Although Japan is associated with healthy eating and traditional Buddhist cuisine, veganism is surprisingly uncommon throughout the country. In 2018, theJapan Timesestimated that only 2.1% of Japanese people are vegan, compared to 5% of Japan’s visitors that same year.
However, in alignment with global trends, veganism is steadily rising in popularity in Japan, especially in the three major cities that form the “Golden Triangle”: Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. Within these three centers, vegan products and restaurants are widely available, and there is a small but growing community of people practicing plant-based diets. Unlike other countries where veganism tends to have an animal rights and environmental focus, early investigations into veganism in Japan indicate that it is primarily driven by a desire for a healthier lifestyle.
Regardless of your reasons for choosing veganism, if you’re planning to live in or travel to Japan as a vegan, it’s important to adequately prepare to ensure you can adhere to your diet with minimal obstacles.
Outside of the “Golden Triangle”, it is common to run into people who may not be sure what “vegan” actually means. Some people might think that you simply mean vegetarian, or incorrectly assume that you can eat fish or eggs. To avoid ingesting anything you’d prefer not to, be sure that you are able to explain your diet fluently or try carrying a memo card written in Japanese that clearly and politely explains what you can and cannot eat.
In more sparsely populated areas, it may be difficult to find restaurants that specifically cater to vegan diets. You can try speaking with restaurant staff to see if they can whip up something special, but this can be difficult since a majority of Japanese condiments contain fish. The most prominent example isdashi, a ubiquitous fish-based stock that is the backbone of Japanese cuisine. As a result, learning how to cook at home is necessary for vegans seeking to eat a balanced diet.
In recent years, grocery stores have begun to offer a wider array of products specifically formulated to be vegan, such as soy yogurt, soy cheese, bakery bread, crumbled meat substitutes, konbu-based dashi, and even omiyage treats. Similarly, national chains including 7-11, Coco Ichibanya, and Mos Burger have added vegan dishes to their permanent line-up. Familiarizing yourself with the vegan products on offer in your area can help you feel confident in your ability to prepare meals by yourself and dine out with friends.
At the moment, it seems like veganism will slowly but surely continue to spread throughout Japan. In anticipation of the 2020 Olympics, vegan products began to proliferate as the country prepared to welcome an influx of tourists. However, when the borders closed in response to COVID-19, the perceived market for vegan products suffered. Today, advocates of veganism are working to position veganism as a viable, long-term option for all Japanese people, not merely a health fad or foreign concept. Being vegan in Japan presents unique challenges to even veteran vegans, but it is far from impossible. The vegan scene has never been more vibrant than it is today! With a little preparation and patience, anyone can enjoy eating deliciously and nutritiously while following a plant-based diet.
About the author:
Britney Budiman (@booritney) is a writer, minimalist, aspiring effective altruist, and runner-in-progress with a penchant for saying “yes.” Previously, she has worked in Cambodia at a traditional arts NGO, in Brazil as a social sciences researcher, and in San Francisco at a housing start-up. She currently lives in the countryside of Kagoshima, Japan, where she teaches English. Her favorite thing in the world is good conversation.