The earliest records of Bento Boxes date back to the 5th century. Many people were out all day hunting, fishing, or farming. The Bento Box was originally inspired by a farmer’s seed box. The idea first came into play when farmers would pack their lunches in boxes to bring them out to the fields with them. During the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) is when Bento Boxes truly began to become established. It was at this time that hoshi-ii became popular. Hoshi-ii is dried rice that can be eaten as is or rehydrated with hot or cold water. In the Ise Monogatari (Tales of Ise), a collection of lyrical stories, there are descriptions of people eating dried rice on a trip. This is one of the earliest written records of these boxed lunches.
During the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603) Bento Boxes increased in popularity and style. The boxes were typically made out of lacquered wood. Bento boxes became popular items to use when performing outdoor tea ceremonies or during hanami (watching the Cherry Blossoms as is traditionally done during Spring in Japan).
Bento Boxes became a staple of Japanese culture during the Edo Period (1603-1868). During this time outdoor activities were increasingly popular and Bento Boxes became a necessity for most of the population. Those travelling would typically carry a koshibento (simple waist bento) that consisted of rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves. During the Meiji Period traveling by train was invented and quickly became the preferred method of transportation. Ekiben, Bento Boxes sold at train stations, became incredibly popular. They traditionally consisted of onigiri (rice balls in bamboo leaves) and takuan (pickled daikon radish wrapped in bamboo leaves). Another reason for the increased popularity of Bento Boxes was due to the fact that most schools did not provide lunches. School children would pack their own lunches in the Bentos to take to school. At this time there was some introduction of European style sandwiches sold in Bentos but it was not common.
Aluminum Bento Boxes did not come about until the Taisho period (1912-1926). These boxes became popular due to their lustrous appearance and how easily they could be cleaned. This was the most popular Bento used until it’s plastic equivalent arrived years later. After WWII Bento Boxes saw a decline in popularity until the invention of the microwave in the 1980s. This saw a major resurgence in Bentos and soon they became a staple in not just Japan but worldwide. Today you can find a wide variety of Bento Boxes all over the world.