There are many vegans, vegetarians and people who otherwise have to avoid certain types of food for medical, religious or other reasons living in Japan. It’s not impossible to cut certain products out of your life, but it is more difficult in Japan than in other countries.
It might be surprising that a country that prides itself on soy products and healthy living puts meat in practically everything. While veganism and meat-free options are becoming the norm in Western countries, it’s still considered niche in Japan—especially outside the big cities.
A printable card in Japanese to avoid gluten can be found here.
Some restaurants might not be accustomed or willing to change an order. Others don’t consider fish as meat, so your “vegetarian salad” might come sprinkled with fish flakes. Thus, if you have an allergy or dietary restriction, you’ll likely need to specifically mention it to the restaurant before ordering.
Below is a quick guide to food allergies and dietary restrictions in Japan.
Reading labels is very important if you have any restrictions on what you can eat. There are many ingredients in traditional Japanese products and dishes that could catch you off guard. Check out our article on supermarket shopping in Japan for a comprehensive list of food terminology.
There are only seven possible food allergens that companies are legally obligated to list if they are included in recipes. Search the label for アレルギー (allergy) or 含む (fukumu,“may include”).
The seven required ingredients to list are:
There are also 21 possible food allergens that companies are not legally obligated to list. It is only “suggested” that they be listed by Japan’s Consumer Affairs Agency (CAA). Those ingredients are:
Gluten-free products, in general, can be very difficult to find in Japan. Soy sauces (excluding Tamari soy sauce), noodles and many Japanese dishes typically contain gluten. The word for gluten, グルテン (guruten), is rarely listed on product labels. A printable card in Japanese to avoid gluten can be found here. If you have a gluten allergy, here are some words you may want to check for:
Being vegan and even vegetarian can be especially challenging in Japan. Besides the communication issues mentioned above and the unwillingness to change dishes to be more vegan or vegetarian friendly, there is also dashi (出汁, だし), a Japanese soup stock usually made from fish and kelp.
Dashi is a popular stock ingredient used in most Japanese cuisine. It what gives dishes that signature umami flavor. It is also almost universally made from skipjack tuna (鰹節, katsuobushi or bonito in Japanese).
You’ll find it used in everything from sauces to salad dressing, to miso soup to soba noodles. Restaurants pride themselves in making their own special dashi to the point they will soak their vegetables in it. Thus, it would be best to assume tofu dishes such as shira-ae and agedashi are soaked in it.
Shojin ryori uses vegetable-based broths and seasonings, as well as ingredients such as tofu, agar and konnyaku to make meat substitutes.
Then there are animal fats and oils. Even tomato-based pasta sauce is typically used with animal oil, butter or cream. Even if a restaurant promotes vegan, vegetarian or plant-based items, there is the chance your meal was prepared on the same pan as the meat dishes.
Your best bet is to search for a vegan or vegetarian restaurant in your area. An excellent place to start is the English website Happy Cow or Tokyo Vegan. You can also find information by joining the Vegan Japan Facebook group.
You can also try searching for shojin ryori (精進料理) or Buddhist cuisine. Shojin ryori uses vegetable-based broths and seasonings, as well as ingredients such as tofu, agar and konnyaku to make meat substitutes. While a staple for monks and religious folks in Japan, shojin ryori has become popular with Japanese consumers as a healthy and traditional alternative. Still, you should double-check if it is actually vegan.
Another option is cooking yourself. There are several vegan, vegetarian and organic shopping websites available in Japan.
- Akikawa Farm
- Ambika Japan (Indian foods)
- Healthy Tokyo
- Oisix ra daichi
- Radish Boya
- Tengu Natural Foods
Halal-friendly (ハラル) restaurants and stores are becoming less rare in Japan, but you should keep in mind that halal dishes may be prepared in the same space as non-halal dishes, just like vegan and vegetarian dishes.
Many seemingly halal foods in Japan are mushbooh (unclear as to whether the food is permitted or not permitted in Islam). For example, sushi and other dishes with rice are made using mirin (味醂, みりん), or rice wine. Soy sauce and miso dishes may contain the dashi mentioned above or animal fat. Most bread also contains gelatin, margarine (マーガリン) or other haram ingredients.
Restaurants with Indian (インド), Indonesian (インドネシア) and Turkish (トルコ) cuisine (料理, ryori) are more likely to have halal options, but those restaurants are also likely to serve alcohol (酒, アルコール), so keep that in mind if that is an issue for you.
Have any vegetarian, vegan, halal or other food tips for allergies and dietary restrictions in Japan? Let us know in the comments!