How to Tell if Food is Vegan or not in Japan

How do you know if something is vegan or vegetarian in Japan?

While the easiest way to confirm if something is vegan or not is to look for certification or label, this isn’t the case for most of the food products you find on sale in the supermarket (not just in Japan, but really anywhere in the world, right?).

Determining what is vegan becomes much harder if you are unfamiliar with the Japanese language and Japanese culture.

This article should have you covered for most of your vegan shopping, lifestyle, and travel, though. Read below for some strategies and practical examples to help you determine what is vegan-friendly in Japan!

Vegan Food Guide for Japan: Telling if something. isvegan or not
  1. Read first: Veganism in Japan
  2. How to Check for Vegan Labeling in Japan
  3. Vegan and Vegetarian Terms in Japanese
  4. How to Read Japanese Food Product Ingredients
  5. Tips and Tricks

Veganism in Japan

Firstly, definitions are important. For the purpose of this article, food products considered vegan are those that do not contain animal products.

Any unprocessed plant food, however, is vegan, of course. Think fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.

Processed foods are more challenging. In Japan, information about by-products and auxiliary products is often omitted from food labeling. Due to this, it is, unfortunately, difficult to tell if something is 100% free of animal products and processing using animal ingredients (for example, we can’t really know for sure if animal-based emulsifiers and bone-char processed white sugar are used).

Even if you are able to speak Japanese and contact the food product manufacturer, ingredients and processing methods change all the time in the food industry in Japan, and without notice.

The bottom line: it is up to you to decide what you will eat or not. If you want to play it safe it is advised to stick to exclusively vegan-certified products and unprocessed food. If you have an allergy or food sensitivity do not consume any food before confirming the ingredients and manufacturing processes.

How to Check for Vegan Labeling in Japan

Finding food with vegan labeling and certification in Japan is rare, however, there are a handful of Japanese vegan groups working on certifying products. Examples of these marks are below:

Vegan Certification Mark by the Japan Vege Project

vegan tom yum paste in japan
Vegan-certified, organic tom yum paste shown above is sold in Japanese supermarkets, and certified by VegeProject Japan.
vegan bread in japan
Vegan-certified rolls (currently no longer sold) shown above were certified by VegeProject Japan.

For details see the VegeProject Japan website (English available)

Other common vegan marks in Japan

In addition to the Japanese VegeProject mark shown above, you may also see more common vegan labeling, like the U.K. Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark (this mark), even on Japanese products. Keep your eyes peeled!

Vegan and Vegetarian Terms in Japanese

Below are some common examples of words and phrases in Japanese that you may see on vegan-friendly products. Please note though that the term “plant-based” in Japan does not mean it is 100% plant-based and free of animal-derived ingredients, however.

WordDefinitionPronunciation
ヴィーガンveganvi-gan
ビーガンveganbi-gan
完全菜食主義pure vegetarian (vegan)kanzen saishoku shugi
プラントベースplant-basedpuranto be-su
植物性plant-basedshokubutsu-sei
ベジタリアンvegetarianbejitarian
動物性原材料不使用animal-product freedobutsu-sei genzairyo fushiyo
マクロビオティックmacrobioticmakurobiotikku

Here are some real-life examples of what you might see on food products:

cocoichi vegan curry in japan

The Coco Ichibanya curry is an excellent example with English and Japanese labeling: above the curry is shown as suitable for vegetarians, and it contains no animal-derived ingredients.

vegan-friendly curry paste in japan

This food product has a label on the back that shows it is free of animal-derived products as it has 動物性原材料不使用 (along with no wheat (小麦) and no chemical seasonings/additives (化学調味料)). Sometimes products will also show this with pictures so you don’t need to know the Japanese, as seen here.

How to Read Japanese Food Product Ingredients

vegan soy sauce
The ingredients on the back of a soy sauce bottle (contains soybeans, wheat, salt, and alcohol, and soybeans and wheat are listed as allergens)

When products aren’t clearly labeled, either with official vegan marks or words/phrases mentioning that they are vegan or animal-product free, it’s time to check the product packaging and look at the ingredients. Usually, this will be on the back of the product, but sometimes it can be on the side.

Checking labels is time-consuming at first, and it can be hard with so many terms to remember. Below are some common ingredients and their meanings.

Common Meat, Seafood, and Fish Ingredients:

WordDefinitionPronunciation
meatnee-ku
鶏肉, チキンchickentori-nee-ku, chi-ken
牛肉, ビーフbeefgyu-nee-ku, bi-fu
豚肉, ポークporkbuta-nee-ku, po-ku
ひき肉ground meathiki nee-ku
精肉processed meatsei-nee-ku
魚,フィッシュfishsakana, fishu
魚介類, シーフードseafoodgyokai-rui, shi-fu-do
かつお, 鰹bonitokatsuo
かつお出汁, 鰹出汁bonito brothkatsuo dashi
かつお節bonito flakeskatsuo bushi
鮭,サーモンsalmonsake, sa-mon
鮪, マグロ, ツナtunamaguro, tsu-na

Dairy, Eggs, and other Common non-Vegan Ingredients:

WordDefinitionPronunciation
牛乳, ミルクmilkgyu-nyu
乳糖lactosenyu-to
乳製品dairy productsnyu-sei-heen
全粉乳, 脱脂粉乳powdered milk zen-fun-nyu, shibo-fun-nyu
バター, 乳酪butterba-ta-, gyu-raku
練乳condensed milkre-nyu
チーズcheesechee-zu
卵, 鶏卵eggtamago, kei-ran
黄身egg yolkki-mi
動物油脂animal oildobutsu-yushi
ラードlardra-do
ゼラチンgelatinzera-chin
蜂蜜, ハチミツ, はちみつhoneyhachi-mitsu

Common Vegan-Friendly Ingredients:

WordDefinitionPronunciation
昆布だしkelp brothkonbu dashi
野菜vegetablesyasai
小麦粉wheat flourkomugi-ko
豆腐tofutofu
大豆soybeandai-zu
豆乳soymilkto-nyu
発酵豆乳fermented soymilkhakko-tonyu
おからsoy pulpokara
黒砂糖brown sugarkuro-zato
植物油vegetable oilshoku-butsu-yu
食塩saltshoku-en

Common Allergens:

WordDefinitionPronunciation
小麦wheatkomugi
dairynyu
落花生peanutsrakka-sei
えびshrimpebi
かにcrabkani
そばbuckwheatsoba
あわびabaloneawabi
いかsquidika
いくらroeikura
くるみwalnutkurumi
さばmackerelsaba
This is just an example of some of the allergens you will see listed on food labels.

Please note that the terms in the tables above do not cover the entirety of the ingredients you will see to any extent, but they are common.

Here is a real-life example of the back of a food product (pre-made curry) that is suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

cocoichibanya vegan curry ingredients
The back of a pre-made curry box in Japan

There are three main sections you should pay attention to on food products when trying to determine if it’s vegan or not.

  1. Ingredients List
  2. Potential Common Allergens
  3. Info about the Manufacturing Environment (if you have allergies)
  1. The ingredients list above shows that the primary ingredients are: vegetables (potatoes, mushrooms, baby corn, and carrots), curry rue, sauteed onions, sugar, salt, ground sesame, yeast extract, curry paste, roasted onions, seasoning (containing amino acid), caramel coloring, emulsifier, acidulant, and fragrance. Wheat, soybean, and sesame are contained in these ingredients.
  2. The potential allergens in this product are listed in the box the green arrow is pointing to. This time the product contains wheat, soybean, and sesame.
  3. The manufacturing environment is shown below the ingredients list. This time it looks like the product is produced on the same factory line as products containing dairy. While dairy is not listed as an allergen, there may be a minimal chance of cross-contamination due to this.

The other box you may notice above shows nutritional facts (calories, protein, fat, carbohydrates, sodium).

Tips and Tricks

As noted above, it can be challenging to figure out what is vegan or not in Japan. Below are some quick tips and things to keep in mind:

  1. Since labeling in Japan isn’t the best regarding by-products, sticking to vegan-certified products is recommended.
  2. Look for keywords in Japanese if you don’t see a vegan mark.
  3. Read the ingredients list and take a look for allergens.
  4. When in doubt, avoid processed foods and stick to buying whole, fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, beans, and legumes.

Copyright (©) 2022 Let’s Vegan, Japan

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