While veganism is gaining popularity in many parts of the world, and is a prevalent lifestyle in countries like the United States and Western Europe, the bottom line is that veganism is still not well known or understood in Japan. Below are some challenges that I have experienced (and still do) that people coming to travel or live in Japan should know about veganism.
1. Bonito Broth (katsuo dashi) is in Everything
Traditional Japanese cooking heavily relies on bonito fish broth (katsuo dashi), and this broth or extract is used at nearly every restaurant, eatery, and business selling food products in Japan. The use of fish and seafood in essentially every dish makes it incredibly challenging to find food that is truly vegan or vegetarian, so unless you want a fishy surprise, you should avoid food that could contain this broth in it.
When in doubt, stick to plain dishes, like edamame, and double-check with the restaurant or business about ingredients when possible. If you are lucky, you can ask the restaurant staff to make something vegan-friendly, without the fish dashi broth and any other animal-based products.
2. Limited Vegan Options at Japanese Restaurants
The majority of restaurants in Japan do not offer a vegan/vegetarian menu or much anything that can be modified to be plant-based. In terms of where there are options: the Tokyo metropolis and surrounding areas in Kanto (Eastern Japan) have the highest numbers and concentration of options (several hundred options).
Outside of Tokyo and the Kanto area, vegan-friendly places are much rarer–Osaka and Kyoto have a handful of vegan establishments but it can still be difficult to find food there. If you are heading anywhere outside of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, be prepared to do a lot of prior research!
3. Vegan Food can be Expensive in Japan
Like anywhere else, if you are looking for specialty vegan food to buy at the supermarket or restaurant, most places will be on the pricier side. Unfortunately, no restaurant serves vegan ramen for just 500 yen.
For more affordable options, try chain restaurants, like CocoIchi Curry or Mos Burger. If you are cooking vegan food yourself, stick to the basics: vegetables, tofu, and kelp broth (konbu dashi) to save more yen.
4. Social Situations can be a Little Awkward
The latest statistics suggest that approximately 5.9% of Japan’s population is vegetarian or vegan (source – Japanese only). This number may be larger than expected, but compared to the population in the United States and the United Kingdom eating plant-based food, Japan is far behind that. If you work at a Japanese company or school, eating out together, getting drinks, or attending events where non-vegan food is served can be challenging, and sometimes getting your coworkers or boss to understand can be difficult.
Alternatively, there are several vegan and vegan-friendly events held across Japan throughout the year. If you want your friend or coworker to become more familiar with your lifestyle inviting them to one of these events might be a nice gesture.
Be Aware of Difficulties for Vegans in Japan
The above information covers just some of the challenges vegans may face when traveling or living in Japan. Despite these challenges, a vegan lifestyle in Japan can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. With some planning and preparation, it is possible to follow a healthy and balanced vegan diet. For more information on vegan restaurants and tips, use Let’s Vegan Japan’s website and social media accounts.