Bento packaged for the global spotlight

October 23rd, 2009 by Jason Jenkins

How to make an Astro Boy charabento, as show in "Face Food Recipes" and available from Mark Batty Publisher. (Christopher D. Salyers photo)

How to make an Astro Boy kyarabento, as shown in "Face Food Recipes," available from Mark Batty Publisher. (Christopher D. Salyers photo)

The recession and a growing interest in cost-cutting ingenuity have resulted in an unprecedented amount of bento coverage in the international press. From The Guardian to The Washington Post, major newspapers are spilling plenty of ink over this humble yet refined Japanese tradition.

It’s easy to see why. Bento provide an extremely photogenic platform to explain larger cultural and economic realities for the beleaguered working classes, who in an effort to save money choose the DIY approach to lunch. However, in the New York Times’ opinion blog, “Room for Debate,” several well-known creative minds move beyond proletariat concerns to wax philosophic on the nature of bento and how they represent Japanese society.

John Maeda links traditional boxed lunches to the Japanese “less is more” principal, while Muji creative director Kenya Hara argues that bento preparation is an act of focusing on the beautiful and simple in an ugly, chaotic world. Denis Dutton highlights the love and care placed in a bento’s creation, while Nick Currie (aka Momus) sees bento as a triumph of aesthetics over efficiency.

It would be more than a stretch to call the interest in bento a new trend in Japan. After all, people have making boxed lunches for centuries, and even the buzz around bento boys (弁当男子), those working men who – “gasp!” – prepare their own lunches to save money, goes back at least a few years. But now the kyaraben version of bento are arguably becoming a global art form, with kyaraben contests, budding kyaraben Facebook and Flickr groups, and yes, a Kyaraben iPhone application.

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