Find out more about “Charaben”
Cool and Kawaii Japanese Bento Culture

There are lots of Japanese foods that are widely known across the world. As you know, Sushi, Tempura, Ramen… all these words have become so popular that they don't need to be translated anymore.
And now, do you know that “Bento” has also become one of those universal terms that is common to people all over the world?
Some of you may get surprised to hear that something like Bento is getting popular out of Japan, as it is so close to our daily life. It's nothing special for us indeed, but for the people in other countries Bento seem to appear cool and kawaii. How come?
To find out the answer for this question, first, let's look over the history of Bento.
1.History of Bento
People seemed to have enjoyed eating outside since long ago dating back to Nara period (710-794 AD) as we can find it mentioned in “Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters)”, but we should wait till Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603 AD) for the entry of the term Bento. The term is said to be originally from China which means “something convenient”.
Along with the habit of eating Bento, lunchbox has gone through the long history too. Partition food contatiner called “Wariko” was created in Heian period (794-1185 AD) and then in Azuchi-Momoyama period, stacking lacuered box called “Sageju” came out. Sageju was used mainly by upper-class people to eat outdoors enjoying cherry blossom and other beautiful seasons.
Today, there are great variety of lunchboxes with different shapes and functions. Useful lunchboxes with cute design are one of the favorite souvenirs for tourists from abroad.
History of bento has close relation with the changes in people's lifestyle. “Makunouchi-bento” was served for the audience watching stage performance, and “Ekiben” got popular among the people traveling by railways. Bento developed together with social and cultural development of Japan.
2.Bento as a communication tool
There are so many places to buy Bento in the town, but the one made by your loved ones would be definitely something special.
In Japan, many kindergarten ask to bring lunch from home, so most people start their life with homemade Bento since young and that goes on through their school days. Parents try hard to make their bento look yummy and delightful so that children would be happy to eat it, at the same time paying careful attention to the nutritional balance.
Do you have any memories about your Bento? How did you feel when you open your lunchbox and find delicious Bento filled with lots of lovely ideas? I believe you felt somewhat encouraged by receiving the message that there’s someone always thinking of you.
Bento is a kind of communication tool between you and your loved ones. Even if you had some trouble with your family, when you find your Bento made as usual, you may feel like “Good, we made up!” But, sometime you may find a message that they are still angry with you, so be careful!
3.What's Charaben? It's almost an art!
Now, let's look at the new culture of Bento, that is “Charaben”. Charaben stands for Character-Bento, which is beatifully decorated featuring characters of manga, anime and so on. The term Charaben came out in 1990s and became a big trend in 2000s along with the spread of SNS. Housewives started to upload their cute Bento through SNS and some of their blogs and instagrams became very popular. Cookbooks with their Charaben receipe were published and even a film was made inspired by one of the blogs.
Recently a new word “Kyarabenist” is created and there is an association of Kyarabenist which offers workshop to become a certified Kyarabenist. They hold some Charaben contests and have started Charaben catering service recently. Charaben is developing into a big business or even a fine art!
SNS played another important role in the booming market of Charaben. People all over the world came to notice Charaben through SNS. Japanese foods were getting popular as a healthy diet, but on top of that, it was featured to be something cool and kawaii. It came under the spotlight among lovers of Japanese pop culture across the world.

Well then, let's find out more about Charaben. What kind of designs are there?
1) Here is a one that features popular character of a cartoon...
2) Some designs are inspired by seasonal events
3) Some have messages made with Nori (seaweed sheets)
4.Let's try Charaben making!
And now, don't you want to know how to make Charaben?
As the saying goes, “Seeing is believing”. Thus, we made our first challenge to make a cute Charaben to understand more deeply about this culture.
-First, we made Tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette) and cut into two to make heart shapes.
-We also made flowers with thin eggs crepes.
-Totoro and Makkurokurosuke (dust bunny) were made with rice balls. Mix ground black sesame into the rice to express grayish skin of Totoro. Wrap Nori over the rice ball to make Makkurokurosuke. Cut out small parts from Nori and cheese to make eyes and nose. Put those small parts on the surface of rice balls using tweezers to finish the face of characters.
-Set Totoro in the middle of the lunchbox and put boiled broccoli around the body. Now, Totoro looks like taking a rest in a forest.
-Fill the space around Totoro with heart and flower shaped eggs, decorative sausages and Chikuwa (Japanese fish sausage). Makkurokurosuke would be placed on the head of Totoro.
-Add thin pretzels as whisker on Totoro's face and.....finally it's done!
-You think it looks like a mouse? Never mind! They look so happy in the lunchbox forest, aren’t they?

Cheers! So glad that we finally made it. It took nearly two hours for us to make it for the first time. I guess you can make it much faster as you learn more and get used to it, however, we must say it surely was a hard work and we take our hats off to the people doing this every morning.
It is said that Charaben making usually takes at least 30 minutes and could be much longer depending on the design. After you know that, you may feel a bit guilty to eat your Charaben in a short while, just like us. But anyway, we decided to thank Totoro and ate up our first Charaben at last. It was very good indeed!

People started to pay more attention to Japanese style cuisine as “Washoku” was inscribed on the list of UNESCO Intangible World Heritage in 2013. They say the traditional dietary culture of Japan has deep connection with the spirit of “respect for nature” and the four main qualities of Washoku are as follows.

1. A great variety of fresh ingredients and respect for their natural flavors
2. Healthy diet with balanced nutrition
3. Expressing the beauty of nature and seasonal changes
4. A close relationship with annual events such as New Year holidays

Bento has these four qualities and signifies the spirit of Japanese dietary culture using seasonal ingredients, caring about balance in nutrition and color, and decorating carefully to match the situation it is made for. On top of it, Charaben features the modern pop culture in Japan such as anime and games, which makes a great fusion of long tradition and emerging new culture.

As Bento become more popular around the world, some Charaben cooking workshop are starting to hold English class for people from abroad. Now increasing number of tourists are joining such workshop and they all find it so different from the lunch they took in their own country.
So, why not try making Charaben and you may find out more about Japan!