search Japan Podcast

JP 04-1: A Meal in a Box – Bento-弁当 (Obento-お弁当)

1st day of Preschool Bento

Thanks for being patient, listeners!

Personally, I like bento with things like sukiyaki (sliced thin beef with a sweet sauce), an absence of spaghetti, and exciting rice (not just white rice). but that’s just me.
isn’t it odd that Karamoon and I didn’t even talk about our favorites in this show?
stay tuned for part 2.


  • just like a Japanese letter or email, in this one we begin with the Britishness of weather in Tokyo
  • it’s actually ‘O’bento, because…
  • the ‘O’ is an honorific prefix to add politeness
  • it’s not an honorable lunchbox, although it sounds that way
  • two pronunciations: ‘o’ & ‘goh’: same kanji, but ‘o’ is for words of Japanese origin and ‘goh’ is for words of Chinese origin
  • because rice is such a central thing in Japan, you usually use it without the honorific prefix
  • men tend to use the honorific a bit less than women
  • a woman in Japan might say ‘oniku’, the honorific way to say meat, while a man would just say ‘niku’
  • English language equivalent honorifics?
  • Americans have no polite language at all, so there’s that (Ed: ‘I beg your pardon?’)
  • au contraire, we are very polite!
  • generally to make language more polite in English, you’d soften what you’re saying
  • instead of ‘you should do…’ we might say ‘I think you should do…’ or ‘if I were you, I would…’

  • In Japanese, polite language is much more clearer: you have the honorific prefix; different verb forms.
  • for example: ‘tabemasu’ is more polite than ‘taberu’ (both mean ‘to eat’)
  • so, obento are a huge part of Japanese culture
  • Japanese kids usually take obento to kindergarten and elementary school
  • in junior high and high school they usually eat at school, but it’s probably a modified bento
  • there’s formal obento that you get at a restaurant – in those black lacquer boxes
  • in obento, the food is separated in some way
  • it’s not a pile of stuff in a box
  • from the convenience store, there’s always a green piece of plastic signifying, maybe, grass or a leaf; maybe bamboo leaves
  • like rice balls that are wrapped in a bamboo leaf
  • in a convenience store, they can be really strange:
  • * always will have rice, sometimes with sesame seeds sprinkled on
    * or sometimes there’s a rice ball
    * but there also might be a bit of sausage
    * a small bit of spaghetti (Ed. this makes no sense to me, but there you are)
    * some potato salad
    * a fried prawn
    * a hamburger
    * some pickles
    * the pickles are usually pickled daikon, with garish artificial coloring

  • pickles are very important in Japanese food, perhaps for cleansing the palate
  • when you eat sushi, you’ll have pickled ginger
  • of course, you can go to dedicated obento shops and get much better quality obentos
  • * tempura obento is a classic one:
    * rice
    * vegetables in a light batter
    * good shrimp

  • but don’t get the ones with shellfish when it’s late
  • you can get ‘yakiniku’ obentos, which is rice topped with thinly sliced barbecued beef with a little bit of sweet sauce; there’s a big range
  • you can get ‘ekiben’, obentos sold at shinkansen (bullet train) stations
  • it’s almost a taboo to eat on short train rides
  • ekiben is associated with the shinkansen
  • you’ll be on a train for 2 or 3 hours – for example, Tokyo to Kyoto is about 2 hours
  • the ‘taboo’ against eating on short train rides seems to be fading away
  • when non-Japanese talk about taboos, we often misunderstand the situation
  • they don’t blow their noses in public because they feel embarassed, not because it’s a taboo
  • a short digression on blowing one’s nose
  • do not put your make up on in the subway: why
  • subways are very small – even reading a newspaper, it’s pre-folded
  • an English person would elbow the next person, look like they’re flying a kite

  • Terri records the show on her iPhone3G
    Tom Toeda of fti studio mixes the show.
    image credit: By alitak888 Alisa Staples
    If you’d like the show to download into your iTunes automatically, click to subscribe (and please feel free to leave us a review on iTunes, or a comment below).

    Next show theme?
    We’ll continue with Part 2 of ‘Bento’

    This week’s show:


    No Responses to “JP 04-1: A Meal in a Box – Bento-弁当 (Obento-お弁当)”

    1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by masaAki Minami, masaAki Minami. masaAki Minami said:! 幕の内:Makunouchi 駅弁:Ekiben @TerrinTokyo:JapanPodcast:A Meal in a Box – Bento-弁当(Obento-お弁当) [...]