On Being Vegetarian in Japan

Most Japanese people don’t think twice about eating living animals. Or more accurately, they think, think again, then go ahead and eat them anyway.

The savagery of dining starts small, with bars where you catch eels from a pool to be filleted on the spot. You can swallow live minnows out of wine glasses, or you can go for maximum sadism by ordering a squid that will watch with big, sad eyes as you slice its still-breathing body up and devour it.

Despite Buddhist influence on Japan, the culture has always been vague on what separates animals from vegetables.
I’ve stumbled through vegetarianism in practice and came here eating only fish, but in Japan’s onslaught one quickly abandons any food-related ideological stance.

I would discover just how difficult vegetarianism is when my friend visited, allowing eggs and dairy as her only dietary loophole.

How Do You Say “Vegetarian” in Japanese?
The word for Western-styled vegetarians is “bejitarian,” which is a borrowed loan word from English. There is a native concept, too: saishokushugisha, but this doesn’t really cover everything: saishokushugisha and “bejitariansu” can still eat fish in Japan.

The closest thing to strict vegetarianism is shōjin ryōri, literally “devotional cuisine,” which comes from the practice of monks adhering to Buddhist principles of non-violence. It’s not a dietary choice, it’s spiritual asceticism. Most monks don’t eat meat because they want to eat meat, not because they don’t.

Strictly speaking, shōjin ryōri cuisine doesn’t even kill plants. The food is almost entirely soy, tofu, seeds, fruits or leaf vegetables, using parts of plants harvested without killing the stem. This bans potatoes and carrots just as strictly as horse aorta or chicken cartilage. It also restricts “sensual” foods, such as garlic and beer.

Telling a mom-and-pop udon shop that you need shōjin ryōri cuisine is sort of like going into a conbini for iced oolong and expecting a tea ceremony. It makes for a great koan and an awkward social situation.

We found a shrine, Tenryuji Shigetsu in Arashiyama [map], that served shōjin ryōri meals prepared by monks in a temple garden. It was primarily tofu, peanuts, leaves and soy-based gelatin, but included lotus roots and eggplant. It was certainly filling and delicious, though I had a beer with my 11 a.m. lunch in a Buddhist temple, violating the shōjin ryōri precept. It was also 3,000 yen ($32.00 US) for a basic course (not including the beer).

Lacking a catch-all label, Japanese vegetarians usually resort to listing everything they can’t eat: Start with, “Watashi wa bejitarian desu.” (I’m a vegetarian). Then take a deep breath: “Niku to gyuu to sakana to basashi to tori tabemasen.” (“I don’t eat meat, cow, fish, horse or chicken.”)

This isn’t a get-out-of-meat-free card, though. Trace amounts of meat are negligible to kitchen staff. That’s also true of any flesh blended with anything else. Mix pork into a potato and it’s no longer meat – it’s a croquette.

After going through the full restricted-food list, my friend got a delightful assortment of vegetable tempura minus the standard eel and shrimp, served with fish sauce.

Put A Steak On It
Japanese restaurants will add meat to anything.

Tomato sauce has fish oil. Salads have bonito (fish flakes) or sliced up crab. Indian restaurants have beef stock or steak options; you’ll rarely see an Indian place advertising itself with vegetable motifs as you might in America.

Even canned coffee isn’t safe. Coffees with jelly (yes) tend to be popular in the summer, ensuring that any foreigner pushing random buttons on vending machines will end up with animal-based gelatin in their morning “brew,” which really ought to scare anyone.

At one point we spent about 2 hours looking for vegetarian options that were still “Japanese.” I asked a waiter about the models in the window, where there was a plastic donburi – eggs and chicken served over rice.

“My friend’s a vegetarian,” I said in Japanese. “Can you make this without chicken?”
The waiter looked at it and pointed to the chicken. “Ah, but there’s chicken.”
“Yes, but she can’t eat chicken,” I said. “But, she can eat eggs and rice.”
“Ah,” he said again. “But this has chicken.”
No dice on getting a chicken-free donburi. An hour later we settled, as usual, for pizza.

A Conspiracy of Meat
Call me crazy, but I think some places remove items from the menu when they find out vegetarians can eat them. One vegetarian friend used to order a special Bi Bim Bap, sans steak, and the chef obliged. Kimchi and rice in a bowl? Delicious. After about three weeks, it was taken off the menu, with or without meat.

This rant supports my conspiracy theory, particularly the section “Everything In Japan Has Meat In It.” A ramen shop, after earning a vegetarian magazine’s seal of approval for its delicious vegetarian ramen, worried if their reputation for delicious vegetarian ramen might scare away meat-eating customers. So they added meat to the delicious vegetarian ramen.

This isn’t totally inexplicable. After the war, meat was expensive and vegetarian foods – rice and crops – were the only option. This was a time of black-market goods and small-scale famines. Food had paltry nutritional value.

But it was “vegetable based,” and so vegetarian meals may have become associated with poverty and starvation, whereas meat eaten by American soldiers made Americans (and America) healthy and strong.

That generation raised kids to believe that meat was essential to their health, and those two generations are now the majority of Japan’s population. One survey indicates that only .08 percent of Japanese natives are ideological vegetarians.

Another theory: Chefs, realizing they have a vegetarian option on the menu, decide it would probably taste better if they added meat to it.

Japan’s Vegetarian Myth
With all this, I have to wonder why so many vegetarians, particularly Americans, keep pointing to Japan as a veggie utopia. If dead tropes were animals, a lot of these vegetarians certainly wouldn’t be swallowing them.

The long life expectancy of Japanese people isn’t from a vegetarian diet, because none of them are vegetarians. Okinawans are usually singled out – longest life expectancy in the world – but Okinawans actually eat taco rice and chicken.

The same goes for cancer rates. Japan’s cancer rates aren’t low because they avoid meat. Japan’s diet is heavy on meat and soy – tofu, in particular – and soy can lower the risk of certain cancers. But tofu in Japan is usually served alongside meat, not in place of it.

Far from utopian, Japan is one of the least friendly places for vegetarians on Earth. Sure, you can get tofu at a convenience store, but that’s about it.

In Europe, my (now-lapsed) vegetarianism was unusual, but happily accommodated in every restaurant from Prague to Barcelona to London, Amsterdam, Berlin and Ghent. Koreans were happy to serve up Bi Bim Bap without steak, despite having a far more meat-dependant reputation than Japan.

So, be careful. Do your homework if you plan a trip to Japan – find vegetarian-friendly places in advance and choose a few alternatives. There’s no equivalent to just “ordering a salad.”

Or just ask for tonkatsu. Because vegetarians can eat pork, right?

Further Reading:
A first-person account of a vegetarian in Japan.
The photo of that meal in Kyoto was taken by Mara D’Angelo, my best friend and full-time vegetarian, who is extraordinarily gifted in matters of photo permissions.  

Do you like this blog more than a Japanese vegetarian loves tofu scramble? Then you can “like” it over at Facebook or follow me on Twitter @owls_mcgee

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38 Responses to On Being Vegetarian in Japan

  1. kaz says:

    I think if you come to this country for longer than two weeks and expect to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet, you should carefully reconsider. The exception being if your language skill is high enough to navigate the ingredients lists and millions of questions you are likely to get. Being veg and coming to Japan is the worst kind of torture.

  2. Dom says:

    I’m no vegetarian, but Japan sure knows how to treat animals badly. I’ve heard of but never seen the practice of throwing eels into boiling water with a cold block of tofu in the middle. The eels try to escape the heat by burrowing into the tofu, and end up being cooked in there. It’s supposed to give the tofu a unique flavour. Something like a fishy terror I imagine.

  3. Kaori says:

    Actually Okinawans eat a lot of fish and pork, not chicken. Unless you’re talking about their love of KFC. I’m also a vegetarian (fish and meat – no, eggs and cheese – yes) but maybe it’s because I’m here in Tokyo that I don’t have much of a problem finding something to eat in restaurants. I mean, it’s true that they have close to no vegetarian meals on their menus, but if you explain most are willing to accommodate you. And more and more vegan or healthy veggie restaurants are opening here lately, which I’m happy about :-)

    PS: I heard somewhere that Okinawa and Kyushu have a history of eating a lot of meat much earlier than the rest of Japan due to them being influenced by Chinese and Taiwanese cuisine. And I think people in Kyushu were ranked in the top most unhealthy prefectures of Japan. Do you know if this is true?

    • owwls says:

      Ha! I’m basing my wisdom of Okinawan cuisine on the handful of Okinawan restaurants I’ve been to in Fukuoka. But that may be adjusted to Fukuoka’s tastes?

      Also that’s really interesting about Fukuoka’s meat consumption! But I also had severe problems with vegetarian foods in Kyoto, too? (But not Tokyo, which I’m not surprised has everything).

  4. Shane says:

    After reading this account and the comments, it looks like I’m not gonna eat for the 18 days I’m in Japan next month!

  5. Pingback: 9 More Foods to Try (Or Try to Avoid) in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  6. Pingback: On Getting Ramen (and a Hangover) in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  7. Pingback: On Getting Ramen (and a Hangover) in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  8. NyNy says:

    Interesting post. I’ve always thought it wouldnt be so bad for vegetarians in Japan because there is a lot of seafood but
    I never knew they added meat to most dishes.

    Can you recommend me some traditional vegeterian dishes to try from Japan?

    Also my blog focuses on Asian culture and entertainment and I wonder if it will be okay for you to view it and tell me what you think about it: http://nynyonlinex.wordpress.com

  9. Pingback: Buon Anno!, ovvero: di festeggiamenti vari, lenticchie e osechi ryori. « Tokyo Hell

  10. Ian says:

    So very true. I have been to Japan several times, it’s very inconvenient finding vegetarian food. Once I just order white rice and soy sauce. And Japanese are not flexible with their customer. They are scare to make change to the menu. They only follow company’s rule.

  11. J says:

    Another thing to consider is the inability, often times, to think outside the box. Try ordering a medium gyudon in a large bowl from your local matsuya or yoshinoya. It can be rocket-science. Everything is well scripted and has its place; not just when it comes to the menu.

  12. Pingback: On Hunting Whales in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

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  14. sparnell15 says:

    I agree with a lot of the Vegans here who have a hard time finding Japanese food. I had never, never, even been so frustrated in my life just to find a simple stomach filling meal in the two weeks I was in Tokyo. Eventually I went walk about and pretty much brought croissant, yoghurt and vegetable onigiri from the konbinis every day. With the occasional aisu-latte from starbucks. It is hard as fuck to find decent fresh vegetarian food in Japan compared to say, London or Sydney. And I can read the menus and speak Japanese. If you go I highly recommend you spend plenty of time researching where every one of the Vegetarian food outlets are in Tokyo or where you are going to.

    Never again. And glad to be back in Sydney, where I can order fresh food, anywhere!

  15. Torwen says:

    Funny, my experience is a completely different one. I am a vegan and was in Japan on several occasions, sometimes with my two vegetarian sons. I do speak some Japanese so that was probably helpful, but everybody went to great lengths to make sure I get a vegan meal, often they created a special dish. Tokyo and other larger cities have beautiful vegetarian restaurants (http://www.happycow.net/asia/japan/). If you go to a hot spring and tell them in advance, they will prepare the most fantastic vegan kaiseki. There is no need to despair when in Japan. However, it is very helpful to speak basic Japanese, so you can tell them to excludenot so obvious things, like dashi, fish etc

  16. hharukii says:

    I am kinda worried now about the dietary options because I really want to study there and yet based on my research it’s pretty hard to find vegetarian food there. Even in my country, the Japanese restaurants are perhaps the least friendly to vegetarians as everything has some kind of meat in it whether it’s fish cake or soup stock… The vegetarian fare there seems expensive though, are there any options that could be affordable for students? :/

  17. Zen says:

    I have minimal problem eating a vegetarian diet here in Osaka . I am not vegan so perhaps that helps.

  18. zizi ninoo says:

    I am with you on the conspiracy. I am not a vegan but as a Muslim we cant eat any dish with meat in it. We had few options in some restaurants but they changed them by adding bacon!

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  20. Malia says:

    The climate for organics and unprocessed, besides those vegetables grown on the anemic soil, is also pretty hostile. It can cost up to 200 yen for a single organic potato about half the size of a normal U.S. potato. And those organic potatoes are half the size of the usual Japanese potato. I wanted to cry when I returned to Oregon and was reunited with the mom and pop organic greengrocers where I could get a heaping bag of organic crimini for five bucks. I can get 6 mushrooms for 2 dollars in Japan. Who knows where they came from.

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  22. Pingback: Organic Places to Eat in Tokyo | Health in Japan

  23. MYKE says:

    “After going through the full restricted-food list, my friend got a delightful assortment of vegetable tempura minus the standard eel and shrimp, served with fish sauce”

    Served with fish sauce? Or do you mean soy sauce?

  24. Pingback: Veggie in… JAPAN | Motley Mercury

  25. Pingback: Tips to help you stay vegan in Japan – Expat Zen

  26. Vegetablian says:

    I agree. I really think what makes it most difficult to be vegetarian in Japan is the lack of understanding of vegetarianism. When I once did my explanation “I am vegetarian, I do not eat fish or meat or seafood.” The response, after a very confused look, was: “oh, so you also cannot eat rice, I believe.” But anyways, at least in Tokyo I feel it gets better and better for vegan/vegetarians with more restaurants and more “allergy-friendly” food, see here: http://vegetablian.blogspot.de/

  27. ensete says:

    I suspect the reason vegans assume Japan is a veggie paradise is macrobiotics.
    From Wikipedia: “A macrobiotic diet includes many of the same foods as vegetarian diets, but in macrobiotics some types of fish and other animal foods are included according to individual needs and it is recommended to avoid milk and dairy products. ”
    And meat or fish would only be eaten to three times a week.
    However that’s just the beginner level.
    From altmedicine.about.com, “The macrobiotic diet and philosophy were developed by a Japanese educator named George Ohsawa, who believed that simplicity was the key to optimal health.
    The diet Ohsawa recommended included ten progressively restrictive stages. The last stage of Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet consisted only of brown rice and water. Due to its extreme restriction, Ohsawa’s version of the macrobiotic diet is no longer recommended by macrobiotic diet practitioners.”
    I don’t recall when you were supposed to drop animal products entirely , but it’s fairly quickly as you’re progressing through the different stages .
    So you can see why a vegan who’s been exposed to macrobiotic diets would think Japan is extremely vegan friendly.

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  29. When I came to Japan in 1991, I didn’t expect there to be any problem with finding lots of vegetarian food since I was under the false impression that many Japanese followed a Buddhist lifestyle. I was wrong. I do not live in a city and it is very difficult to eat out with friends. I am often too busy to cook and there is not much choice of convenience food. Even if I want a sandwich, the only choice is egg, the same as 24 years ago. (Forget free range) And they used to put gelatin in them! – not sure if all still do. Not much has changed. Most Japanese do not understand the reasons behind vegetarianism and are not interested in the welfare of farmed animals. People in the UK would never ask “Why are you a vegetarian?” as the concept is well-known. Unfortunately, I often get asked while eating, and it is not a topic for the table. As Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders said, she wouldn’t bother trying to explain the whys and wherefores. All people need to do nowadays is to look online. The information and videos are all there if you can just be bothered to look. My Japanese friends tell me that there is hardly any information in Japanese about animal welfare, and most Japanese are not good enough at English to glean information from sources in a language other than Japanese.

  30. In that last sentence I meant that many Japanese know only their mother tongue, making the vast majority of information on the Internet inaccessible for them.

  31. I lived in Japan for four months comfortably while being a vegetarian AND not eating dairy, there are also MANY vegetarian restaurants that are for that specific reason. The produce is so fresh and amazing… just always ask for sauce on the side… yuba natto salad was my personal favorite and I could find it at most traditional restaurants… as well, every sushi place has kappa maki, shittake maki, shinko maki, tamago especially shiso and ume… It was deffinitely a vegetarian paradise for me while I was there given that the produce is the freshest and tastiest on this planet!

  32. theninjabaker says:

    Your writing is so eloquent and truthful! #Sharing on The Ninja Baker FB fan page tomorrow. Truly think you spotlight the situation very well…And offer great solutions =)

  33. Pingback: A guide to vegetarian food in Japan – Phoren Yatra

  34. Wonderful post. I wrote my vegetarian survival guide after two weeks in Japan here.

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