I’ve been a vegetarian for over 9 years (lacto-ovo, meaning eggs and dairy are okay). When I moved here, I read articles about how hard it was to be a vegetarian in Japan. However, I was not willing to give up my strong personal beliefs, and to tell you the truth, I thought, “Ah, I’m sure it’s not that bad!”
First, yes, it is difficult. Or rather, it’s probably more difficult than you’re used to. I’m from the U.S., where 10% of the population “largely follows a vegetarian-inclined diet.” Being a vegetarian in the U.S. is pretty easy.
However, vegetarianism is not a popular lifestyle choice in Japan, and it’s easy to understand why. A lot of dining is “group style” and for the Japanese, being picky and imposing your personal preference on the group is often considered a bit rude. Traditional restaurants follow a mostly set menu with little room for customization in most cases. Also, a lot of traditional Japanese food is based on fish and dashi (a stock made from fish), and dashi in particular is in almost everything.
Despite all this, yes you CAN be a happy, saited vegetarian in Japan with a little effort. In this article, I hope I can provide you with some tips to ward off starvation.
Basic Vocab and Kanji
Vegetarians MUST learn some basic food kanji to survive. Chances are, “niku” (meat) will be the first kanji you learn. There’s a useful guide included in your JET Diary and plenty of resources on the internet. Here’s a few to get you started:
- ‘Vegetable Japan’ – Kanji Shopping List
- ‘Cooking Vegan Around World’ – Reading Labels in Kanji
- ‘Just Hungry’ – several printable cards, written in both Japanese and English, to help elaborate on your dietary needs.
If you tell your server that you’re a vegetarian, prepare for, the “uh-oh” look. Again, they probably don’t serve vegetarians everyday, so be patient with the staff while they check with their co-workers, supervisor, the shop owner, the Prime Minister, or whoever to figure out what ingredients are in their food and what they can adjust for you. Be aware, some restaurants will not adjust their set menu. However, most people are quite courteous and will do their best to help you.
Be careful as well about simply asking, “Does this dish contain meat.” While the answer might be “no,” it’s very possible for your food to show up with bacon, shrimp, ham, tuna, or other ingredients. When in doubt, be more speciric (“Does it contain meat, bacon, shrimp, etc”) when asking about ingredients.
Some safe bets: Indian (not Japanese) curry, okinomiyaki (be very specific when ordering), zaru soba (substitute dipping sauce with shouyu or a little salt), veggie tempura (again without the sauce), inari zushi (made without bonito dashi), Italian food ( butwatch out for chicken broth in pasta sauce).
Also, you don’t have to be an N1 level Japanese speaker to explain that you’re a vegetarian. “Daijoubu” and “dame,” along with gestures, will go a long way. Okinawa JET’s website has some really useful (and easy!) phrases
If you live near a major grocery store, you should have plenty of food options. The most obvious choice is of course, vegetables! Japanese vegetables are the best I’ve ever had. Buy what’s in season for the best value and experiment with new veggies like daikon, lotus root, and maitake mushrooms. If you don’t know much about Japanese vegetables, another Gunma JET wrote a guide that can help you learn more about them.
Next, proteins. Your supermarket probably has a wide variety of tofu, and many towns have their own hand-crafted tofu shop. Natto has a bad reputation (and it does smell funny) but, since you are already accustomed to soy-based foods, you may like it! In Japan, beans are often eaten as a dessert (anko), and finding “regular” (non-sweet) beans can be hard, or at the very least, expensive. My supermarket carries red kidney beans, soy beans, and (yay!) chickpeas. They are sold in boxes, not cans, so keep your eyes peeled. You can buy soy beans (大豆) almost anywhere, so use them to make your own veggie burgers, etc.
And did I mention…learn some basic Japanese food vocabulary and kanji! Don’t just assume. Those veggie chips may contain チキンパウダー. No really.
When I need my black bean burrito fix, I head to Kaldi! Kaldi is a tiny, crowded chain store within most malls in Japan. They carry a large variety of international foods. Of course, there’s also the gaijin playground: Costco. You’ll need a car and a Costco card (or a friend with these) but it’s well worth the trip.
In Tsumagoi village (Western Gunma) there is a vegan restaurant and specialty shop where you can get all the veggie supplies you can dream of. Tsumagoi has a significant vegan community (who knew?) and the staff at both establishments (located adjacent to one another) speaks great English and is very friendly and helpful. They also have a website!
Some other useful links include:
When to Speak Up
Coming to a new countries means entering a different culture. You don’t want to offend anyone. I get it. However, most people would rather know about your dietary restrictions upfront rather than watch you starve. Be polite and flexible, but don’t feel afraid of telling your group you are a vegetarian. Remember, the JET Programme is about immersing yourself in Japanese culture AND sharing your own culture. Most Japanese people (including students) will be very curious about your diet and will enjoy talking to you about it.
- Enkai – You’ll be paying around 5000 yen to eat and drink with your co-workers, so why not tell your supervisor about your dietary restrictions ahead of time? Often, the restaurant can prepare a vegetarian meal for you with advance notice
- Kyuushoku (school lunch) – If you are teaching at an elementary or junior high school, it will likely be assumed that you will eat the school-provided lunch. Again, be upfront but polite with your school about bringing your own bento (box lunch) instead.
Benefits of Being Vegetarian in Japan
You probably won’t be eating out very much or buying many processed foods. That means you’ll save money and become healthier. Also, you’ll become a better cook! Learn to make your own curry, okinomiyaki, ramen, or udon!
And finally, remember, when you just can’t take it anymore, Tokyo (and its endless food options) is just a couple of hours away.