bulldog sauce - easiest way to make this is to just buy a yakisoba pack that comes with liquid or powdered sauce). The key may be to use plenty of beni-shoga (red pickled ginger). Cheap and filling!

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

I have a question for you that has more to do with japanese than the bentos. (though, those rement bento sets are REALLY CUTE! :D)

Why do you use Hs instead of Us (like in gakkou)? It kind of confuses me, because we learned that う = u.

Just wondering. :)

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

I seem to use _oh_, _ou_ and just _o_ for the (o)+ う sound. Very inconsistent. (Like べんとう would really be bentou or bentoh but bento is widely used now. For what it's worth, my last name ends with a う (伊藤 いとう)and my family has always spelled it Itoh. But other people with the same name spell it Ito (such as venture capitalist and tech guru Joi Ito). So you see...romaji is very inconsistent! But the important thing is to pronounce it correctly ^_^;

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

This was so great I had to refer to it on my blog - and posted the pics to hopefully tease folks to come here and read the whole post (or at least info about the pic they like)

Eilish

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

I noticed with wry amusment the pack of cigarettes with the Hokaben bento.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

heh. i just found this blog and its so great! nice trip down bento lane! i used to make them for my lunches at my last job and everyone was always interested in what cute things i had in them. hah.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Your Re-ment collection is amazing! I loved reading this post; thank you.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Really Like your blog. Still new to bentos

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

This was wonderful to read Maki-san! Arigatou Gozaimasu! I also LOVED the re-ment!

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

This article was such a wonderful insight to bentos and it's inclusion in Japanese culture. Plus the re-mint miniatures were sooooo adorable I had to plug this article in my blog with one of your pictures! They are too cute and so way HAPY!

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

While in Japan I did eat in train station restaurants, but did not find the ekiben. Are they sold in specialty shops or in the train station's conbini's? On the platform where I had to wait there was a bread (pan) shop, and I also saw stands selling popcorn and sweets, but nothing really said 'bento here' to me. Any tips?

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Regular train stations especially around Tokyo don't have them...in the Tokyo metro area I think only major stations such as Tokyo, Ueno and Yokohama have them. However, you can often find ekibens being sold in department food halls. Ekiben are found at regional train stations, and you can buy any number of ekiben guide books (though so far I haven't seen one in English). The Shinkansen stations and many high-speed train stations (e.g. the Azusa line that goes to the Nagano area from Tokyo/Chiba) all have ekiben also (note you can buy them onboard, as well as at the stalls on the platforms.)

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

I really enjoyed your post!
Believe that bentos are getting a real way of life. Your bento can tell so much about you in one glance!
I didn't expect it to evolve as much during life stages! So incredible!
By the way do you still need posts for next month?

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

There are already a lot of great guest posts lined up for March, but you're more than welcome to send one in Zoé :)

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

wow, I loved this post--enough to come out from lurking :)
this was great--I feel like it could be turned into a short film (figurines and all). a perfect post to give us before you move-- it is going to tide me over rather well.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Hi,

Do you know where I can get the aligator bento? I've been looking for it everywhere.

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

awwwww. those re-ment bentous are too cute. :)

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

Thank You So Much for the comprehensive coverage of Japanese bentos culture!

Sincerely,
A Singaporean Schoolgirl

Re: A Japanese Life of Bento

I really like this post and I wonder if it is okay for me to translate it into Vietnamese.
Thank you
OctoTini

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