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The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox

Ekuan, Kenji

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ISBN 10: 0262050552 / ISBN 13: 9780262050555
Published by The MIT Press
Condition: Fine Hardcover
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0262050552 This is a hardcover book with dust jacket. Bookseller Inventory # LA.40.5

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Bibliographic Details

Title: The Aesthetics of the Japanese Lunchbox

Publisher: The MIT Press

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition:Fine

About this title


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.


Beginning with the Japanese lunchbox, Kenji Ekuan, Japan's foremost industrial designer, launches into a book-length meditation on "the source of the Japanese style of making things." For anyone interested in design as a culmination of all things cultural, or design as a moral force in the service of beauty and efficiency, this lovely book is indispensable. It will set every aesthetic synapse snapping and provide enough food for thought to nourish the reader for weeks, if not years.

The lunchbox, or makunouchi, is a closed, compartmented, lacquered or wooden box containing small, beautifully arranged foods. As the mouthwatering pictures in the book amply demonstrate, everything about the box and its contents is considered from the standpoint of visual pleasure. Ekuan gives the long history of the makunouchi as an everyday object, first introduced in the Edo period for a light meal eaten at the opera during intermission. He traces the evolution of the boxes' construction and analyzes the contents--tidbits "from mountain and sea." Variety is key, for ideally there is something--in the lunchbox and in this book--to satisfy every palate, aesthetic or otherwise.

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