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Being a Vegetarian in Japan                                    

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A. Introduction

Being a vegetarian in Japan is not necessarily as easy as it is in some other countries. The main problems are a lack of understanding of the concept of vegetarianism in many Japanese people, the presence of dashi and the use of shortening. Even more complicated it might be for vegans. Nevertheless, please continue on your  way, if you are a vegetarian or vegan, if not deciding to become something still “higher” developed. It is possible to live as a vegetarian in Japan and, but it requires some specific knowledge and a certain prudence.

But before reading on, please accept the Terms of Use. If you should use any of the links or information given on this page to buy products a vegetarian would not buy, the responsibility is entirely yours and all bad karma connected to that act would be yours or at least not mine.


B. The  Task


I. Some difficulties


a. General Considerations: A Lack of Understanding

Although it can be read that from 676 to 737 Japan was legally entirely vegetarian thanks to Temmu Tenno (see here or here), the evidence I have been told or read about so far refers only to the banning of certain types (kine, horses, dogs, monkeys, and barn-door fowl, according to Aston's translation) of meat (cf. the Nihongi (Book XXIX, p. 10, on the 3rd month, 17th day of either 675 or 676). The edict notes that “This prohibition does not extend to other kinds of meat.”
Here are a few information discussed in German.

Anyhow, although there appears to have been a tendency to follow Buddhist rules about what not to eat for a while, they were not always followed strictly. In later times the Japanese ate meat, and this already centuries before Meiji Tenno decided to eat meat in his efforts of Westernizing the country, which meant that his loyal subjects followed.

Nevertheless, even well into the 1850s, eating meat, especially of four-legged animals, at least during the Tokugawa period, had the notion of being defiling. People used “medicinal eating” as a pretext and euphemisms (cf. Akira Shimizu: Meat-Eating in the Kōjimachi District of Edo, in: Erich C. Rath / Stephanie Assmann: Japanese Foodways, Past and Present. Edited by Eric C. Rath and Stephanie Assmann. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield, University of Illinois Press, pp. 92 (102) ff.).

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s “Laws of Compassion” (生類憐みの令; shōrui awaremi no rei), intensifying towards the end of the 17th century, banned the “killing of all living creatures”, his purpose being to protect the lives of all human beings and animals, although farmers were not forbidden to shoot animals that endangered agricultural land, whereas they did ban eating and sale of meat of four-legged animals shot dead by farmers (ibid., pp. 92 (97 f.).

According to Buddhism, one should, in principle, not inflict harm on fellow beings (cf. e.g. Tony Page: Buddhism and Animals: A Buddhist Vision of Humanity's Rightful Relationship with the Animal Kingdom, London: UKAVIS 1999, also see here, here [link not working] and here [for book-reviews also here]). Thus, in my understanding, eating meat should be abandonned.

Indeed, Buddhist cuisine ( 精進料理; shoojin riyouri) may be a slightly expensive but good solution to the problem – although you still might at least want to make sure that there is no fish in the dish you order – and can be found at some temples. Koya san and its temples (also access this), for example, could give you a break long yearned for, if you have stayed in Japan for a longer time.

Nevertheless, although being a country with a culture in principle saturated by Buddhism, and although even in Japan there are days where fish are released (and I honestly cannot imagine how Shinto, under the aspect of purity, could have, if really understood in the sense of deep veneration of life and nature, a standard less high as to honouring the life of creatures as a part of nature; for a discussion, you might also like to visit the Shinto Mailing list at Yahoo Groups and look for posts with the title “vegetarianism”), up to the time of having written this, the Japanese have eaten meat and fish quite often.

Since the concept of vegetarianism is not known very well in the country, it is very recommendable to specify what one does not eat. Better do not just say “I am vegetarian”, but add (a lot of!) specifications. Do not just say “I do not eat meat”. Say “I do neither eat meat, nor pork, nor beef, nor chicken, nor fish, nor non-vegetable seafood like shells, lobsters, taco” etc., for they all might be considered to be no meat.

It could be helpful to stress, that you are a “strict vegetarian” (私は厳しいベジタリアン、厳しい菜食主義者です; watashi ha kibishii bejetarian, kibishii saishoku shuugisha desu (using both Japanese terms for “vegetarian” should allow most of the people to understand your wishes better)). To decrease the effects of the possible “shock” or confusion in the person  you are speaking to, you might want to continue enumerating the dishes or things you actually could eat.


b. Some more Details


aa) Margarine and Cheese

As for cheese, you will probably know about the problem that most cheese is, because of the way it is produced,  indeed non-vegetarian (see e. g. here; also here for another version), so if you should not happen to be able to find out about the particular sort of cheese you want to by here, perhaps better abstain?
 
As you might also know, margarine is sometimes non-vegetarian, too, even if it might be called “vegetable margarine”. I have not found specific information on Japan, but you might like to make sure. Look at the description of the ingredients for bread etc. Margarine is often used for bakery products here as well.

  
bb) Shortening

Most of the bread sold in Japan (you should also have a look at the ingredients of the pizza-dough and rice-waffles) contains shortening – and this seems to be often of the non-vegetarian kind (shootoningu; ショートテニング), containing lard (laado; ラー ド). This problem might even occur in some restaurants (not in all, though) offering “veggie burgers”, so you might like to make sure. If you are not understood by using the terms “shooteningu” or “shorutoningu”, try to use “laado”.

A good place to look for bread not containing shortening may be German, Swiss or French bakeries, but even those will often also sell bread containing shortening, so you should ask. If you find a macrobiotic shop or other natural food store, you could also find some bread without shortening there. A good possibility are also shops selling foreign food like Meidiya.

Bagels often seem to contain neither margarine nor shortening. Check this and the other ingredients, though – a “Tofu Burger” (or tofu bagle...) might actually contain fish! Be also sure that there are neither katsuo bushi (dried fish flakes) nor tare (fish stock dressing) on your tofu. If someone spreads certain flakes over your meal before serving, even though you have just explained you are a vegetarian and he has agreed to make you something suitable, better make sure he is not adding fish flakes right in that moment without thinking.
 
You might find some helpful (or “dreading”) information on the following webpage as well, although created especially for vegetarians:

http://www.isnet.org/misc/jp-halal.html (interesting may also be http://web.archive.org/web/2002120302302http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/1458/islam009.htm).

 
cc) Gelatin

You will know about the problem of gelatin (zeerachin;ゼラチン) in bakery products (cakes etc.)? In Japan they may sometimes use kanten (寒天), which could be ok.
 

dd) dashi

Another big problem is fish (sakana; 魚; notice the four legs? If a kanji shoes these, be extra careful). You will find it in expected and less expected places, mainly in the form of dashi, also in the form of katsuo bushi (鰹節), dried fish flakes (bonito) put on top of some dishes. Sometimes (see above) Japanese will not realize that “just a little bit” will also be bad enoough, so check that.

In ramen dishes, there will always be dashi.

There is also a vegetarian sort of dashi, but do not count on it, it is not being used so often. The vegetarian dashi is called “konbu dashi” and made from algae. But probably you will rather encounter it in the first form, if you do not take care. Most of the dashi you will find will be non-vegetarian.


ee) Boullion

Sometimes spaghetti are cooked in boullion. Better make sure that not.


ff) Kimchi

Do not count on that the kimchi you buy or want to eat is fish-free. It may be not.


gg) ekisu

Beware of chicken ekisu and other ekisu in “vegetable currey” (be careful: “vegetable” does not necessarily imply “vegetarian”) and other dishes. Make sure that the base of the curry sauce is indeed vegetarian and neither chicken soup nor chicken “ekisu” is contained or added. Ensure that the reply to your question is not just valid for the day you ask.


hh) Sugar

Incredible... You have to be careful even with sugar, cf. this site (for Japan, but appears to have changed location or to be gone, so click here and here for general information on the subject). This is valid for white as well as for brown sugar. Some sorts might be ok as to the vegetarian / vegan aspects (although for health reasons, you might prefer not using refined sugar anyhow !), but probably one has to check with the producer (if interested in the subject, also see here).


ii) Wagashi

Check carefully what is used for colouring. (The same is valid even in Germany, thinking of Ritter Sport full nuts and some other chocolate, alas, but be extra careful in Japan.)


jj) Preparation Process and Arranging on Plates

They might not be aware that it is a problem for strict vegetarians to have meat etc. and salad lying next to each other, touching, on the same plate... frying in the same oil... preparing on the same okominyake-plate etc. It is incredible that there are otherwise excellent hotels which manage to mix e v e r y  salad of the buffet with a dead animal’s body parts.


c. Check Everything

Check everything, if you can. In western eyes “surely” vegetarian products might unexpectedly contain something that should still live instead…



II. Some remedies

There are shops and restaurants you can visit and that could be helpful to you. The following list is primarily aimed at vegetarians living in Tokyo, but it also contains valuable information to those living elsewhere in Japan.
 

1. Restaurants

Always check for new information on the web; also try a good guidebook. The same is valid for shops.


a. In Tokyo and Kanagawa

There are vegetarian or even vegan friendly restaurants in Tokyo, you just have to know where. The Tourist Information(s) in Marunouchi (walk from Tokyo Station or, even closer, Yurakucho Station) offer(s) lists of vegetarian restaurants.

There are Indian vegetarian restaurants like “Nataraj”. Very convenient is also Good Old Honest Grub in Ebisu (which had vanished when I went there recently, but maybe it is still here) with some vegetarian dishes, but be careful about whether the veggie burger contains shortening. Hardrock Café in Roppongi (there is also one in Sakuragicho and in Ueno) does not seem to use shortening in its delicious veggie burger, but please check, as well as to the contents of the french fries. Another nice place is Pure Café and Café 8. At Indian or Nepali / Tibetan restaurants you might also find some vegetarian possibilities. But nevertheless make sure that there is no chicken soup or ekisu added. This is especially true where the restaurant is in Japanese hands, but not only. There is also an Israeli restaurant, http://www.davidsdeli.co.jp/, where English is spoken, vegetarian dishes can be prepared and I have eaten Falafel the first time in Japan. Sometimes a Turkish food  booth may offer or be willing to prepare something suitable for vegetarians, but do make sure which are the contents of the sauces, and if you are worried about that the same forks etc. are used to get the salad for you as for touching the bread, maybe talk to the owner first.

 - For further reference look for “vegetarian”, “vegetarian restaurants” etc. in http://www.metropolis.co.jp.

- For much more please check the links below. The above mentioned restaurants are just some where I have been at least once myself.

- For bento, Tokyu Store offers a variety of salad obentos.


b. In Kyoto

In Kyoto, there is a very nice and good (and the prices are really ok) Buddhist restaurant somewhere in the street that is parallel to the river. If you come from Doshisha Campus, follow Kawabata dori into the direction of Sanjo. Pass the German Goetheinstitut and go straight ahead, then it will be somewhere on the left (If you arrive at Book off, you will know you have not seen it…)

The following restaurants I do not know personally, but I was told or have read they offer at least some vegetarian dishes (the addresses are a few years old now, they may have changed):

Yamamoto 844 Store Cafe', 1F Reiho Bldg., Nishi Kizamachi (alongside the western side of the Takasegawa River), two blocks north of Shijo, Naka-ku, Kyoto, phone 075-241-2120, Beotei, 2F Nishi Minami Kado, Higashinotouin, Sanjyo-Dori, Nakagyoku, Kyoto, phone 075-255-0086, in five minutes distance from south exit 5 of the Karasuma-oike-subway-station.

For a more complete list see e.g. http://www.digitalcity.gr.jp/kfg/restaurants/ and http://www.deepkyoto.com/?cat=18.

 
c. In Moriya, in Southern Ibaraki

In Moriya, southern Ibaraki, if you arrange it before at least, you may get some vegetarian dishes – if specifically asking for them –  at Poseidon or Moon Nymph (ムーンニンフ), 〒302-0125, 守谷市高野1858-2 (Moriya shi Kouya 1858-2), phone 0297 45 9929, http://www.moon-nymph.com, a place that also offers art expositions and where French is spoken (Make sure that the sweet dishes served at the end of the meal do not contain gelatine). In both places, it could be helpful to call before you go there, then it might be easier for them, but in principle it should be no problem.

In Moriya, by the way, Kasami Dori, a bakery located close to Joyful Honda, offers German bread.


d. In Tsukuba (as far as I have heard)

There are some vegetarian possibilities in Tsukuba, inter alia a natural food store selling organic fruits and vegetables on 123. It is called "POD“, right across from J-Boy. Then there is a vegetarian restaurant on Higashi Odori, Just accross vrom Doho Park, called "Ritz’n“.


e. In general

If you are desperately hungry or can speak Japanese, you may ask in normal restaurants whether they could supply some vegetarian dishes (but be careful about the oil [植物油, shokubutsu abura means "vegetable oil"] as well). Sometimes the oil used for salad or vegetables may not be vegetarian oil, and sometimes vegetables may be cooked using dashi. So just ask. Especially the owners of smaller restaurants might be really helpful (in case they are not helpless and saying that they have nothing you can eat, even if they would just need to not use the dressing of salad, for example). Also, asking the same at some Family Restaurants (Jonathan's, Denny's etc.) might be an option.

A good idea could also be to go to an Indian (or a similar) restaurant. They sometimes do offer vegetarian options. Again: check that they are made without chicken ekisu or soup. (For those who do not eat eggs: Sometimes, eggs are used for Nan.) Also, Chinese restaurants might be ready to prepare something on request (e. g. chahan in a vegetarian version)

You also could try and ask at Mosburger, e. g. for kinpira Rice Burger. But please check whether they are really vegetarian. Make sure though, that they are made in fat / grease etc. together with other dishes containing meat or fish.

If you visit Japan for the first time and especially if you do not speak Japanese, it might be recommendable to take with you a supply of vegan nutritional bars etc. to get over the first hours or days (but maybe you ought to find something sooner, if you look).

Also you may wish to be especially careful with products like mushrooms which tend to store radioactivity even years after nuclear accidents. (Which does not mean that you should not be careful in general as to where the food you eat comes from, considering the events in Fukushima. As to the latter, you will find some helpful hints in my Tweets here, when scrolling down to March 2011. Please note, that you should also check where the food recommended there actually comes from, of course.)


2. As for shops

Please be aware that especially in Japan you cannot assume that in a shop offering biological goods the food will be mostly vegetarian. It may be so in Macrobiotic shops (but still ask!), else – be careful what you select.

- You will get natural foods at Natural House (Omotesando, close to the previous and future location of Kinokuniya), but not everything they stock is vegetarian. Other natural food stores can be found, for example, relatively close to Toritsu Daigaku eki on the Tokyu Toyoku sen and at Jiyugaoka eki.
 
- A very good and, as far as I know, totally vegetarian shop is close to "Higashi Kitazawa“ station (Osawa Japan, 11 - 5 Oyama cho, Shibuya ku; change to the right side of the station, where the trains to Shinjuku depart, exit the station, turn right, then left, and in some road on the right side you will find the shop).

- At Kinokuniya (between the United Nations University and Natural House; also in some other places like Todoroki, Kunitachi etc.) you will find some bread that is ok and other products from abroad. Maybe, for certain goods, National Azabu, Meidiya and larger Tokyu stores are worth a look, too.

- Totally vegetarian and very good food is available at Alishan Organic Center and at Warabe Mura (for the English page, click here).

- Helpful might also be http://www.fbcusa.com.

- In general, vegan stores in other parts of the world which have Internet pages might be willing to send you the items they are offering as well.

 - A very good (although not necessarily cheap…) bakery is “der Akkord“ (Organic Bakery & Daily), 5 - 45 -5, Jingumae, Shibuya.

 - (Another bakery which at least uses no lard, as far as I know, is Hiestand, but better ask for the other ingredients if you want to make sure. One branch used to be at Tokyo eki, in the underground shopping area. The coffeehouse “Leben” in Fujisawa offers some of their products as well, but make sure for each single product.)

- You will also be able to buy German bread at http://home10.highway.ne.jp/torte/unserestadt/menu/menu_brot.html, but I did not check whether it contains shortening. I have read that "Feal Cafe'" in Takadanobaba sell "Brötchen" made of dough imported in Germany. But I did not check the ingredients. I also did not check Deutsche Baeckerei Tanne, phone 03 3667 0426 Fax 03 3667 5018 2 - 1 - 5, Hamacho, Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo 103-0007. Furthermore, there is http://www.schomaker.jp. There will be a new branch in Ota-ku from December 2006.

- For cereals etc. you can also check shops which stock a lot of imported goods like Kinokuniya, Meidiya, Tokyu, National Azabu or, e. g. in Toride, the shop in the station building and Kinokuniya.

- In some Konbinis, you should at least sometimes be able to find onigiri without dashi or fish (but not in all). But carefully check. Maybe you can find something to eat in the Tokyu Store food section as well (e.g.).

There are more shops, yet, the Tourist Information in the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan offer lists of natural food stores.

You might also think about contacting some of the mailing lists established by foreigners living in Japan, they might already have found out about good places.
 

III. Books and Magazines

If you would like to cook yourself, you might want to have a look into the "Guide to Food Buying in Japan“ by Carolyn Krouse. The HAJET-publication "Guide to being (and remaining...) vegetarian in Japan, containing the "New-Japan-Vegan-Guide“ by Karen Brown and Joel Krentz with pictures by Michael Hind might also be interesting, if you still can get it. Now, there is  "Veg Out: The Vegan and Vegetarian Survival Guide for Japan" by Simonette Mallard. Edited by Rick Mickelson (editor in chief) and Erin Rigik, 2006.
 
There also is a quarterly published vegetarian magazin in Japan, Veggy STEADY GO!



IV. Patto's Gourmet Dictionary (Japanese Expressions available)

http://www2.gol.com/users/pbw/dicta.htm

   

V. Further Links

➩ I have held a lecture on the subject of vegetarianism. It contains many information. If you have attended it (or corresponded with me about it but missed it) and would like to read the manuscript, feel free to let me know.

➩ Else, here a couple of other links:

Japanese Vegetarian Society    http://www.jpvs.org/
 
International Vegetarian Union   http://www.ivu.org/members/council/mitsuru-kakimoto.html

Pure Vegan Restaurant Guide   http://www.vegepara.com/; for vegan restaurants also see
                                                   http://www.Knowledge-Links.com/TokyoPlantFoodPlaces.html

Tokyo Vegetarian Guide            http://www.vegietokyo.com/ (with helpful general information)

Tokyoveg                                  http://www.go.to/tokyoveg

Tokyo Veg. Week Festival        http://www.tokyovwf.com/
 
Tokyo - Yokohama Veggie        http://www.geocities.com/keihinveggie/
 
Veg. Cuisine                         http://vegetarian.about.com/food/vegetarian/library/weekly/aa021400a.htm


A very good Japanese page with lots of information for vegetarians is http://www.karuna.co.jp, including recipes. For general Information on vegetarianism also see here. An informative discussion of the topic can be found here, together with a link to a list of words that might be helpful.
 
And look for yourself with http://www.google.com.


VI. Example
 
Here is a small list of things you might not want to eat, it can be helpful to have something like this if you do not speak Japanese:

 
私は食べられる及び食べられないもの:
 
どのようにしてもお肉、鶏肉、また魚或いはシーフード(というのは貝、カニ、エビ、クラゲなど植物ではないもの)を食べられ ない。それで、だしが入ってい る料理は、例えばみそ汁も鰹節もだめ。だしが入っているスープとかソースも食べない。

チーズは基本的に食べられない。

牛乳は飲めるが、卵も問題ではない。(“Milk and eggs are okay.“ - so just use it, if they really are ok for you. They might be not…)

ショートテニングとマーガリンがあるパンもたべられません。

海藻類は大好きで、サラダ、野菜、豆腐、またそのもので作った料理は全てが好きです。そして、穀類、お米、じゃがいも及びこ のもので作ったものもいつでも 食べられる。肉が入ってないお好み焼き、またはだしが使ってないみそ汁とか食べられます。

積極的に考えれば、かなり質素な食生活だから、どんなに簡単な食事でも満足します。

 
 
VII. Further and related Information


- The term for “organic” is yukisaibai (有機栽培 or ゆうきさいばい) which means “grown without chemicals”
 
- It seems as if there are excellent mail order services available from shops in Nagoya that have soybean seitan-like products. The best brand is known as “APEX” which is the company’s name.
 
- "Kanten“, made from seaweed, is ok, gelatin is not.

- If you are looking for non-animal rennet cheese, there is Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese (フイラデルフイア ・クリイム・チーズ; the low fat version has animal rennet, though).  Else, Alishan Organic Center (above, II. 2.) might offer help.

- Ask around. There might be local vegetable shops run by farmers in your area, fresh and cheap and you might get some information about cooking or buying.

- What (not) to eat (spiritual considerations) ?

- Why one should be a vegetarian: some reasons are given here (here).


 © 2013 · Created in 2002. Last revised on February 2nd, 2013.

Please note: This page will, in general, not be updated on a regular basis. The information given is not complete and might not always be correct despite, of course, trying to give correct information. It cannot be guaranteed that the options mentioned are always or really vegetarian indeed, though the information have been collected here according to the then current knowledge of the author. If a link should not work any longer, please feel free to notice me. You can also try http://www.archive.org.

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