Three-tiered lacquered wooden lunch boxes, known as yusanbako, were once a traditional part of childhood culture in Tokushima Prefecture — children often carried the colorful containers when they went on picnics. Developed from larger boxes designed to carry lunch for an entire family, the child-sized version is thought to have appeared during the late Edo Period (1603-1868). Yusanbako specifically decorated with designs to appeal to children then became widespread in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
Following World War II, however, demand for yusanbako fell, as did the number of craftspeople with the necessary skills to make them, as people shifted to more urban lifestyles. By the 1960s few children used the boxes, and yusanbako was on its way toward becoming a charming footnote in local history.
Fortunately, due to the collaborative efforts of an unlikely trio, Tokushima’s yusanbako culture has made a comeback in recent years.
The initial catalyst for this revival was research conducted by Masahiro Miyake while working at Tokushima University.
“In the early 2000s, I was interviewing people around Tokushima for my work on urban development,” he says “When members of the older generation talked about their childhood, they would mention these yusanbako and break out into wide smiles. I knew I was on to something special.”
Intrigued by his findings, Miyake dug into the history and culture of the unassuming little lunchboxes. After writing about them in January 2006 for his regular column in a regional newspaper, the Tokushima Shimbun, he was deluged by letters and cards from older readers who were eager to share their memories. The publication of his book on the topic later the same year propelled yusanbako into the national media.
Meanwhile, Tokushima city business owner Takako Ichikawa had been working to preserve yusanbako at her shop specializing in lacquerware. A keen collector, Ichikawa has roughly 80 examples of traditional yusanbako, the oldest of which is 100 years old. Fueled by fond memories from her own childhood, Ichikawa sourced a business in Fukui to make authentic lacquered yusanbako to sell in her shop. However, she was also keen to find an avenue to restart local production in Tokushima and joined forces with Miyake.
“Back in the old days, the traditional lacquered versions were inexpensive everyday items. We wanted to create a similarly affordable version for people of today,” Miyake says.
Following a recommendation from a woodworking business association, Ichikawa and Miyake approached local furniture maker Tatsuhito Ebuchi.
“I was rather surprised, actually, as we didn’t make such small, intricate items,” says Ebuchi, who knew little about yusanbako at the time. “But since they asked, I thought, ‘Why not give it a go?’” Using authentic historical yusabako as a guide, Ebuchi came up with a wooden version.
This simpler style has proven popular with people of all ages, who visit Ebuchi’s shop to paint and decorate their own unique yusanbako. It has also helped to further promote interest in more ornate lacquered versions. Today, yusanbako are often purchased as bridal and baby gifts, or for decorative purposes to store and display items such as confectionery and accessories.
Miyake believes that the “Japanese picnic box” concept behind yusanbako makes them relatable to people overseas.
“I gave out a number of the boxes as gifts while I was in France on sabbatical in 2013, and they were well-received,” says Miyake.
“When tourism opens up again, I hope international visitors will come to Tokushima and see our yusanbako for themselves,” Ebuchi adds.
As for Ichikawa, she is delighted that interest in yusanbako has been growing in recent years.
“Yusanbako reminds me of good times with family and friends. I want the next generation of children to experience this tradition,” she says.
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