Being Vegan in Japan: An Impossible Task?
How To Enjoy Japan As A Vegan!
Some might say it is nearly impossible to live or travel as a vegan in Japan, but is it? Rachael Lucas volunteers for Is it vegan? (Japan) and is a founding member of Vegan Consumer Japan. She tackles for our readers the 3 biggest challenges as a vegan in Japan, and gives you some advice to help the cause.
Are you enjoying a vegan lifestyle? Maybe you live overseas, and you’ve heard that it’s totally impossible to be vegan in Japan, and that if you move or travel here, you’ll have no choice but to give up and start eating meat or fish again. Don’t let that stop you from living your vegan lifestyle or coming to Japan!
Luckily, with some knowledge and preparation, it’s possible not only to survive as a vegan in Japan but to get some terrific food as well. There are people who have been vegan here for decades or even since childhood. Let’s look at some challenges for vegans in Japan and discuss some great resources that’ll help you enjoy your best life here.
Challenge #1: Japanese cuisine heavily relies on fish for flavor.
Although there are various types of dashi (stock/broth)—including kombu dashi, a kelp stock made of seaweed—in practice the word dashi tends to refer to animal-based items like katsuo dashi, a skipjack tuna-based stock.
Savory homemade, prepackaged and restaurant foods often rely on this base and as a general rule, things like miso soup are fish-based. Tofu, which one might assume would be totally vegan-friendly, may arrive at the table with fish flakes on top. Even some restaurants which state they serve shojin ryori food and shukubo temple lodgings—which are often recommended to vegans in Japan—sometimes use fish powder in their food.
What to do?
Get some tools
The website and app HappyCow lists vegan, vegetarian, and vegan-friendly restaurants all over the world. It has over 300 vegan restaurants listed in Japan, as well as close to 1,400 more vegetarian and vegan-friendly establishments. HappyCow also has an excellent top ten list of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo.
If you’re traveling here, consider using it to plan your trip and basing yourself in cities that are friendlier to vegans like Tokyo and Kyoto. And don’t forget to leave a review of the places you visit! There’s also a local website, with no app, called Vegewel, that lists veg*n (vegan and vegetarian) friendly establishments in English and Japanese.
Preparation is key
If you’re planning to visit the countryside, where those types of restaurants can be in short supply, consider asking vegan-friendly restaurants in the larger cities to prepare bento lunch boxes for you to bring along.
Since Tokyo is massive, you can pick an area with a good concentration of vegan-friendly restaurants. This article by the blog of the Tokyo Vegan/Vegetarian Friends Club on Facebook has some great suggestions for what parts of Tokyo to actually stay in. If you’ll be here for a long time, make sure that wherever you stay has kitchen facilities.
Challenge #2: It’s hard to read Japanese labels.
Japanese ingredient lists are all in Japanese, and if there’s an English ingredient list on imported foods, it’s often covered up by the Japanese label. Even if you put in the years to get your kanji up to scratch, you’ll soon find that Japanese labels are quite vague. A rice ball in a convenience store that doesn’t list fish or seafood might contain them in small amounts without it being noted, as long as it doesn’t contain one of the top 7 allergens. Palm oil can be listed only as vegetable oil. Customer service will often release that information, but you’ll generally need to call or write in using Japanese.
What to do
The blog Is it Vegan? (Japan) and Facebook group of the same name have been going for the past 8 years: they list tons of information about known vegan options as well as things that look vegan but aren’t, and are constantly updated. The convenience stores section is the most popular area of the blog! There are also sections on festivals and vegan-friendly items at airports, fast food restaurants, hotels, chain cafes, supermarkets, and much more. It is perfect to make sure you can eat something wherever you go.
Many Facebook groups are places to share this kind of information. One of the biggest of them is Vegan Japan ヴィーガン日本 with 13,000 members, and there are city-based and regional groups for Tokyo, Kyoto, Okinawa and many other areas, as well as the very helpful Vegan Supermarket Finds in Japan group.
Challenge #3: The word “vegan” is not in widespread use.
Television shows and media in Japan often share stories of “plant-based” foods that consist largely of things like egg and if vegetarianism is mentioned, it may be mistakenly stated that vegetarians eat fish. If the story mentions veganism, the focus tends to be on it being a food choice made for health reasons. There is rarely attention paid to the ethical underpinnings of veganism.
For example, Aeon’s press release for the “Vegan Style” line of hair products stated that according to the Vegan Society of England, the definition of “vegan” is not eating meat, fish, egg, milk or other animal products. In actuality, the definition of veganism given on the Vegan Society website is “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
What to do
Since not so many people are likely to recognize and understand the word vegan, when trying to get food, it’s probable you’ll have to describe what you don’t eat. Unfortunately, it’s rare people will understand what vegan means and they may think you are vegetarian, as well as think that vegetarians eat fish and fish powder.
Carry a memo written in English and Japanese explaining in detail what you eat or cannot eat. It might be useful in a restaurant or a shop if the language is a problem.
The future of veganism in Japan
It is true that Japan’s vegan scene isn’t yet as well-developed as that of a lot of other countries. A bipartisan federation of lawmakers and concerned groups began meeting at the national governmental level from November 2019 to consider the problem of Japan being vegan-unfriendly, and to look into if there is anything the government can do to help improve the situation.
On a personal level, once we’ve got the hang of living in Japan as vegans, what can we do to help Japan become more vegan-friendly in the years to come?
- Buy animal-ingredient-free foods
Well-known chains like Mos Burger, Royal Host, Coco Ichibanya, and Ramen Kagetsu Arashi have all released animal-ingredient-free options in recent weeks or months in preparation for the (postponed) Olympics. With the Olympics delayed and the planned number of tourists not materializing, purchasing these items is a great way to encourage these sorts of things to be more widely available on the market in the future.
- Sign petitions
Vegan Consumer Japan created a petition to the government that’s gained nearly 6,500 signatures. Sign it to show how much need there is for more vegan options and labeling.
- Support relevant small organizations
Consider supporting small organizations working hands-on in the field. Check out the NPO VegeProject Japan. It works on creating and labeling vegan options and works in cooperation with companies, shops, and schools. Following its Instagram account is a great way to find out the newest products that have its vegan label. It takes donations as small as ¥500 or you can support the organization by becoming a member.
- Contact the Consumer Affairs Agency
Lastly, if you’re a Japanese speaker, consider contacting the Consumer Affairs Agency of Japan directly to give your opinion about why current labeling laws aren’t sufficient for vegans.
Japan may not be the easiest place in the world to be vegan, but the scene is booming compared to a few years before, and with preparation, you can enjoy visiting or living here and trying a lot of delicious foods as well!