Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Complete Partial Guide to Being Vegetarian in Japan

Hello readers and readresses. My name is Dylan Southard. I’m originally from Spokane, Washington (if you’ve never been there or even heard of it, feel confident that you are part of a vast majority of people, with the power to crush us Spokanites with but a wave of your collective hand) and originally moved to Japan in 2004 to teach English as part of the JET Program. I am currently a graduate student at Osaka University and vocalist for the band 異邦の客 [Ihounokyaku] or “Strangers in a Strange Land” (plug: www.ihounokyaku.com).

Adapting to daily life in a new country can be a trying process. Even the most trifling endeavor is potentially rife with slip-ups and misunderstandings, like a mini-car packed full of giant humiliation-inducing clowns. This is especially true if one has peculiar non-negotiable dietary restrictions, such as vegetarianism or space madness. Being subject to the former, I found that becoming acclimated to gastronomic life in Japan (a country that has fewer vegetarians than it has species of animal on an average restaurant menu) was a challenge, to say the least. Most of what I learned I discovered through trial (attempting to decipher lists of ingredients, explaining to people my situation, etc.) and error (the inevitable result of most of my early trials). Thus, I’ve decided to compile a not-nearly comprehensive guide for those herbivores who are currently struggling with this problem, or who have made plans to do so in the future.

As we all know, meat does not always make its presence known. Sure, often times it comes in the form of a 4lb T-bone steak or in a can labeled “SPAM”. However, it can just as easily be a silent enemy, lurking in the broth of your favorite restaurant’s veggie noodle soup or hiding behind monosythiumdioxatenfraven in an ingredient list the size of a novella. This little inconvenience is compounded by the fact that some 70% of Japanese food contains pork extract. Now, depending on how strict a vegetarian you are, this can pose quite a problem, especially if your speaking and reading abilities don’t quite measure up to your firm ethical resolve. Taking this into account, it is time to lay out one of the grim hard realities of living in a foreign country. You will probably eat meat. At one point or another you are going to unintentionally ingest something that once bore legs, eyes, wings and, quite likely, tentacles. In order to minimize this sort of unpleasant experience, here are some tips to keep you from going omnivore when the going gets rough.

1) Understand what the Japanese mean by the word “meat”.

Being the good vegetarian you are, I’m going to assume you have, regardless of your Japanese ability, probably learned the word for meat (niku). This word is quite useful when referring to slabs of mammal flesh, but notsomuch when it comes to our fine-feathered friends or those scaly sea goers. Often you must specify chickens and other birds (tori), fish (sakana), and shellfish (kai) as being apocryphal to the cannon of foods that make up your shopping list, as well. It is also important to keep in mind that these words often exclude certain meaty products based on how they were prepared. Upon arriving in Japan, my coworkers were shocked to discover that my being a vegetarian also meant that I also couldn’t eat foods containing meat extract. Just remember, Japan is a country with next to no vegetarians, so be specific. As a side note, be ready to explain your reasons for being vegetarian, as you will most likely be doing it a lot. Because there are so few veggies in Japan, people tend ask a lot of questions. This may seem like you’re being challenged at first, but I’ve found that most people are just curious or want to be accommodating.

2) Learn to ask.

If you are living in Japan and expect to enjoy the companionship and absence of crippling suicidal loneliness that come with having a social life, you will end up eating out A LOT. In almost any restaurant it is imperative that you ask before you order! Assumptions made in this department can lead to either and empty stomach or an empty wallet. I kid you not; you may order a single sprig of parsley, only to have it reach your table slathered in bacon grease and lodged into the center of a pork chop. I hyperbolate here only slightly, and only to make the point that no matter how vegetarian something may seem on the menu, ask anyways. In Japanese, it’s as simple as:
“(whatever food) wa niku ga haiteimasu ka?”
Remember; ask about meat extract, as well! Just replace the word niku with niku ekisu. (See section above for other things that are often not considered to be meat).

3) Learn some basic kanji

Grocery shopping in a foreign country (especially one with an unfamiliar writing system) can be a daunting task for anyone, let alone for someone with a specific diet. In regards to what you eat, learning a few important kanji can mean the difference between a crisp juicy apple and a bag full of pig anuses (kudos to anyone who catches the UCB reference). Here are a few of the most important ones:
原材料名 (genzairyoumei)—ingredients
(ushi/gyuu)— cow
(buta)— pig
(tori)—bird (note: usually any kanji that contains this radical [e.g. 鶏/鳩] is a type of bird.)
(sakana)—fish (see note about bird)
チキン (chikin)chicken
ビーフ (biifu)beef
エキス (ekisu)extract
豚の肛門 (buta no koumon)—pig anuses

There you have it. This is by no means the definitive guide to vegetarianism in the Land of the Rising Sun; but I hope, a good start. I’ve also included a couple other resources below. Gambatte!

Tengu Natural foods
What can I say? They’re awesome. Great service, excellent selection, and 100% vegetarian (a lot of vegan stuff as well).

A Guide to Being (and Remaining) Vegetarian in Japan

Available through Hyogo Ajet (http://ajet.net/lang/en/ajet-publications/#veg). I got this book from a very dear friend as a Christmas present, and it’s been invaluable. Tips, Recipes, you name it. Good stuff.


  1. Your post was very interesting and enjoyable.
    And the kanji for "egg" is...?

  2. Thanks, Dylan - nice article. When I was abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent, I had a little taste of what you go through. A lot more difficult than I had expected.

  3. Oh, good question, eggandgoo. I completely forgot to include dairy products on my list.

    There are actually two kanji for egg; one is 卵 and is used for eggs that are still in the shell, and the other is 玉子 meaning eggs minus the shell (fried eggs, for example). Both of these are pronounced "tamago." The other way eggs tend to be represented is simply by the kanji "子" [ko]. You'll often see this as part of compounds representing fish eggs (as in "鱈子” [tarako]) or meals such as 親子丼 [Oyako don] (literally "parent and child bowl", which is chicken and eggs on rice. It's either pretty sick or refreshingly honest, when you think about it).

  4. For what it's worth, I'm from the Midwest (currently Ohio; I've also lived in IN and MI and been to PA quite a bit), and I would have rated Spokane as the second most famous city in Washington state, after Seattle. You know, it's the "other city" you occasionally hear about in that state, not as big and famous as the main one, but still something many people are aware of. I would say it's probably better known than Olympia (which really only comes up in lists of state capitals).

    I couldn't have put it on the map, though, other than what state it's in.

    I've also, as far as I'm aware, never met (in person) a strict vegetarian, in the sense of bothering to examine ingredients lists looking for non-obvious animal-derived extracts and such. I don't think they're much more common around here than in Japan. I know that such people exist mostly from reading stuff on the internet (invariably written by people from the west coast, which we tend to think of as more or less a foreign land, even though it's technically part of the US).

    We have (a few) people out here who don't eat slabs of meat, but most of them will happily eat packaged foods without so much as glancing at the label. All the vegetarians I've ever personally met, the wheat crackers could be cooked in tallow, and they wouldn't care.

    We *do* have (a very few) people who pore over ingredients lists making sure there aren't any dairy products, but there's always a medical issue (or perceived issue) involved, and anyway those people eat meat, as long as it's not got any milk in it.

  5. > All the vegetarians I've ever personally
    > met, the wheat crackers could be cooked
    > in tallow, and they wouldn't care.

    I should qualify that. We also have people who are "vegetarians" for health reasons, who wouldn't want to eat food cooked in tallow. But they are usually willing to eat low-fat meat products such as fish, lean chicken, egg whites, etc. and certainly wouldn't bother about non-fattening meat extracts like you might find e.g. in gelatin.