If you are a vegetarian or vegan coming to Japan and have read the rest of the food section, you will probably have noticed a distinct lack of vegetarian dishes listed amongst the food options. But don’t despair! Avoiding meat in Japan is challenging but not impossible. Things may be difficult at first, but once you become familiar with your options it will become business and usual. For vegetarians and vegans, especially, it is important to be familiar with the phrases and kanji associated with food and nutrition. Learn these and you will be well equipped to maintain a meat- and animal product-free lifestyle!
Public enemy number one: fish
Fish and all things related to the sea are very popular and eaten frequently in Japan. It’s often difficult to spot fish in its various forms, and widely used in sauces and broths. However once you are able to identify what has fish and what doesn’t, it can be easily avoided (though it will limit food options). Note that Japanese people will not group fish with meat, so you must often be explicit when explaining your restrictions.
Learn the relevant Japanese
A good starting point is the AJET iConnect app, which has a section on food-related vocabulary. Many apps also have built-in lists of such words. Learning these is a good starting poing.
The main thing to note about being vegetarian in Japan, is that many Japanese people do not really understand the concept. It is necessary to be explicit when ordering food that may contain meat, or when requesting meatless dishes. There are two ways to say both vegan and vegetarian in Japanese:
ベジタリアン/bejitarian – the more commonly used term
菜食主義者/さいしょくしゅぎしゃ/saishoku shugisha – less common, and more closely associate with a monk’s vegetarian diet than with the average person
ヴィーガン or ビーガン/viigan or biigan – the more commonly used term
絶対菜食主義者/ぜったいさいしょくしゅぎしゃ/zettai saishoku shugisha – less common
In both cases, the katakana word should be used unless the person to whom you’re speaking doesn’t understand it. The kanji terms are more formal and will make you sound like an encyclopedia.
When you go out you may not have to name yourself a vegetarian or vegan, but the following phrases will be invaluable when ordering meat-free food:
Niku nashi dekimasu ka?
“Can you make this without meat?”
_______nashi de onegaishimasu.
“Without ________ please.”
Some other useful phrases:
Niku to sakana ga taberaremasen.
“I can’t eat fish or meat.”
“I’m a vegetarian.”
Niku ga haitteimasu ka?
“Is there meat in this?”
Again, it is possible you will be asked about each type of meat specifically, so be prepared to confirm that you cannot eat any meat. Furthermore, Japanese restaurants typically don’t consider things like dashi (seaweed/fish broth) and tonkotsu broth (pork bone broth) to be meat products, so even if you confirm with your server that the dish doesn’t contain meat or request a meat free dish, you may be served these items.
Foods to avoid
One classic Japanese food that you will unfortunately need to avoid here in Kyushu is ramen. While on Honshu you may be able to find a miso ramen with a vegetarian broth, the specialty here in Kyushu is tonkotsu ramen, which is made with a pork broth. A good alternative to ramen is udon, which is generally made with different types of soups and does not contain meat (be sure to confirm the type of broth before you order).
Aside from noodles cooked in broths, you should also be wary of things like sauces served with fried tofu, eggplant, and tempura. Also watch out for miso soup, which in almost all cases is made with a fish stock and in Kyushu often contains some shellfish.
Finally, be on the lookout for chikuwa (竹輪), kamaboko (蒲鉾), and katsuo bushi (鰹節/かつお節), which may accompany even dishes labeled vegetable only.
Shopping for yourself: food labels
Japanese food labels aren’t as strictly regulated as many JETs are used to, but you can almost always find at least an ingredients list (if you’re lucky you’ll get nutrition facts). Ingredients on food labels will appear as 原材料 (げんざいりょう/genzairyou), and sometimes 原材料名. When buying unfamiliar items or those you suspect may have meat, check the label first. The following are words to look out for:
Chicken: 鶏肉/とりにく or けいにく/toriniku or keiniku
Chikuwa: 竹輪/ちくわ/chikuwa (processed fish cakes, usually cylindrical)
Katsuo Bushi: 鰹節 or かつお節/かつおぶし/katsuo bushi (bonito flakes)
Kamaboko: 蒲鉾/かまぼこ/kamaboko (fish paste)
Dashi: 出し/だし/dashi (soup stock usually made with fish and seaweed)
You can also look at the nutrition facts (栄養成分表示/えいようせいぶんひょうじ/eiyou seibun hyouji) if you’re interested in how much protein the food has:
Protein: たんぱく質/たんぱくしつ/tanpaku shitsu (you will almost never see this in kanji)
Check out survivinginjapan for a more thorough look at Japanese food labels.
School lunch (給食/kyuushoku)
If you are an elementary school and/or junior high school ALT, you will most likely not be able to eat kyushoku like the students and teachers, as there is always some fish or meat component. Unfortunately, since students are required in most cases to eat everything on their plates, it is not generally something where you can pick and choose which days/items you will and won’t eat. So, if you are not willing to eat certain foods, you should ask to opt-out of school lunch and instead bring your own. You will probably not have the option of going out to buy lunch each day; you will need to prepare and bring something with you from home. For senior high school ALTs, you can either order the school bento and eat around the meat (the menu is usually posted up to a week in advance so you can confirm which days are not meat-heavy) or bring something from home.
Although it may seem a little daunting, fear not! The good news about being vegetarian or vegan in Saga is that we are surrounded by farms and so there is an abundance of local produce readily available in the supermarket. If you are looking for fresh vegetables at a very reasonable price, be sure to seek out the local vegetable area in your local supermarket. With all due respect to different people’s reasons for pursuing a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, if you are willing to occasionally bend the rules a bit you may be able to minimize stress. Keep an open mind, and don’t let your veganism or vegetarianism become a problem. Keep in mind that no amount of fluency in Japanese or vigilance will prevent you from occasionally making a mistake and eating meat. Don’t worry!
Finally, do expect to get questions about being vegetarian from students, teachers, and other Japanese friends. They may want to know specifically what you do and do not eat, as well as why you are making that choice. Generally this is because people are interested in you and because they are unfamiliar with vegetarianism. Try to use this as a cross-cultural opportunity to share your ideas rather than seeing it as a hassle! While no one should expect you to compromise your beliefs, do also remember that you will be living in a different community and culture whose beliefs may be different to your own.
To join a community of like-minded people and get more ideas about food and eating out in Japan, try the VegJET group on Facebook. Also note that as of this writing, there are 4 vegetarian/pescetarian JETs in Saga.