Is it really that difficult to be vegetarian or vegan in Japan? One of the biggest criticisms tourists have when traveling in Japan is the lack of vegan-friendly options in restaurants and convenience stores. And understandably so, being the land that is famous for dishes such as sushi and yakiniku. But that doesn’t mean that vegan travelers have to miss out on everything during their travels!
I myself lived in Japan for a whole year as a vegan (I’m now going on 5 years vegan, woo-hoo!). And while it was no walk in the park, the good news is, Japan has made many improvements over the past 4 years (I last lived there in 2016). Even my most recent visit last August 2019 was notably easier than I had remembered. Here is what you should know about being a vegetarian or vegan in Japan.
Vegans Are Just Misunderstood!
What is the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian, anyway? There are many misunderstandings about both vegetarianism and veganism.
There are several different “categories” of vegetarianism. While vegetarians do not eat meat, many will consume eggs, dairy, and sometimes fish (pescatarian). With this flexibility, vegetarians are more likely to have an easier time finding something to eat.
Veganism, however, is much more rigid. Veganism is the practice of abstaining from all animal products, including not only the above, but also honey (which comes from bees), clothing and accessories that use leather, furs, and wool, and even makeup and household products that have been tested on animals. As you can see, there is a LOT more to be aware of when traveling while practicing veganism.
History of Modern Veganism
The origin of veganism as we know it dates back 75 years, when Donald Watson founded the Vegan Society in the UK in 1944. The goal was to live a lifestyle free of the exploitation of animals, in any way, shape, or form. This includes not only what you eat, but what you buy, wear, and consume.
Though a righteous cause, veganism has become somewhat of a buzzword these days. While many people do go vegan for the animals, there are many other reasons people go vegan, including for health or spiritual reasons, or even just to be trendy. Regardless of the reason, it’s pretty evident that veganism is spreading in the Western world.
But what about in Japan?
Unlike many Western countries, Japan is not particularly famous for its vegetarian dishes or vegan activism. Instead, it is famous for quite the opposite: seafood dishes such as sushi, all-you-can-eat yakiniku places, and fish-based flavoring in just about everything. Japan is pretty proud of its rich culture and cuisine. Can someone living a vegan lifestyle enjoy the culture without betraying their own beliefs?
Vegan in Japan
Japan may not be notable for its vegan undertakings, however, that doesn’t mean veganism has never had a presence there. In fact, veganism has a longer history than one might imagine – not on its own, but as a facet of Buddhism.
With the introduction of Buddhism came the introduction of the Buddhist way of living. This included the way of eating, which was mostly vegan in nature. Buddhism prohibits the consumption of all sentient beings, in accordance with the First Moral Precept, which prohibits the killing of animals, and the Fifth Moral Precept, which considers meat an intoxicant to the body.
Buddhist cuisine, or shojin ryori (精進料理), literally translates to “enlightenment-seeking-person’s cuisine”. (Shojin is a Buddhist word referring to an individual in pursuit of enlightenment). Though this wasn’t because practitioners of the lifestyle found veganism difficult. The term spoke more about the effort put into preparing the dishes.
Dogen (no, not the YouTuber – the Buddhist monk and founder of Zen Buddhism) brought these concepts to Japan around 552 CE. (However, the practice of abstaining from meat in Japan goes even beyond Buddhism). One of the core teachings of Zen Buddhism is that “all living beings possess the potential to attain enlightenment.” This includes all animals and sentient beings. Consuming animal products was therefore a violent act, in conflict with the concept of ‘ahimsa,’ or compassion for all beings.
This is very similar to today’s modern, “trendy” veganism, which centers on the animal rights movement and has a very similar core message. However, that’s where the parallels end. Shojin-ryori is still quite unique from traditional vegan and vegetarian dishes as we know then today.
Principles of Shojin Ryori
While there is a heavy focus on “quick, easy, and delicious” with vegan meals today, with shojin-ryori, flavor and convenience is the least of their concerns. The philosophical nature of shojin-ryori is apparent not only in the ingredients, but in the preparation and consumption of them, as well.
Shojin-ryori meals are prepared according to godai, or the Five Elements Theory. Five is a very important number in Buddhism, which is reflected in this artistic eating style. Each meal must follow the “rule of five,” and contain each of the five parts of the following categories.
The first category is the Five Elements: wood, water, fire, earth, and metal. You attain that balance by eating foods believed to contain the energies of each element. Next are the Five Colors: white, black, yellow, green, and red. You should aim to eat foods of each color in your meals. Then, the Five Flavors: sweet, sour, salty, savory, and bitter. This balance is attained by bringing out the natural flavor of each ingredient rather than through seasonings. Finally, the Five Preparation Methods: boiled, roasted, steamed, stewed, or raw. The arrangement of each meal must reflect the balance of each of these categories.
The result is a beautiful dish that not only adheres to some of the strictest rules of Buddhist dining, but is also a wonder to look at. The artistic arrangement has even contributed to the popular ‘kaiseki ryori (懐石料理),’ a style of Japanese cuisine that many people enjoy today.
Some other rules to be aware of: meals should only use ingredients that are fresh, available, and in-season. Pungent foods, stimulants, and foods with strong flavors and odors are also off-limits. (For example, garlic, onions, spices, and fried foods). In shojin-ryori, simplicity is key.
Everything, from the preparation to the arrangement to the actual consumption of the meal, must be practiced with gratitude and appreciation.
Being Vegan in Japan Today
Because of this association with Buddhism and spirituality, veganism never caught on in Japan as a trend. Rather, veganism has been seen as a strict religious training, unnecessary for the average person to undergo, for a long time. As a result, many people have found Japan to be difficult to navigate for vegan tourists.
The good news is, in recent years, Japan has become more aware of the expansion of veganism outside of religious beliefs. Most major tourist hotspots (such as Tokyo and Kyoto) now offer vegan-friendly options in many shops and restaurants. There are also more health-food supermarkets that offer popular imported vegan products.
If you’re in an area that has many temples and shrines, you may even be able to find restaurants that serve shojin-ryori meals!
Rural towns may still pose a challenge, however you can always count on cheap produce to be available if you want to prepare your own meals. Vegetables and tofu are often super cheap no matter where you are in Japan.
Steps to a Vegan-Friendly Japan
Japan has made great strides in the last five years in lieu of the upcoming Olympics to accommodate visitors from all countries. And though the Olympics may not be going all according to keikaku, all those hard preparation efforts still stand, including those that benefit vegan travelers.
In addition to making vegan options more widely available in stores and restaurants, Japan has also been called on to take a look at their nutritional labels. As mentioned above, what’s acceptable for a vegetarian diet is not necessarily so for a vegan diet. However, many people have also noticed some inaccuracies and shortcuts when it comes to labeling foods.
(For example, labeling a product “vegan friendly,” yet finding it contains milk. Or neglecting to mention trace ingredients such as fish flavoring).
A petition was launched in 2019 with the aim of raising awareness in these inaccuracies (in English and Japanese). Statistics show that nearly 1.5 million vegans/vegetarians visit Japan every year. And many of them share the same concern: namely, the difficulty of finding foods they can eat. The petition calls upon Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency to review and revise nutritional labels. The goal is to help make Japan a better environment for their vegan and vegetarian visitors.
Tips for Vegans & Vegetarians Living In or Visiting Japan
Here’s a few handy lists I gathered back in 2016 when I was living in Japan and running a (now-non-existent) food blog. Included are kanji you should know when reading labels, a list of vegan-friendly common items, and some helpful resources.
Best Japanese Vegan Foods:
The following is a list of guaranteed vegan-friendly foods. Of course, always check labels on packaged or pre-prepared foods for hidden ingredients, just in case.
- onigiri (check labels; Lawson’s ume & shiso onigiri are great!)
- cucumber rolls
- soy milk*
- seaweeds (like hijiki)
- soba noodles
- konnyaku & shirataki noodles
- mochi cakes
- veggie soups and nabes (made with vegetable stock)
- fruits & veggies, of course!
*Non-dairy milks, such as soy milk, are available in most stores. However, be aware that it isn’t as widely available as a milk substitute in many small cafes. (You can always ask, however – some may surprise you!)
Reading Japanese Labels:
Of course, there are way too many kanji that could possibly appear on a label to list all of them here. So for convenience, I have included the kanji to AVOID. (Read: if you see this kanji on the label, it’s not vegan-friendly!)
- 海老 (えび・エビ): shrimp (ebi)
- 蟹 (かに・カニ): crab (kani)
- いか・イカ: squid (ika)
- たこ・タコ: octopus (tako)
- 鮪 (まぐろ・マグロ・ツナ) tuna (maguro)
- さけ: salmon (sake)
- さば: mackerel (saba)
- いくら・イクラ: fish roe (ikura)
- 鰹 (かつお): katsuo
- 鰹節 (おかか): bonito flakes (katsuobushi; okaka)
- 貝(かい): shellfish (kai)
- 帆立・帆立貝 (ほたて・ほたてがい): scallops (hotate/hotate-gai)
- あわび・アワビ : abalone (awabi)
- 牛肉 (ぎゅうにく・ギュウニク・ビーフ): beef (gyuniku)
- 鶏肉 (とりにく・チキン): chicken (toriniku)
- 豚肉 (ぶたにく): pork (butaniku)
- 牛乳 (ぎゅうにゅう): milk (gyunyu)
- ミルク: milk
- 卵 (たまご・タマゴ): egg (tamago)
- バター: butter
- クリーム: cream
- 蜂蜜 (はちみつ・ハチミツ・ハニー): honey (hachimitsu)
- ゼラチン: gelatin
- 乳化剤 (にゅうかざい): emulsifier (nyukazai)*
A common hidden ingredient is ’emulsifier’ (乳化剤), and is often a gray area. This is because while some emulsifiers are plant-based, many are not. The kanji for milk (乳) is literally a part of the word. While you can always directly contact a company if you really want to know what kind of emulsifier they use, if you don’t want to spend your vacation time doing so, it might just be best to avoid it.
Dining Out As A Vegan In Japan
Dining out is a bit harder as a vegan, because you can’t check the labels yourself. And you can never be too sure what hidden ingredients there might be in the broths and sauces. It’s always best to ask if you aren’t sure!
A useful phrase to know is: “~ ga haitte imasu ka?” (～が入っていますか？)
This means, “Is there ~ in it?” and is useful for asking about the contents of a meal. Replace the ~ with any of the words above, using the romanized pronunciation in parenthesis. Other important words to know are “o-niku” (お肉, meat) and sakana (魚, fish).
For a more thorough overview of what you might see on a Japanese menu, check out this great guide to Japanese menus!
Useful Resources for Vegans/Vegetarians in Japan: