Japan and vegetarianism have kind of a strange relationship.
Buddhism is deeply intertwined with Japan culture and, with it, the respect for all life. The most devout Buddhists observe this reverence towards life in their diets, avoiding eating meat entirely. As we’ve covered before, there’s even a type of vegetarian cuisine meant just for Japanese Buddhist monks.
At one point in Japanese history, the Buddhist Emperor Temmu declared that the entire country should stop eating meat, a ban that lasted about a hundred years.
That ban had a profound impact on Japanese food. Without the rich, savory flavors from meat, the Japanese found other ways to get their umami fixes using vegetable flavors.
Oddly enough, despite all of this Buddhist influence, it’s actually pretty hard to be vegetarian in Japan. Japan’s definition of “vegetarian” is different from the one that you know.
Japan: Not Very Vegetarian-Friendly
There’s actually two different words that mean “vegetarian” in Japanese: the native word, 菜食主義者, and the foreign word, ベジタリアン. The two represent two different views on what the concept means.
The Japanese concept of vegetarianism isn’t as strict and rigorous as the Western concept. That ban on meat I mentioned earlier? It was actually pretty limited and didn’t cover fish at all. What can I say? The Japanese love seafood.
As a result, if you go to Japan today and say that you’re vegetarian, the meaning of what you’re saying might be lost in translation.
Add on top of that all of the different diets people have nowadays—pescetarian, vegan, gluten-free, low-carb, dairy-free—and you can face almost complete misunderstanding.
Japanese food isn’t always obvious about whether or not it contains animal products, either. Even if the food you’re eating doesn’t have a huge slab of meat, it’s very likely that the broth, the seasoning, or some other part of the meal has some sort of meat or seafood in it.
What To Do If You’re a Vegetarian in Japan
Let’s say that you’re a vegetarian, and you want to visit Japan. The cultural issues I talked about might scare you off, but it’s not the end of the world.
If you just say that you’re ベジタリアン, then things probably aren’t going to go well for you. But if you are a bit more nuanced about it, then you’ll be okay.
The important thing to remember is to be extremely specific about what your dietary restrictions are, and spell them out in as much detail as you possibly can. It might be hard if you have limited Japanese language skills, but fortunately, others have done the work for you.
If you look around, you can find set phrases and even print-outs that detail your dietary needs in Japanese that you can hand to people at restaurants. They can be a lifesaver if you don’t speak Japanese, and still incredibly useful if you don’t.
Are you a vegetarian? What have been your experiences eating in Japan? Tell me in the comments!