How to Be Vegan in Japan

I became vegan a bit more than two years ago while living in Japan. I had already been vegetarian for a couple of years prior and I finally decided to align my eating habits with my ethics. However, as some may know, Japan is definitely not what one may call a “vegan-friendly country” (it’s getting better, fortunately), and avoiding dairy, eggs, fish, and meat can be a challenge. For those of you who aspire to become vegan or are just interested in reducing their consumption of animal products, here is a quick, non-exhaustive list of pitfalls to avoid.

1. The restaurant struggle

While you can now find some fully vegan restaurants in most Japanese large cities, you will eventually come across some places which do not clearly advertise vegan options. Keep in mind that it is often difficult to ask for a modified dish in Japan. You also should remember that most places do not understand the term “vegan” and will even struggle with the term “vegetarian”. For many Japanese, vegetarianism only excludes meat but includes fish and seafood. Hence, you should always precise what products you cannot eat. If you do not speak Japanese, you can print a dietary restriction card and show it to the waiter/waitress. Finally, be aware that most ramen and noodle places will probably not be able to accommodate you as the soup broth often contains fish and/or meat. If you are looking for a place to eat, I strongly recommend taking a look at HappyCow, an amazing website listing all the nearby vegan-friendly places!

2. Hidden animal products

In Japan, it is common for seemingly vegan foods to contain hidden animal products. On this matter, be aware that products such as bread, soy milk, or even Oreos are often not vegan in Japan. Be also wary that many typical Japanese products you can buy at the supermarket contain Bonito flakes. Make sure to remember the animal products kanji and check the labels of the food you wanna buy. There are also great Facebook groups (see here, here, and here) that list most vegan food you can find at supermarkets/popular restaurants. The good news is that the vegan offer is expanding in Japan and that more and more brands are now labeling their products as vegan!

3. White sugar

The technic of whitening sugar by using animal bone char as a filter is still commonly used in Japan and, unfortunately, there is often no direct way of knowing how the sugar present in some products has been processed. If you are concerned about whether the sugar used is vegan of not, the best way is often to contact directly the product’s company or to search online if someone has already done it. Yet, remember that most processed food in Japan contains white sugar, and avoiding it completely is perhaps the most difficult thing about becoming vegan in Japan. Whether you choose to avoid all refined sugar or not that is up to you but keep in mind that there is no such thing as a “perfect vegan”.

Reducing your animal consumption may often seem challenging or even overwhelming but, fortunately, the offer of vegan and vegetarian-friendly products have tremendously increased in the past years. Japan is slowing becoming more open toward new eating habits and I am hopeful that this trend will continue in the future!