There are lots of bento-related books published every year in Japan. While most of them have plenty of colorful pictures, some are too wordy to be really useful for people who don’t read Japanese. Here is a list of books that I have in my collection that I think would be very useful even if you don’t read the text. Most of these books reflect my preference for books about healthy, vegetable-centric bento, mainly aimed at adults.
I’ll be updating this page from time to time, so please check back occasionally. You can also see other, less annotated book recommendations in the Amazon Japan aStore .
Incidentally, if you do get one of these books and have a question about something specific, like “What the heck is that thing in the bento on page 94 of XYZ?”, ask away in the comments. I won’t have time to do full translations (or the rights to post them here) but I’ll try my best to help out.
You may also be interested in the Ordering Japanese books and media online  post on Just Hungry.
Watashitachi no Obento (Our Obento) is published by a great lifestyle magazine called ku:nel (I think the name is derived from kuu (eat) neru (sleep)). It shows the everyday bento lunches of regular Japanese people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, mostly who work outside the home. I love this book because it shows how real people make and use bento. There is not a single octopus wiener in sight…not that I am dead set against pink meat cephalopods, but they are extra frills for special occasions or to coax a young child to eat, not really for busy adult people to be making in the morning for their own lunches. The ‘regular people’ bentos in this book are still attractive and colorful, and look delicious. This is one book I look at regularly when I want a boost of inspiration for my own bentos.
Mooks are magazine-format books; they are bound like magazines, so are not as durable as book-bound books, but are still usually printed on high quality paper with topnotch pictures. The Kihon no… (Basic…) series from Orange Page, another magazine publisher, are really terrific large-format mooks that show the basics of various types of cuisine and cooking. Kihon no Obento (Basic Obento) is the bento entry in the series. The photos of bentos are life-size in many cases, and the recipes have step-by-step illustrations, so you can get a lot out of it even if you don’t read the text. If you want to see how everyday, basic bento ingredients are prepared, this mook is one to get. Available from Amazon Japan . It’s not carried by JList or YesAsia unfortunately.
I tend to be a bit skeptical about macrobiotics , but there’s no denying that macrobiotic cookbooks in Japan have some great vegan and vegetarian recipes.
Makurobiochikku no Obento (Macrobiotic Obento) is another mook from Orange Page. It has big, beautiful photos of bentos close up, step by step instructions for many items, and more. If you’re interested in vegan/vegetarian bentos this is a very good one to get. Some of the ingredients may be puzzling, so come here and ask what it is! Available from Amazon Japan .
Onnanoko no Daisuki na Obento (Obento that Girls Love) is a beautiful book. Aimed mainly at mothers with daughters who are in school (I think probably girls of mid-elementary school age and higher), the style is quite different from many other bento books aimed at the moms-with-kids market. The bento contents are simple yet beautifully arranged and easy to prepare, and quite inspirational.
A bonus is that this book also has some crafty ideas for cute or elegant bento wrapper cloths and bags and so on, to make lunchtime that much nicer. This one is available from YesAsia  as well as Amazon Japan .
Ekiben_ are bento boxes sold at train stations (there’s also an equivalent that’s sold at airports, kuuben). The best ekiben are the pinnacle of portable bento, culinarically and artistically. Regional ekiben makers take great pride in their seasonal bento featuring local products. Shun no Ekiben Meikan 800 (800 Seasonal Station Bentos) is one of many books that lovingly catalog the variety of ekiben sold around Japan. The pictures are inspirational, and will whet yor appetite for travelling to Japan and doing an ekiben trip for sure. If you read Japanese the book also has detail travel information so you can really use it to plan a trip. (I intend to do an ekiben trip as soon as I can afford it myself.) This book is available at Jlist/JBox , YesAsia  and Amazon Japan .
Manga fans may want to check out a whole manga series dedicated to ekiben love. Ekiben Hitoritabi (Ekiben Lone Travel) is about the owner of a bento shop (!) who receives a 10th wedding anniversary gift from his wife - a rail pass and ‘orders’ to fulfill his lifelong dream of exploring the ekiben of Japan. The detailed drawings of both ekiben and trains make this series nirvana for any bento or train nut. There are four so far in the series, which are listed on this Amazon astore page . YesAsia also carries volumes 1 , 2  and 3 .
(Disclaimer: JustBento is affiliated with Amazon Japan, Jlist/JBox and YesAsia, and links are affiliate links that help to support the site.)
There are several books dedicated to using bentos for weight loss. I have quite a few of them, and most have a lot of good ideas. I only got Yaseru Obento Recipe recently, but it’s already become my favorite bento-for-weight-loss book and one of my favorite bento books of any kind. It is in Japanese only, as are all good bento books unfortunately. But it’s so full of great photos and illustrations that I think you could get a lot out of it even if you don’t read Japanese.
Yaseru Obento Recipe just means “slimming bento recipes”. The subtitle is kirei de oishii baransu bento ga atto iu ma ni dekiagari! dakara nagatsuzuki shite reboundo nashi! That’s a bit long, but it means generally “beautiful and delicious balanced bentos that are made in a jiffy! So you can keep (making them) for a long time, and won’t have a relapse!” That sounds good to me, and the book does deliver on that promise.
Not only does it have a lot of delicious and great looking recipes, it has a lot of helpful ideas, from how to balance flavors, colors and nutrition in your bento to how to keep your bento safe to eat. The calorie target for each bento presented is 500 calories - the target for my bentos is 500-600 calories, so that fits me perfectly. Their formula to come up with the 500 calorie is broken down like this:
Although the school year starts in April in Japan, September still means back-to-school time after the summer school holidays, so there are a slew of new bento books and such coming out. Two of top Japanese charaben/kyaraben (character bento) artists and bento bloggers have published things in print this month, which you might be interested in taking a look at if you are into this genre of bentos. (Yes they are all in Japanese, but they both are guaranteed to have big beautiful full color photos!)
First up is a mook (large magazine format book) from the lady who blogs under the nickname akinoichigo , titled akinoichigo’s Fun Fun! Character Bento  （akinoichigoのわくわく！ キャラクターのお弁当). Her work featured prominently in the Face Food  book. I’ve always admired her elaborate, very cute yet refined bentos, especially her wonderful sense of color, which really sets her apart. Being a mook, it’s not that expensive either - only 980yen base price from Amazon Japan . Ms. akinoichigo also conducts bento seminars, so I’m assuming she’s a good teacher too!
The other publication is a supplement to the October 2008 issue of Ohayo Okusan (おはよう奥さん, which translates to Good Morning Mrs. Housewife), a women’s magazine aimed at well, housewives. (It’s sort of like Good Housekeeping in the U.S.) Anyway, the supplement, titled Asa tsukuranai! obentou (Bentos not made in the morning!) is all about bento lunches that are composed of make-ahead components that are just assembled in the morning. It’s authored by the bento artist asami122 (her blog post about it is here , where she has a photo of the supplement too), and includes some quick tips for charaben/kyaraben too. Ms. asami122 is the creator of the traditional kimono-clad Hello Kitty bento mentioned here . The attention to detail in her bentos is simply mind boggling. She too teaches charaben bento skills in small classes. The October issue of Ohayo Okusan isn’t available directly from Amazon Japan at the moment, but most Japanese bookstores such as Kinokuniya should carry it. One issue of Ohayo Okusan is only 540 yen, so it’s a bargain if you can find it!
As you may know already if you’ve been following Just Bento for a while, cute, highly decorated bentos known as kyaraben (or charaben, short for character bento), or oekaki bento (picture-drawing bento) are not my style, or what this site is largely about. But I am drawn to the sheer work and creativity that goes into those bentos, most of which are made for little kids, as I’ve noted before .
Now there is a new book in English about this type of bento. Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes  by Christopher D. Salyers is a compact hardcover book with page after page of full color photos of kyaraben, mostly made by Japanese mothers (and one Japanese father) for their little children. Avid bento fans may have already seen some of the bentos included, such as the famous three little pink pigs bento pictured on the cover. There are also works from two American bento artists, including Spa Woman  from Sakurako Kitsa, but the focus is on the Japanese creators.
The book is not really a how-to book, but rather a sort of pocket sized coffee table book (it’s from an art and design book publisher). There are a couple of how-to pages, but the most interesting text is the introduction and the too-short questionnaires with a few of the bento creators. It’s a nice intro to kyaraben . (My one hope though is that it doesn’t further perpetuate the misconception that every Japanese mother makes such elaborate bentos for their children, which I like to repeat a lot is definitely not the case.)
Face Food: The Visual Creativity of Japanese Bento Boxes will be available on March 10th on Amazon.com . I have the advance copy I received for review to give away, with the publisher’s blessing. If you’d like to get this book, leave a comment to this post, being sure to put your email address in the ‘email’ field (don’t worry, it isn’t exposed to spammers) and stating you’d like the book, before the end of Tuesday, February 19th wherever you happen to be. One winner will be selected at random.
[Update:] The drawing is now closed. The lucky winner is Hope, who blogs at The Sinister Scribe . Congratulations Hope!
Bento Boxes: Japanese Meals On the Go  is, I believe, the only book available in English at the moment that is wholly dedicated to Japanese bento box lunches. I didn’t have much incentive to get this for myself, but someone kindly sent me a copy to take a look at recently, so I can finally review it properly.
This slim softcover book (64 pages) is published by a Japanese publishing company. It’s quite obviously a translation from a Japanese book, one I am guessing published about 10 years ago (the publication date of this English version is 2001). I’m not familiar with the author, Naomi Kijima, though that doesn’t mean much. The bentos are very attractive, if a bit old-fashioned in feeling, and the photographs are beautiful.
However there are a few problems with this book. As I said, it’s a translation of a Japanese book and seems to be aimed at a Japanese audience of fairly experienced home cooks. Many of the bentos feature ingredients that are not that easy to get outside of Japan. This would put off most people from trying out the recipes I think, unless they were really determined. A few of the recipes even intimidated me a bit - even though I do have big stock of Japanese staples, some of the fresh ingredients are hard if not impossible for me to get my hands on.
Of course you do need Japanese ingredients to make Japanese food, but one of the major aims of both this site and Just Hungry  is to try to gently incorporate these Japanese ingredients with more widely available ingredients, for people who aren’t Japanese or don’t live in Japan. With a directly-translated-from-Japanese cookbook, that kind of thing isn’t taken into consideration.
The other problem with the book is that the recipes are quite abbreviated, so that a Japanese cooking beginner would be left with many questions.
All in all I’m not sure I’d recommend this book wholeheartedly, unless you live in Japan or in an area with easy accessibility to Japanese ingredients. It’s a bit in-between…too advanced for a Japanese cooking beginner, yet lacking detailed instructions. On the other hand it’s not expensive, so if you want an inspirational book to get your bento-creating juices going, or a good visual guide to traditional style Japanese bento lunches, it might be worth adding to your collection. (The bento styling looks a tad old-fashioned and stuffy to me though. The Japanese bento books I recommended earlier  are much fresher and modern to my eyes. This is a matter of personal taste of course.)
I would definitely supplement it with a basic Japanese cooking book in any case. In that category there are more choices in English, such as the one I reviewed some time ago  (by one of my favorite Japanese cooking gurus).
I’ve mentioned quite a few times  both here on Just Bento and on Just Hungry about my admiration for the work of Yumiko Kano (or Yumiko Kanoh), who has written several vegan cookbooks. When I found out that she was coming out with a new book in her “Saisai” series dedicated to bentos and one-dish lunches, I knew I had to get it. The book, titled Saisai Lunch: Quick bentos and at-home lunches made with vegetables （菜菜ランチ 野菜でつくるクィック弁当＆おうちごはん）  came out on Monday and I received it yesterday, and it looks very good.
Yumiko Kano specializes in “no meat, no eggs, no dairy products, no sugar” vegan cooking. (‘No sugar’ means no added white sugar; she does use maple syrup quite a lot, especially in her dessert recipes. She also has a disclaimer that sugar may be present in some flavoring ingredients. Otherwise, she uses the natural sweetness of vegetables, dried fruits, sweet wine and so on.) She uses vegan konbu seaweed based dashi stock  (though she uses commercial granules or concentrate) instead of the more usual bonito flake based stock. And unlike most other Japanese cooks, she doesn’t put mirin or sake in every single dish. Most of her recipes are very easy to make, since she only uses a few ingredients.
The bentos in Saisai Lunch have one or maybe two okazu (side dishes) besides the main carb (mostly rice, but she sometimes uses noodles or pasta, and there are a few sandwiches). This keeps things very simple and quick, and it’s the approach I take with my bentos too most of the time. The presentation of each bento is beautiful yet simple - no trace of kyaraben-style cuteness here! And most of all, everything looks so delicious that even the resident diehard omnivore (or as he calls himself, the “bovo-vegetarian”) around here is drooling over each page.
The catch? Well, it’s in Japanese. Also - and this holds true for all of Yumiko Kano’s books - she does rely on many ingredients that are easy to get in Japan but not so much outside of Japan, though that situation is slowly changing for the better. I do find that I need to adapt her recipes to suit the ingredients I can easily get a hold of quite a lot - and the adaptations are what appear on this site or Just Hungry eventually. If you do read any Japanese and are interested in vegan/vegetarian or just healthy bento recipes though, and you have access to Japanese ingredients like kouya dofu and yuba, you can’t miss this. Even if you don’t read Japanese, the beautiful photos alone might inspire you.
Saisai Lunch is only available online outside of Japan from Amazon Japan  at the moment. The base cost is 1995 yen.
All of Yumiko Kano’s cookbooks are vegan. The interesting thing is that Ms. Kano herself, according to interviews, is not a vegetarian. She just enjoys making delicious vegetable based dishes, and she certainly succeeds as this.