In 15th century, food logistics was a major problem for travelling armies. Samurai developed foods that were easy to transport and carry. These are considered precursors to Japan's much loved bento box.
Factory BentoThe next step in bento innovation came with Japan's rapid modernization in the late 19th century after its markets were opened (by the American navy) in the 1850s.
Japan urbanized and industrialized faster than any other country in history. Great social turmoil prevailed. The development of bento boxes for the masses was a small part of the great change that characterized the Meiji-era.
Industrial workers made food at home and carefully packaged it for a long day at the factory. Within a short time office workers and school children were doing the same. Lacquer (and later aluminium) lunch boxes became all the rage. The modern bento was born.
Bento TodayToday, most bento in Japan are mass produced and sold at bento shops, convenience stores, department stores, train stations, street stands and restaurants.
They're incredibly common. Most people in Japan eat at least one bento a week. It's not unusual for bento to represent over 50% of a person's diet.
KyarabenAt some point, somebody's mom sent them to school with a bento designed to look like a kawaii (cute) cartoon character. All the kids who saw it went home and begged their mom to do the same.
In the early 1990s, a new type of bento exploded on to the school lunch scene: kyaraben (Japanese English for "Character Bento"). People designed every bento imaginable — cartoons, celebrities, animals and famous artworks.
Today, kyaraben is bigger than ever. They're becoming a serious art form — annual kyaraben competitions now draw international competitors to Japan.
EkibenEkiben are bento sold at train stations that are usually eaten on shinkansen and intercity express trains.
People in Japan are fond of taking the train. Ekiben is part of the experience. Each station has its own signature bento. Ekiben otaku (ekiben nerds) travel all over the country just to sample well known train lunch boxes. There are at least 10,000 distinctive ekiben sold at (or near) train stations throughout Japan.
Many ekiben resemble fine food. Others come in collectible containers. Most ekiben highlight the regional cuisine of the station where they're sold. It's easy to see why people get so excited about them.
Bento PastimesBento are an integral part of many of Japan's favorite pastimes. Everyone has enjoyed a bento under the sakura trees in Spring.
TeishokuTeishoku is a "set meal" that's available at many restaurants in Japan (especially at lunch). Teishoku usually resemble a bento — they're served in boxes.
Hinomaru BentoPerhaps it's the greatest honour Japan has bestowed on a food.
The hinomaru bento is designed to look like the Japanese flag. It features white rice with a bright red pickled ume plum (umeboshi) in the center.