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Food Allergies and Dietary Restrictions in Japan

A quick guide to help vegans, vegetarians, halal followers and those with dietary restrictions in Japan.

By 5 min read

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.

Food allergies and gluten

The seven ingredients manufacturers are legally obligated to list.

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:

English Japanese Pronunciation
Buckwheat 蕎麦 soba
Crab kani
Egg tamago
Milk 牛乳 gyu-nyu
Peanut 落花生 pinatsu
Shrimp 海老 ebi
Wheat 小麦 komugi

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:

English Japanese Pronunciation
Abalone あわび awabi
Almond アーモンド amondo
Apple りんご ringo
Banana バナナ banana
Beef 牛肉 gyu-niku
Cashew nut カシューナッツ kashu-natsu
Chicken 鶏肉 tori-niku
Gelatin ゼラチン zerachin
Kiwi キウイ kiui
Mackerel さば saba
Matsutake mushroom まつたけ matsutake
Orange オレンジ orenji
Peach もも momo
Pork 豚肉 buta-niku
Salmon サーモン samon
Salmon roe いくら ikura
Sesame ゴマ goma
Soybean 大豆 daizu
Squid いか ika
Walnut くるみ kurumi
Yam やまいも yama-imo

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:

English Japanese Pronunciation
Wheat 小麦 komugi
Rye ライ麦 raimugi
Barley 大麦 oomugi
Oats オーツ麦 ootsumugi

Vegan and vegetarian

Some delicious vegan sushi.

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.

Halal

Halal food can be found in many Indian, Indonesian and Turkish restaurants in Japan.

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.

Try giving Halal Gourmet or Halal in Japan a search for halal restaurants found in Japan. There also halal food shops available online in Japan:

Have any vegetarian, vegan, halal or other food tips for allergies and dietary restrictions in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

  • cclemon says:

    I can understand everyone’s frustrations, I’m Chinese and I am lactose-intolerant, allergic to almonds and garlic; ever since being Celiac, travelling becomes more stressful “reading Ingredients labels”. I think Japanese ppl are very kind and generous…But Asian Culture in General their food mostly 75%+ contains “Wheat, Dairy, etc” When I was travelling 2013 I didn’t have much problems in Japan, as to Hong Kong, I have to explain what Gluten is and grocery stores staff ignored me.

  • AJ says:

    My former coworker has a dairy allergy and she lived in Japan for a few years. Her overall experience was terrible. Japanese people were really inconsiderate and dumbfounded about such an allergy.

    “Here’s some chocolate.”
    “You’re American, you like cheese, right?”
    “You like milk tea, don’t you?”
    “What kind of pizza/ice cream do you like?”

  • Indiana Baker says:

    I’m allergic to nuts and soybeans so I’m a little bit nervous about when I go to Japan in the future as I’ve heard there not really good when it comes to allergies and dietary restrictions.

  • scuttlepants says:

    How about nut allergies?

  • Maggie Flos says:

    As someone who can not have dairy I have had a couple of unpleasant surprises and even one of my friends was extremely inconsiderate once. we were going to cook yakisoba and I didn’t know it comes with prepakaged spices like instant ramen etc., so I thought it’s safe…just noodles. When I realized it at his place a big deal was made out of me asking so late. The Japanese can be very inconsiderate in that regard and can be very frustrating when your restriction is not a choice but a health issue and you then suffer the consequences of their mistakes.

    • AJ says:

      “You have an allergy? You can’t eat this? What’s wrong with you?” is the general sentiment I get from people here (in Japan).

      I know I’ve been made to feel guilty for not wanting to eat or disliking certain Japanese foods. I didn’t grow up eating seafood, so I’m not big on seafood.

  • Karen Mascola says:

    Someday when I visit Japan, I can see that my allergy to squid (and probably octopus) might be a problem.

    • Vegetarian or vegan can be much harder, seafood is possibly a bit easier. Shellfish is a common allergy and some people (like yourself) don’t tolerate squid or octopus well – I can eat squid, but sometimes octopus doesn’t agree. We recently had a guest that could not eat any seafood and we made them up a laminated card in Japanese to show people – no squid, octopus, shellfish, fish, and no bonito flakes, fish sauce, shrimp, clams – pretty much everything. She still had a lot of great food and didn’t get sick.

      • Fiona J-G says:

        Hi, would it be possible for you to send me a digital copy of that card please? I have an allergy to all seafood too (as well as peanuts and baked/kidney beans). Thankyou in advance and its no problem if you can’t!

        • Sorry for the delay. I asked my Japanese friends for improvements so I now have a long one and a short one. For ピーナッツ と インゲン豆 (peanuts and kidney beans) could be added at the beginning of line 5 in front of カツオダシ (katsuodashi – fish stock).

          Short:
          魚貝アレルギーのため、魚、貝類、甲殻類が食べられません。
          これらの食材が入っていない料理を教えて下さい。
          I am seafood allergy. I can’t fish,shellfish,crustacean.
          Please tell me non seafood dish. Thanks.

          Long:
          ============================
          すいません。
          私には甲殻類・魚介類アレルギーがあります。

          カニ・(大小に関わらず)エビ・ロブスター(含ザリガニ)はもちろん、
          魚全般・貝類全般・イカ・タコにも反応します。
          カツオダシを使った味噌汁でも反応してしまいます。
          現物ではなく成分を含んだ食品でも、アレルギー反応がかなり強く出てしまいます。

          私にはまだ日本語が理解できず、メニュー名から原材料を把握することが出来ません。
          私はそのようなメニューを避けなければいけないので、
          私の注文(及び同席人がいればその人の注文)に対して、
          上記のような原材料が入っているかどうか、忠告して下さい。

          よろしくお願いします。
          ============================

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