Being Vegan in Japan 2: Communication is Key

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June 14, 2016

This is part two in a three-part series about going to Japan as a vegan. Part one introduced traditional Japanese cuisine, its chances and challenges for vegans. Now it’s time for a more hands-on approach.

As for any other dietary choice, communication is key to make sure what’s in your food is safe. So how about our old “friends” dashi and bonito, and how can we avoid them, along with any other more or less hidden animal ingredients?

While it’s certainly possible to order a freshly prepared meal or snack without bonito (or anything else that is simply added to the dish at a later stage) and restaurant staff are mostly accommodating, it’s crucial to communicate very clearly what one can and cannot eat. Simply mentioning you’re a vegan is likely to leave many people confused, even if you articulate yourself in perfectly accentuated Japanese.

Concepts about what counts as “meat” can vary greatly (chicken? ham?) and waiters might not even consider dashi to be non-vegetarian when they ask the chef to please leave out the prawn in your bowl of udon noodles. Chain restaurants will be less able to customize your meal, as most of their food has been prepared before you place your order.

According to a survey from 2014, 4.7 percent of the Japanese population consider themselves to be vegetarian, with 2.7 percent of these identifying as vegan. While such estimates should be taken with a grain of salt in every country, many vegetarians might avoid eating meat for health reasons, not ethical choices, further diffusing the line between what might be interpreted as fine to serve a customer introducing themselves as “vegetarian” and what would be unacceptable.

In a culinary landscape where fresh fish is considered to be the pride of many a chef, avoiding fish or fish-derived products (by choice and on purpose? why?) is not only difficult but might see people scratching their heads – politely, of course. Most of the time, anyway. Be prepared to smile a lot, and clarify even more, clearly mentioning and questioning every ingredient in a meal advertised as vegetarian outside of dedicated vegetarian restaurants.

You might have noticed I repeatedly used “vegetarian” instead of “vegan” in this series. You’re indeed much less likely to find dairy and eggs sneaking into your food in Japan compared to many other countries. Except for bread, which tends to be extra soft and fluffy, thanks to animal ingredients. Natural food stores and French or German bakeries will offer different kinds of bread, but as far as the convenience store varieties are concerned, assume them to be non-vegan more often than not.

Vegan shopping at the konbini

While manufacturing companies are obligated to list the ingredients (with the exception of the source of food additives, as in most other countries), identifying any animal products would require advanced knowledge of kanji, which few new expats and even fewer travelers are likely to have. Learning how to read Japanese food labels would be immensely helpful if a time-consuming enterprise.

A few recurring ingredients a vegan traveler might want to watch out for in food not obviously identifiable as non-vegan:

カツオエキス、鰹エキス (extract of bonito)
かつおぶし / カツオブシ/ 鰹ぶし/ 鰹節 (dried bonito flakes)
豚エキス / ポークエキス (extract of pork)
チキンエキス / 鶏エキス (extract of chicken)
ビーフエキス / 牛エキス (extract of beef)

At omnivore restaurants, these cards and/or the following phrases might be helpful.

Useful vegan restaurant expressions

Start with the basics:

I am a vegan / vegetarian. – 私は ヴィーガン / ベジタリアン / 菜食主義者 です。
(Watashi wa biigan / bejitarian / saishoku shugisha desu.)

Saishoku shugisha is the Japanese term for “vegetarian,” which might not always coincide with the English definition of a vegetarian diet. Both could include fish, depending on the interpretation of the person you’re talking to. It’s highly recommended to go beyond this first introduction with one or more of the following explanations.

I do not eat fish or meat. – 私は 魚も 肉も 食べません。
(Watashi wa sakana mo niku mo tabemasen.)

I do not eat eggs or dairy products. – 私は 卵も 乳製品も 食べません。
(Watashi wa tamago mo nyuuseihin mo tabemasen.)

And the all-important one:

I cannot eat dashi, either. – 私は だしも 食べられません。
(Watashi wa dashi mo taberaremasen.)

To customize your dish, you could try using the following blueprint.

Please get rid of […] from the dish. – […] 無しで お願いします。
[…] nashi de onegai shimasu.

The item you’d like to get rid of might be

Tuna – ツナ – tsuna
Dried bonito flakes – かつおぶし – katsuobushi (you will almost certainly get to use this one at least once even on a short-term vacation)
Ham – ハム – hamu

Hopefully, these expressions and phrases will prove useful to you and make it easier to enjoy the delicious food Japan has to offer. In the next and last part of this series, we will look at some of the modern classics of Japanese cuisine and identify the more vegan-friendly ones.

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Lover of words, moving pictures and good storytelling.

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