I’ll get straight to the meat and just say it how I see it – being vegan in Japan is not a crime. Logically, it follows that neither is being vegetarian. Yes, amongst other things, Japan is a food lovers’ paradise: from Kobe beef and yakitori to okonomiyaki. But if you decide to avoid animal products while you’re here then what’s wrong with that?
Some may argue that Japan has some of the most incredible food in the world, so why would anyone choose to restrict themselves? Well, I guess that boils down to what you mean by the word ‘restrict’. A restriction assumes that someone really wants something but is telling themselves not to have it. I can’t speak for all of the veg-heads but I can imagine that for most of them, they made a decision to become vegan/vegetarian so they don’t want to eat certain/all animal products. Can we be tempted to eat something that we don’t want? Probably not. If you’re a meat eater who isn’t tempted by cow tongue and gizzards then this should make more sense.
Is it Easy for Someone Who Doesn’t Speak Japanese to Remain Vegan/Vegetarian in Japan?
In my personal experience – no, its not easy. Before living in Japan I categorised myself as vegan, I avoided milk in all forms, meat, fish, eggs, honey and anything that wasn’t plant based. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for my fish-loving boyfriend), this categorisation quickly disintegrated into dust…
For most of my life I have been a chicken-drumstick-eating-lamb-licking carnivore. You would never have looked at me at the age of 18 and thought I would one day relinquish meat. Nope, not me. I was the Burgess-girl who would eat 15 jerk chicken thighs at the family party.
However, over the past two years, my interest in meat, eggs and other animal products has subsided and I now have no interest in eating any kind of meat besides fish. This diet change happened for a few reasons, but living with a vegetarian for one year whilst simultaneously realising how animals often seem to be mass-manufactured were the biggest factors. Don’t get me wrong, fish isn’t excluded from the ‘mass-manufacturing’ category, so I realise how hypercritical all of this may sound. What I am trying to convey is that I still like the taste of fish but I don’t like the taste of meat anymore.
So I’m not vegan or vegetarian. The closest category you could put me in is probably pescatarian, But, I don’t really fit into any kind of strict category anymore.
I’m a Failed Vegan and I Accept That
I’m a ‘failed’ vegan because my intention was to remain vegan in Japan but I didn’t. After too many instances of unconsciously ordering an animal-based product and feeling sad about it, I decided to just do the best that I could.
I will order vegan food if it’s available, if not I will order vegetarian food, if not I will order something pescatarian. A non-exhaustive list of some of my failed vegan ordering attempts is below:
- Buying a Thai green curry sauce three times before realising that the little white bits in it were fish.
- Ordering “stir-fried vegetables” in a Chinese restaurant in Shinagawa which contained pork.
- Before ordering a curry in a café in Osaka I asked if it contained meat. The lady said “no” (I thought) but brought out a beef curry. I assume that my Japanese wasn’t strong enough at this point so I messed the order up.
- Eating vegetable curry numerous times in different Indian restaurants, only to discover later that most of the sauces contain meat flavouring.
In all of these instances I have eaten the non-vegetarian food, even though it wasn’t what I expected. Because otherwise it would have gone to waste, which I felt was probably worse.
Is it Possible to be Vegan/Vegetarian in Japan?
Sure it is! Just because I am a forsaken vegan, doesn’t mean you have to be! Honestly, it just depends on your motivation. You could explain your dietary requirements to a waiter, have a list of phrases to show someone or even learn some useful Japanese phrases beforehand. I have just been too lazy to do this in the past, and have given the menu/food product the benefit of the doubt without taking the extra time to be certain.
Japanese Characters to Avoid
Beef: 牛 / gyuu
Chicken: 鶏 or 鶏肉 / niwatori or toriniku
Meat: 肉 / niku
Pork: 豚 / buta
Crab: かに / kani
Mackerel: さば / saba
Shrimp: 海老 or えび / ebi
Fish: 魚 / sakana
Squid: いか / ika
Salmon roe :いくら / ikura
Egg: 卵 / tamago
Honey: 蜜 / mitsu
Milk: 乳 / gyunyu
If all else fails and you’re in a tricky situation you can use the following:
- I am vegetarian: 私はベジタリアンです / Watashi wa bejitarian des
- I am vegan: 私は完全菜食主義者です/ Watashi wa kanzen saishoku shugisha des
- I don’t eat _____ / 私は _____ を食べません / Watashi wa _____ tabemasen
- This Italian Youtuber specialises in Vegan Living in Japan!
- happycow.net app for Android/iPhone can be used to find vegan/vegetarian friendly restaurants in Japan.
- isitveganjapan.com has a useful article on allergens and ingredient information
I hope this is helpful! I will try to expand this into a bigger, more detailed section in future!