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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.

buddhist-monks

Photo by ejbaurdo

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.

kezuribushi

Photo by [cipher]

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.

vegan-print-out

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!

  • http://twitter.com/GeForceFX Kin

    I’m a vegan/vegetarian (i dont eat fish/eggs as well), and this is one of the scariest things about me wanting to go to Japan. I always knew it would be hard, and this article just kind of reinforces this. Even if you can do it, it’s going to be a huge pain in the ass for you, and for the people around you. And that just doesn’t seem nice.

  • http://twitter.com/GeForceFX Kin

    I’m a vegan/vegetarian (i dont eat fish/eggs as well), and this is one of the scariest things about me wanting to go to Japan. I always knew it would be hard, and this article just kind of reinforces this. Even if you can do it, it’s going to be a huge pain in the ass for you, and for the people around you. And that just doesn’t seem nice.

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    well is not just a strict problem for some of vegetarian, many people out there inspite of vegan have a special dietary restriction for some particular food. for example the moslem people, they have a strict rule to avoid any foods that contain pig meat, yes that mean bacon too. The worse thing was that lot of Japanese cuisine always contain any part of pig on it. ramen, udon, miso soup, etc.
    http://okonomikatsu.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=818770240 George Sampson

    There are a lot of vegan restaurants in Japan. I found an Irish Pub in Kyoto that served vegan pizza and there are many places to go to in Tokyo. I’ve reviewed one of the restaurants on my blog and plan on reviewing the others I’ve visited: http://tofusenshi.wordpress.com

    It’s difficult to be vegan in Japan at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be fine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=818770240 George Sampson

    Also, there’s a vegan Meetup group in Tokyo that should be encouraging for someone moving or visiting Japan. Check it out here: http://www.meetup.com/vegan-389/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=818770240 George Sampson

    Even if it’s a huge pain in the ass for you and others around you, wouldn’t going to Japan be worth it? I’m vegan and have been to Japan and have been fine being vegan there. It’s a bit difficult at first, but easy once you get the hang of it. Check out my blog where I intend to post more reviews of restaurants I’ve been to in Japan: tofusenshi.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/lava.princeton Lava Yuki

    I just dont eat Cheese, dairy milk and red meat. I love tofu, miso, any soya stuff, and every fish except swordfish and trout. I wonder if they make coffee with soya milk in Japan? I know the soya milk option is popular in the west in may coffee shops, like Starbucks.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=818770240 George Sampson

    Yes, you can get soy milk in Japanese Starbucks. They actually take the soy milk thing much more seriously. They make you hold onto this card to insure you get soy milk: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m5z2fawnj31rwvti1o1_500.jpg

  • http://www.facebook.com/korrgan Lydia Bender

    I’ve been to Japan twice, the most recent being a couple weeks ago. I’m a vegetarian, not vegan, so while I am OK with dairy and eggs, I haven’t had meat of any kind (seafood included) in over six years, so it’s important I know what I’m getting myself into. I always do my research before going, and luckily for me I have a friend from Japan that wrote out my restrictions on a card in case I needed it.

    This article is correct in that if you simply tell someone you’re a veg, you will most likely be brought some fish or shellfish (you’ll need to specify against both, and also inquire about any broths as stated). It’s really helpful to make a Google Map of vegetarian friendly restaurants before you get there that you can reference when you’re out and about so that you’re not always popping into somewhere random and seeing if they can accommodate you, because some places simply won’t (and I personally hate being a bother anyway).

    Cafe Matsuontoko in Kyoto is AMAZING, and Kyoto is actually a little more veg friendly than Tokyo overall. Seriously, it was the best veggie burger I’ve had in my entire life. I dream about that thing. Bon in Tokyo is great if you’d like to try a shojin ryori restaurant as mentioned in the article. Be aware it’s pricey and takes awhile to eat there, but you’ll never forget it. On that note, anyone in NYC who is curious about temple food before going can check out Kajitsu.

    It’s not impossible to eat vegetarian while there but it definitely takes some work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=818770240 George Sampson

    Bon is a MUST for any vegan. It’s expensive but WELL worth the experience. Please go to BON!

  • DAVIDPD

    The fact that vegetables are hard to come by (in restaurants) was the same complaint Eat Your Kimchi had about eating out in Japan. There are hardly any vegetables served typically in Japanese restaurants. Or at least compared to Korea, where banchan is served with every meal, which consists of mostly if not all vegetables.

  • robersora

    I’ve been to Japan as a vegetarian, and for me, it was extremely difficult. Not due to supply of vegetarian food, but rather du to the language barrier. Additionally I felt extremely stupid, expressing all those special wishes in front of all the people, so I ended up nourishing myself with rice balls filled with ume (extremely delicious by the way), and eating in Tokyo Station. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s doable.

  • Rana

    I have no allergies, food sensitivities (well I can’t handle anything spicy hahaha #whiteperson), and I’m mostly vegetarian save for fish and dairy, which worked perfectly for being in Japan (Kobe, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto areas). Yes, there were times when I had to ask the server or chef to omit meat and make sure it wasn’t spicy, or I had to skip out on certain outings because everyone wanted meaty or spicy goodness and that was all the restaurant had. And yes, my Japanese friends there also helped me out when there was confusion, but overall I was safe because I ate fish and dairy. :x However, my American friend is vegetarian, and she had a super hard time and went hungry pretty fast, because even when it’s an all-veggie curry or kitsune udon deal, there could be that one overlooked ingredient like dashi, and she didn’t know how to ask about that/didn’t want to seem picky and rude. And I can’t even imagine being vegan over there hahahaha But…I’m sure it’s super-manageable when you have your own place and can maintain in-meals with your own stuff, but we were merely students with no space to save or make food. It is nice to know that even though Japan is less veg*n-friendly than America, they are super nice and willing to accommodate (isn’t Japan always?)

  • http://www.facebook.com/shanshan.fyksen Shan Shan Fyksen

    honestly it doesn’t sound too much different than being a vegetarian in the states.

  • lehleh

    I’m a vegan of 3 years and I actually find it super super easy to be a vegan in Japan! It probably helps that I’ve been studying Japanese for longer than that, but still. Every Japanese person I’ve talked to about being a vegan / vegetarian has been sincerely interested and understanding. And when I stayed with a host family my wonderful host mom (she’s the best!) got really excited to experiment with vegan recipes and my whole host family enjoyed trying out vegan meals. So I think it depends on your situation, but you can definitely be a vegan / vegetarian in Japan. :)

  • http://twitter.com/GeForceFX Kin

    Nono, of course it would be worth it. It’s just one of those things I’m a bit scared of, I really hate to be “the guy” that spoils everyone’s day out because he can’t eat anything in that restaurant everyone wants to go at. Such thing of course would never stop me from going to JP.

  • http://twitter.com/pinksharpii ケイラ

    When I was in Japan a few years ago I had been a vegetarian (in my home country) — meaning no fish or meat. However, it was nearly impossible to eat non-seafood products. I became a pescetarian while there and didn’t have a problem. They like eggs in a lot of things too. I eat them, but I’m not a fan of them personally.

  • Xaromir

    Not counting language, food is probably the most important parts of peoples culture. Dishes evolved sometimes over millennia, they carry the history, identity and personality of the culture and people who created them, they are like architecture and art, but food is a lot more personal, a lot more connected to people and their daily lives. Not stepping out of the comfort zone is to me a lot like sitting around the hotel lobby or the pool all day, i find it wasteful, and stupid. It’s non of my business what people eat, but that doesn’t keep me from having an opinion, and that especially vegans often don’t manage to step over their shadow is ignorant in my opinion. Yeah, piggies and cows are cute, and being moral is terribly immoral. I rather pity vegetarians and especially vegans, they miss out on some of the best parts of being alive. Maybe i’ll die 5 years earlier but i’ll die a richer man.

  • susenna

    So would you eat human meat if you were going to a place where canibals lived? Or eat dog or cat?
    Being veg has not a lot to do with missing out. Especially in asia you find a ton of traditional food that’s 100% veg, due to religion. In other parts of the world many traditional food is meat free because back in the days people couldn’t afford it. And even if you totally nedd to have a dish, that may contain some animal stuff: Just leaving out the egg in your ramen or subsituting fishy dashi with konbu dashi won’t make too much of a big difference.
    I actually find, that veggie people, especially vegans are even more likely to step out of their comfort zone. Or well, maybe the comfort zone is just a whole lot bigger. That’s because it’s easier to try things from other cultures which are naturally animal-free, than to recreate everything you know and expect it being the same. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I know so many “normal” people, who wouldn’t willingly try tofu, because it’s just something they don’t know.
    Leaving out animal products seems like a big deal to many people, because it’s become such a big part on most people’s plates, but actually it’s just a few handful of products. If I said, that I don’t like and won’t eat pumpkin, no matter how cultural it is, simply because I don’t like it, you probably wouldn’t accuse me of being ignorant, wasteful, stupid and missing out of being alive. As I said, there’s so much veg stuff to eat, that if you were to try it all, your time probably would be too short. So no need to eat meat just for the sake of experience.
    Oh, and if you really want, come to Germany and I’ll stuff you with some faux-meat products which even my grandmother can’t tell apart from “real” meat. Vegetarian cuisine actually is a part of culture itself, it also evolved and carries history, identity and personality of the culture and people who created it. As you can learn for example from this very blog, culture doens’t neccesarily need to be thousands of years old, to be considered traditional.
    However, I agree with you, that people should get in touch with different cultures and also try things taht might seem a bit unconventional to them in the first place. But you don’t need to do every single tiny thing.

    Hope you understand what I mean. It’s kinda hard to explain to an non-veg person, that most vegs are not missing anything and we eat pretty much the same as “normal” people too.

  • Selin

    The only places in the world that are totally veg-friendly are probably the big cities. But even there I’ve run into shop keepers not knowing what a “vegan” cookbook is. Well. “Chicken is not vegan?!”

    As long as you knwo what you want and you can express it (-> get your vegan passport), you should be fine. Sure, there might be less options, but you won’t starve, rice is meat free and most restaurants can prepare just some mixed vegetables. That should be the same anywhere in the world (I guess?). And as long as you’re not eating in a restaurant but preparing your food yourself (probably 99% of the time) it’s just as easy as allways. Well ok, learn some kanji before reading the ingredient list. ^^

    Admittedly, never been to Japan but as long as you cook yourself you really can be veg anywhere. And no it’s not too much work, beans, rice and veggies aren’t difficult at all to prepare and also don’t take a lot of time. Most minute-noodels out there are just plain flour, add some soysauce or any other spices of your choice and you’ve got yourslef an average student life meal.

    There’s a YouTube channel called veganstuffinjapan. It’s cool! http://www.youtube.com/user/veganstuffinjapan

  • Greg

    I lived in Japan for two years as a vegan. It’s not super-difficult if you could speak Japanese well enough to restaurant staff or read ingredients, but that requires a lot of language learning commitment, and I didn’t really get to that point until after I was there for about a year. It usually only became a problem when I was invited to some non-veg-friendly restaurant by friends or co-workers, where I’d be stuck with rice, salad or bread.

    If you live in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, you will have absolutely no problem finding lots of great vegan food. There were actually a number of veggie-friendly and even a couple specifically vegan (but not shojin ryori) restaurants in the medium-sized city where I lived in western Japan, but I probably never would’ve figured out where they were had I not had some foundation in the language. There are also nice random veggie restaurants in smaller places like Takayama, Gifu or Ishigaki Island in Okinawa, but it certainly gets a lot sparser out in the countryside.

    Japan is not quite the veggie mecca of Asia (that would probably be Taiwan, or maybe Singapore), but my experience taught me that there’s a lot more going on there than meets the eye.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Susan-Elizabeth-Marsh-Tanabe/1083885165 Susan Elizabeth-Marsh Tanabe

    Quite depends on where in the US ~ In Oregon, and along most of the West Coast, vegetarians of all types abound and nearly every restaurant has offerings, with menus including details. I’ve been living in/visiting Japan, especially Wakayama, Kyoto and Tokyo, since 1977… much more difficult to get by, especially if you are strict. Our son is pescetarian, so no worries…. but i escorted 9 students last month for 10 days in Yokohama/Tokyo/Kawagoe and one student is a Hindu vegetarian… NO animal products which involve killing are allowed (eggs and cheese are ok). Quite challenging, and many chefs balked at the idea. He was fine, but next time I will research ahead of time. I was too optimistic!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Susan-Elizabeth-Marsh-Tanabe/1083885165 Susan Elizabeth-Marsh Tanabe

    Agreed! I canNOT have pork in any way, shape or form…. and this has been a challenge as it is often “hidden” in foods which I had assumed were beef. I learned, the hard way, and now stick to fish when in Japan (^.^).

  • Xaromir

    I greatly enjoy the company of animals; the choice if
    something is food or companion is an individual one, not one that applies
    for an entire species. I did indeed eat dog (not that good), no cat so far but i did eat guinea pig (actually very good), but seeing how most people live their life i’m not that thrilled about human meat, but i did have breast milk ice cream, which actually is also very nice. I’ll try everything if it’s offered to me, but people surely don’t have a larger comfort zone because they utterly reject something, and i find it silly to do that, as you can not possibly avoid eating animals or animal product; there is a substantial portion of insects in basically everything that was processed, from marmalade to cream spinach, and even if that wouldn’t be the case – animal products are still used to produce them, but yes i know this argument is petty, (but so is the “you wouldn’t eat human” argument) though i still do not understand how ones comfort zone could be bigger for rejecting something completely, this seems like an oxymoron.

    I live in Germany too, and every single piece of meat-substitute i’ve ever had just isn’t a substitute, and this is also what’s fundamentally wrong with modern vegetarian/vegan cuisine, and also what’s wrong with part of modern western anti-food culture. Looking at how many people feed (they don’t eat, they feed like pigs), there is no doubt that substitutes may (semi-)work for some, and being German myself i know grilling culture very well, 4 big brats with questionable contents and a couple of 1cm thin steaks which been marinating for a week in a butcher shop, put on the grill till they are nice and black on the outside and the inside, if you prepare it like that, it doesn’t matter anymore what it is, but just like vegetarians and vegans, people who eat things like that often have no comparison to what it should be like. There is no substitute for a 2 inch thick cut of tenderloin of fine Argentinian Angus, sharply roasted on both sides for just a few minutes with basic salt and pepper; there is a world of natural textures and flavors between it’s darkened, caramelized crust and it’s blood dripping, melt-in-your-mouth center. A good piece of meat is a celebration of nature and pure skill. Eating meat also has it’s use in modern nature – being from Germany you should know that boars are a pest, and that hunters can’t shoot them as fast as they reproduce, which is also due to that sickly “everything must taste neutral” eating culture where people utterly reject unique tastes such as game, but i digress. Yes, there are very good vegetarian dishes out there, but there can’t be a substitute that imitates the complexity of a properly prepared piece of meat, and people are missing out on something amazing.

    I’m not a non-vege person, i’m an omnivore. :)

  • http://twitter.com/hikosaemon Hikosaemon

    Not sure if someone already mentioned this in the comments, but what I learned long ago in Nihongo class is that while meat was banned in Japan for a period in Japanese history, there were a lot of exceptions – most notably all seafood, poultry, and rabbits (birds and rabbits are both counted as -wa, and apparently this special clarification got them out of the -to/-piki classified usual four leggers off Japanese menus.

    So the problem for vegetarians is – if you are vegan or strict vegetarian, while Japan has amazing and vegetable rich food, it has no history of veganism. And in fact, it learned a lot about getting its flavors for umami, not just from veges, but be leveraging the flavors that go into dashi (ie, lots of fish and seafood) and chicken.

    So if you are one of those trendy “no red meat or pork” vegetarians that still east fish and chicken, Japan was almost MADE for you. I have vegetarian friends that ate fish, but gave up in the end on avoiding chicken and included that too, simply because it is too much trouble in day to day life to avoid poultry here in the end.

    Not a personal experience, but I have had Jewish friends visit, and learned (a) kosher is a pain in the neck, and is almost completely incompatible with Japanese diet, especially on the seafood side, and (b) most restaurant staff have no idea of the details of the ingredients in dishes they serve, and have no comprehension of ethical or religious dietary requirements.

    I personally have a soba allergy. Japanese know what that means, and tend not to like patrons dying in their restaurants and so sometimes, even in an udon restaurant which uses soba flour about the kitchen, the manager will come out, and warn me either off certain items even without soba and/or prepare something special. They are great when it comes to known allergies and health issues, but almost unable to comprehend other situations.

    I like the diet card – suggest you should probably consider getting some religious ones there, and ones to capture some more of the subtle permutations of vegetarianism, since lately many people seem to be shades of difference short of total veganism.

    Nice piece!

  • David

    Or you can just ask if they have some 豆乳 (tounyuu) when you order…

    I have had better luck with that than when I ask for shishitou at a kushiyaki place – for some reason about 50% of the time I wind up getting shiitake mushrooms instead of my beloved peppers.

  • http://twitter.com/Cupucuups Hamyo

    I Agreed about the “Hidden” part XD it’s really hard to avoid that one.

  • susenna

    Well, vegan’s comfort zones stop at animal products. With a solid wall. Everything else they are more likely to try than other people. (In my experience.) I know so many people (not vegan or vegetarian) who just won’t eat anything that they don’t know. But due to the fact, that veg cuisines borrow a lot from other cultures that aversion is softened when you see veg people. Many vegans I know would eat anything, as long as it is vegan. Hence, larger comfort zone. And most people who do eat “meat” only include pigs, cows and certain birds.
    If you think, that one should accept to do ANYTHING just for the purpose of experience then I hope we’ll never meet.

    Sure, the subsitutes are made to subsitute what most people eat. Tourists usually get that as well, to experince the culture, so it wouldn’t make any big differnce, if it’s veg or meat. And isn’t it “culture” when most people eat it?

    Boars by the way are a pest because we’ve killed all their natural enemies long time ago.

  • Ken

    You are not completely correct. Though I mentioned several times, there are 4 main stuffs of Dash. They are bonito and sardine as you said and seaweed kelp and shiitake mushroom. So if you are a vegetarian, you only have to request the latter 2 although it may be a little expensive. Japan is a paradise for vegetarians because there is wide variety of cuisine with meat imitating food such as tofu hamburg, etc.
    Btw, if you are a vegan, you must require not to use even honey.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/YAMAstudios Jon Walmsley

    I was considering for a while becoming a vegetarian but as I intend to live in Japan within the next year and a half and I love Japanese food (all sorts) that I could simply do without the extra hassle.

  • tonton101

    Nowadays there are quite a few “vegan/vegetarian” dedicated restaurants in large to mid-range cities. As the article pointed out, though, the extent to which these restaurants adhere to a western definition of vegan/vegetarianism differs from place to place. I know that trendier, more modern establishments will serve you meals that have never been in sight of an animal, but less concerned places could care less that, say, a broth is fish-based.. Overall I would say that vegetarians fare a bit better than vegans in terms of eating out choices, but proper language ability can always make anything possible.

    In any case, those planning to live in Japan need not fret about their diets because any concern can be ameliorated by preparing home dishes. Japanese supermarkets are always stocked with fresh produce and the range of vegetarian-friendly items (tofu, natto, etc) abound. I myself am not vegetarian but for a good month during my study abroad I lived off rice, natto, and enoki. This trinity saved me a bunch of money and was pretty healthy (lol).

  • tonton101

    if you cook at home you should be fine. Eating out will be an encumbrance and even with proper language ability it’s not always guaranteed that your wants will be accommodated.

  • FoxiBiri

    Freshness Burgers tofu and beans burgers ^^ mmmmm… I crave them now that I’m home.

  • tes

    If you want to say vegan in Japanese don`t spell ビーガン but 完全菜食主義者(kanzen saishoku shugisha).

    otherwise they will think your name is Vegan.

  • Alfred

    I believe I can speak for most, if not all, vegans when I say: your pity is quite misplaced. Nor are we ‘missing out’ on some of the best parts of being alive; rather, we’re ‘opting out’ from one of the worst and most deeply entrenched dogmas of human history – the notion that we’re morally permitted to subjugate, enslave, torture, kill, eat, wear, experiment on, etc. animals. Animals are not things; they’re selves, they’re beings with a subjective experience of the world, a capacity to feel pain and joy. We have no right to treat them as resources. Moreover, by opting out of this dogma, vegans opt for compassion. I know you think that veganism is fundamentally misguided, but your conception of what it’s like to actually be vegan…as though our day-to-day experience is one of self-deprivation and struggle…is just plain wrong. Being vegan feels good; it feels right. Refusing to partake of the full menu of different cultural culinary traditions when traveling… or, closer to home, the decision to avoid cheese, honey, Confectioner’s glaze, wool, silk, leather, etc. isn’t experienced by vegans as some sort of great sacrifice or hardship on our part. Rather, it’s experienced as simply acting in accordance with what one knows, morally, to be right. The knowledge that each day, with each consumptive decision we make, we’re taking a principled stand of conscientious objection against cruelty is, after all, why we’re vegans in the first place. I’d no more lament not being able to partake of the inherent cruelty of non-vegan cuisine than I would not being able to simply steal something I can’t afford to pay for. So again, we don’t need your pity. In fact, since it seems you have pity to spare, perhaps you might redirect some of it to the animals whose suffering and death you’re so blithely complicit in.

  • http://twitter.com/ricepapr duncan russell

    Thanks for the link George – the last time I visited I just ate fish for a spell, but may try to stay vegan next time. It just takes a little research beforehand!

  • http://www.facebook.com/lava.princeton Lava Yuki

    Thanks! Is it only available in Starbucks? Like other coffee shops and restaurants dont do it?

  • http://www.facebook.com/lava.princeton Lava Yuki

    I heard that if u dnt eat fish, its really hard, since lots of stuff is cooked in dashi stock.