In the last 10 years, and increasingly so in the last three, the booming numbers of visitors to Japan have spurred a greater understanding of different eating habits, including vegan and halal diets. In major cities across Japan, the number of vegan-friendly and halal-observant restaurants has blossomed, a huge improvement over the situation when I first moved to Japan all those years ago.
…even if the label doesn’t show any animal products, there may be traces of things like fish broth…
That being said, food labeling in supermarkets and convenience stores is trailing behind many other countries. Part of this is definitely a language issue. We certainly can’t blame Japanese companies for labeling their products in Japanese, or for covering imported food labels with Japanese ones so locals can read them.
However, there is also a nasty little secret behind food labels in Japan. When extracts and additives fall below a certain percentage, food companies are not required by law to include them on the label.
This means, even if the label doesn’t show any animal products, there may be traces of things like fish broth, milk powder or weird animal-based amino acids lurking in your food. Buyer beware.
How to Shop in Japan as a Vegan
My recommendation for everyone living in Japan is actually to avoid supermarkets as much as possible and shop at independent stores. A local grocer is likely to have fresher, tastier fruit and veggies—also less plastic waste. A neighborhood tofu maker will actually be able to tell you what goes into their product since they make it.
However, I recognize that this is not always realistic, and sometimes the only option is stocking up at a supermarket. In which case, I recommend shopping around the outer aisles and avoiding the processed foods in the center as much as possible.
One of the tough parts of reading labels, even when you’re pretty confident in your language abilities, is that there are many different ways of writing similar things. Starting from the basics and then working our way into the nitty-gritty details, here is a primer of characters to look out for, including radicals.
Obvious and Common Words
To save time, when checking a prepared or packaged product, I first do a quick scan of the label for these common characters and words, something most vegans in Tokyo quickly become adept at doing. It saves the time and effort of going through each ingredient of every product you are thinking about buying.
Be sure to check the allergy (アレルギー) and “may include” (含む fukumu) sections toward the end as well, where often one will find out there are traces of eggs or milk in things you wouldn’t expect to contain them.
|牛乳 / ミルク
|gyunyu / miruku
|バター / 乳酪
|bata- / nyuraku
|蜂蜜, はちみつ, ハチミツ, ハニー
Note that soy milk (豆乳 tonyu) is usually okay, however the sweetened type often has odd non-vegan additions like lanolin, calcium lactate or emulsifiers. If you wish to avoid those go for the unsweetened (無調整 muchousei) versions, or opt for the sweetened versions from Sujhata or Aeon, which are definitely vegan. Products from non-Japanese companies like Alpro or Almond Breeze are safe as well.
Tips for eating Halal in Japan
Halal and veganism aren’t usually put in the same category, as the reasons behind these two dietary choices are different, however, both groups face similar issues when making food choices in Japan.
Many foods may seem to be halal but actually contain haram ingredients. Sushi rice is often mixed with mirin (rice wine) and many common Japanese prepared foods are made with non-halal meat (including pork) and flavored with soy sauce, miso or sake. Even things like sweets and drinks may harbor traces of alcohol, gelatin or animal fats!
While some visitors mainly avoid non-halal meat and drinking alcohol, if you are concerned about eating less obvious haram foods, you can either eat out at restaurants listed in the Halal Gourmet Japan guide or check out vegan restaurants, making sure to ask if there is alcohol in any of the dishes before ordering.
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