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The Bento

I was left trying to make a comparison yesterday. It is moments like that, when I feel more versed in something Japanese than its American counterpart, that I feel I have been in Japan for too long.

The Bento. It might be best translated as a ‘boxed lunch,’ but boxed lunches in the United States died generations ago. They are so common that I have become so familiar with their name and their use, that I have neglected to ever mention them.

I suppose with the accessibility of trains and mass transportation throughout Japan, particularly Honshu (and most especially in the Kanto region), people are prone to day trips that don’t involve sitting behind the wheel of a car. So, rather than stop at a restaurant, many Japanese will bring along a bento, a single portion takeout meal almost always featuring rice, fish or meat and some cooked or pickled vegetables. In that way, while American boxed lunches were popular before automobiles and then died, Japanese bentos are said to have developed in the twelfth century and blossom still today.

With their adoration of convenience stores, konbinis, the Japanese can walk into any of the 50,000 Sunkus, Family Mart, or Lawson’s stores and buy a disposable mass produced bento for 300 to 800 yen ($2.50 to $7 USD). Still, despite their commercialization, the tradition of an ornately packed and thoughtfully balanced bento in a lacquerware box is a staple of the Japanese housewife.

So, yesterday trying to remember what would be today’s American version of the bento. The best I could think of would be the “brown-bagged lunch,” which is always prepared at home. I can’t recall stores commonly selling set-lunches, beyond a hoagie sandwich with potato chips and a soda, or something to that effect. I haven’t been gone that long, have I?

I was disturbed by my suddenly vague idea of American convenience stores and common practices for day trips. Let me know if anyone has any thoughts of the American version of the bento!

Jaa mata,

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