"Bento boys" make their own lunch in tough times

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Tough times are pushing Japanese businessmen into making their own boxed lunches, or bento, instead of eating out each day at a restaurant.

An employee of an Internet company, paperboy&co., shows his homemade boxed lunch during a lunch break in Tokyo April 15, 2009. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

Traditionally, Japanese men are rarely seen in the kitchen, leaving it to their partner or mother to make their meals and eating out if there were no females around to cook for them.

But with Japan deep in recession, men are getting domesticated and making their own bento -- compartmentalized boxes with a mix of rice, vegetables and meat dishes.

Ironically, marketing campaigns are targeting the frugal men to spend the cash they save in new ways, such as a flashy new $25 lunch box with matching chopsticks or cooking classes.

Kenichi Machida, a 34-year-old businessman, swaps his suit for an apron as he hones his skills at weekly classes.

“There’s of course the feeling of accomplishment when you come home and make your own lunch. More than anything, it’s quite economical and you can save money,” he told Reuters after a lesson in making a guacamole and taco dish.

Male competitiveness is also creeping in.

Men working at a Tokyo Internet company are getting up before dawn to work on their lunches, then compare notes over lunch at a bento club meeting.

Hayato Hoshi, 31-year-old leader of the club at the firm, paperboy & co., said membership has grown since the global financial meltdown.

“If you eat (at restaurants) around here every day, it would cost about 6,000 yen ($60) per week,” he said.

The bento binge is a marketing opportunity that retailers facing sagging otherwise flagging sales have been quick to latch onto.

Homeware stores in Tokyo say sales of lunch boxes have doubled or tripled from last year, with men increasingly joining women in making their own meals to take to work.

Design store chain Loft reports strong sales from a “bento boys” sales corner set up at its Yokohama store.

Men in their 20-30s are key buyers with some going for bigger lunchboxes and those with high-tech features such as extra insulation. Slim stacking boxes that fit inside business bags are particularly popular.

“There has been an increase in designs for lunch boxes from various companies, even those who had products geared toward women, and now there are more designs that men can carry around as well,” said Keiko Sasaki, a sales and marketing representative at Tokyu Hands.

The frugal fashion has led noticeably more men to cooking instructor Emi Sato’s classes -- and that’s a big change.

“In Japan in the past, the kitchen was a place for the wife and it was rare for men to help out. It was so that men working until late and then coming home was the norm,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Chika Osaka)

Writing by Rodney Joyce, Editing by Miral Fahmy