This is the ultimate guide to convenience store bento boxes! A bento from a convenience store, like 7-11, Family Mart, or Lawson, is a great way to have a fast, instant lunch ready for you immediately.
A bento is a pre-made boxed meal meant for one that is usually made of staple carbs (almost always rice, sometimes noodles), along with a main dish of meat or fish and an assortment of pickled or cooked vegetables. The ingredients may change, leaving out the meat or fish if you’re a vegetarian for example. The word supposedly comes from the an old slang term in Chinese Biandang, which means convenient. Since the 13th century, it has become a symbol of Japanese’s efficient culture and its ideals. The balanced nutrition and portability is excellent for school children and the salarymen alike. It’s almost like what you imagine a lunch box to be in the US, and is great for an afternoon snack. Mainly, it’s all about convenience.
What’s a convenience store?
The conbini is more than just an occasional drop-by like you might think of a Walgreens; it’s a staple of every day life in Japan, and you will not go a week without visiting one if you’re living in Tokyo. They sell snacks, sake, whiskey, beer, slushies, fried foods, and more. It’s a truly Japanese institution combining efficiency with cost-effectiveness to make a one-stop-shop that you must visit every day.
Most convenience stores even have more, with photocopy machines, banking and ATM services, and clean restrooms too.
How do these things meet?
Often Japanese business people – called “salarymen” – don’t get very much time for lunch. While they technically might have a full hour off for lunch, it can look like you are lazy if other employees have come back before you. The bento offers a quick option. You can take it anywhere and eat quickly, with little to no preparation.
History of the Bento Box
The word “bento” was not what it was initially called – just like a “lunch box” was probably not always a “lunch box”. From 1100-1300 AD, approximately, they simply were referred to as “dried meal” ie hoshii. It had dried rice that could be boiled in water or eaten as-is. Later in the 1500s boxes were added.
During the Kamakura Period there were no boxes, but in 1568 (the Azuchi-Momoyama period) wooden lacquered boxes were produced to create the idea of a bento box that we know today.
During the Edo period, which was a very stable time of economic growth in Japan, from 1603-1867, the bento became an everyday meal to Japan’s booming population, with contents and serving style varying depending on social class and occupation. Travelers and sightseers would wear koshibento (waist bento), which often included riceballs wrapped in bamboo leaves. These were cheap and quick to eat. For special events such as the hanami matsuri (flower viewing parties), large, multi-layered bentos were made to eat at the festival.
In the twentieth century, cheaper and lighter aluminum began to be used in producing bento boxes, which paved the way for the microwavable conbini bento (convenience store bento), ekiben (train station bento) and hokaben (take-out bento). If you want to keep learning Japanese words, start with the beginners lesson.