Being vegan anywhere in the world presents its challenges, but for the most part, the lifestyle has become fairly accessible in the Western world.
When looking to Japan, however, things can get a little tricky. For one, veganism, and the term vegan, isn’t as widespread and that lack of awareness can cause some confusion. For instance, some people believe that using fish-based dashi broths derived from dried fish isn’t an issue for vegans, as one isn’t consuming the fish itself (at least not in its natural form.) There are also some that may think eggs and dairy are okay, which likely stems from a closer familiarity with vegetarianism.
And while larger cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto have plenty of vegan options, that isn’t necessarily so elsewhere. But fear not! Japanese cuisine traditionally focuses heavily on many key ingredients found in a vegan diet, namely vegetables, mushrooms, rice, soy, and noodles. So, when looking to be vegan in Japan, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Broths and simmered dishes
From miso soup tooden, soups and simmered dishes feature heavily in Japanese cuisine. And while these may appear to be the most likely candidates for vegans, they are in fact some of the biggest offenders. That’s because the typical soup base, or dashi, in Japanese cuisine usually includes fish. Sometimes this is katsuobushi, dried bonito tuna, or niboshi, small dried sardines or anchovies, and this type of broth is used in a variety of dishes, not just soups and stews. It can appear in things like chips and snacks, simmered vegetables, and even onigiri rice balls. Take a seemingly vegan dish like inarizushi, sushi rice stuffed into pouches of fried tofu, which can often include fish flavoring in the tofu marinade.
As prevalent as fish-based dashi is, however, vegan broths made from kombu and shiitake also feature heavily in Japanese cuisine, so no need to fear!
Dairy, eggs, and other additives
Hidden fish-derived ingredients aren’t the only things to lookout for. As previously mentioned, there can be some confusion around the use of eggs and dairy. Take shōjin ryōri for example, Buddhist temple cuisine. The traditional basis for this diet was vegan, however, some modern interpretations include eggs and dairy.
While this also presents a problem for vegans around the world, these ingredients can sometimes appear as additives in unexpected places, coming in the form of milk powders, or lactic acids from dairy sources, and even butter or egg flavorings. One can also find animal-based emulsifiers and things like eggshell calcium upon closer inspection.
A quick solution to this is often checking the ingredient label. Although it would take a thorough knowledge of Japanese kanji to decipher a product’s ingredient list, Japanese products must list the presence of common allergens, including dairy, egg, fish, and shellfish, on the packaging, so generally speaking you can keep an eye out for that. However, Japanese companies don’t always list or have to list all of the ingredients or flavorings if they are in small enough quantities or fall under the category of “other.” To double check, Is it Vegan? (Japan) is a great website with lists of products that are confirmed to be vegan and ways to decipher ingredient labels and allergen warnings.
The Vegan Traditions of Japan
As previously mentioned, it isn’t all doom and gloom for vegans in Japan. There is a rich tradition of vegan food, including a plethora of tofu-based dishes, vegetables dishes, noodle dishes, and even some you may not have known were from Japan. Take seitan for example. Made from vital wheat gluten, seitan is a common meat-substitute used in vegan burgers and sausages, and although its roots are in the gluten doughs made for centuries in China, it was actually invented in Japan by a macrobiotic teacher in the late 60’s.
I myself was able to live a mostly vegan life in my time in Japan, mainly by avoiding processed foods and focusing on the bounty of plant-based whole foods that abound in the countryside. But even still, with a little preparation and armed with some knowledge (and maybe a small card expressing the things you can’t eat in Japanese) it won’t be hard to enjoy the many vegan foods Japan has to offer.
Our upcoming "Vegan: Plant-Based Specialties" August Care Package (order by July 31st) and our permanent vegan Shojin Ryori: "Zen" Care Package are great ways to enjoy artisanal vegan Japanese products delivered straight from Japan to you door!
About the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!