Is "bento" by itself likely to be understood by native speakers of English, and feel natural, without the word "box" afterwards?

For example, can you say "This is a photo of a bento I ate yesterday"? Assuming that you can use the word "ate" with bento without meaning that you ate the container as well!

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    "It depends". A subset of native speakers of English will understand it. A subset will not understand it. I think it would prove extremely difficult to to come up with a percentage or ratio though. I understand it just fine, I bet my dad wouldn't. Feb 10, 2013 at 13:04

4 Answers 4


As a general rule, when using loanwords that are new enough that you expect not all of your audience to know them, use them in combination with an English word.

Often you can use the loanword as a qualifier though this is not such a case. With "box" you could be asked for clarification "what kind of box", without it the listener is possibly more likely to silently remain confused or mishear some other word.

Of course if you know your audience you can adapt. If you're talking to Japanophiles or expats for instance. Personally I'm pretty sure I say "bento box" more often even when I'm in Japan.


Bento is not an English word per se, but is a loan word from Japanese. It's also not in particularly common usage, so you may expect some quizzical looks by native English speakers who are not familiar with Japanese cuisine.

In direct answer to your question though, the answer is Yes, Bento can be used in isolation, as can be seen on the wikipedia entry for Bento:


Bento (弁当 bentō?)[1] is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento holds rice, fish or meat, with pickled or cooked vegetables, usually in a box-shaped container. Containers range from disposable mass produced to hand crafted lacquerware. Bento are readily available in many places throughout Japan, including convenience stores, bento shops (弁当屋 bentō-ya?), railway stations, and department stores. However, Japanese homemakers often spend time and energy on a carefully prepared lunch box for their spouse, child, or themselves .

Bento can be elaborately arranged in a style called "kyara-ben" or "character bento". Kyaraben (キャラ弁?) is typically decorated to look like popular Japanese cartoon (anime) characters, characters from comic books (manga), or video game characters. Another popular bento style is "oekakiben" or "picture bento". This is decorated to look like people, animals, buildings and monuments, or items such as flowers and plants. Contests are often held where bento arrangers compete for the most aesthetically pleasing arrangements.

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    I'm pretty sure the majority of Japan culture articles on Wikipedia are written by Japanophiles who habitually use more and newer Japanese loanwords when they're speaking English than the rest of us. Feb 10, 2013 at 9:44

The NOAD reports bento as word, and it says its meanings are:

  • a lacquered or decorated wooden Japanese lunchbox.
  • a Japanese-style packed lunch, consisting of such items as rice, vegetables, and sashimi (raw fish with condiments).

You can use bento when referring to the lunchbox, or the Japanese-style packed lunch without adding box.


I think you can use it that way.

Here's a link to just such a usage.

This dish was inspired by a bento I ate on a train ride [...]

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