The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox

The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox

By Kenji Ekuan

Edited by David B. Stewart

Lunchbox philosophy, or the world according to the Japanese lunchbox: how an object of sublime beauty offers a key to understanding Japanese aesthetics, design, and culture.





Lunchbox philosophy, or the world according to the Japanese lunchbox: how an object of sublime beauty offers a key to understanding Japanese aesthetics, design, and culture.

The Makunouchi Bento, or traditional Japanese lunchbox, is a highly lacquered wooden box divided into quadrants, each of which contains different delicacies. It is also one of the most familiar images of Japan's domestic environment. When presented to the diner, the Japanese lunchbox seems straightforward enough; each of four food portions resides in its own compartment, apparently obeying a strict lunchbox geometry. So far, just food. But Kenji Ekuan reveals that a much deeper reading is possible, one that sees the lunchbox as nothing less than a key to an understanding of Japanese civilization, the spirit of form, and the aesthetic ideal in which the many are reduced to one. Ekuan reads the Japanese lunchbox as both object and metaphor. It is one of this book's many charms that he is able to see it as both simultaneously. He compares the visual pleasures of the Zen lunchbox to an aerial view of the Japanese archipelago; he invites us to savor its quadripartite structure as we savor the four seasons. In so doing, he unlocks the secrets of ancient Japanese rituals, celebrates the aesthetics of Japanese design, explores the contours of Japanese landscapes and technology, and delineates the forty-eight rules of the etiquette of Japanese form. With an agility more characteristic of poetry than of design criticism, he connects everything from food, television, motorcycles, package tours, and department stores to landscape, ecology, computers, and radios, all the while keeping his eye on his subject. In this book of magical transformations, nothing is what it first appears, but everything is deepened by "lunchbox theory." Consider the influence of the lunchbox on TV viewing, for example: chopsticks are used to stroll through a meal, just as remote control devices are used to browse TV channels. This book reveals a world of secret connections between its covers, in the spirit of the lunchbox itself.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262050555 208 pp. | 9.8 in x 9.7 in


$19.95 T ISBN: 9780262550352 208 pp. | 9.8 in x 9.7 in


David B. Stewart


  • Ekuan argues his intriguing points with diaphanous prose.

    John D. Thomas

    Village Voice


  • The universe, human beings' place in it, and a way to understand it—all in a lunchbox! Only the intricate culture of Japan could have produced an idea like this; and only its Zen master of design, Kenji Ekuan, could have explained it.

    David R. Brown

    President, Art Center College of Design

  • Kenji Ekuan's book is a fascinating journey to the soul of the material culture in Japan.

    Professor Yrjv Sotamaa

    President of the University of Art and Design, Helsinki

  • Using the Japanese lunchbox as symbol, metaphor, analogy, and example, the distinguished industrial designer Kenji Ekuan illustrates ideas of design, culture, and civilization not only in Japan but across the world. A fascinating and profoundly thought provoking book.

    C.H.D. Everett

    Director General, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation

  • Kenji Ekuan has once again used his immense gifts to explain the essence and intersection of design and life that the rest of us can only struggle to understand. This book is further evidence that he is the grandmaster of seeing.

    Robert T. Schwartz

    Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Industrial Designers Society of America