A little history and a little guide.
Vegetarianism and Veganism has been on the rise globally in the modern era for its benefits in animal welfare, environmental issues, and overall health. However, in a country where the people have nearly centurion life expectancies and a culinary reputation of nutrition — why is it so hard to find animal-free options in Japan?
Tourists and natives alike seem to have a problem finding places to eat when they can’t eat meat and dairy products, so it’s not due to the language barrier that you may have problems. According to a 2020 survey, only about 2,100 vegetarian/vegan restaurants exist in Japan in comparison to the nearly 50,000 establishments that exist in the USA and Europe. (via Tokyosque)
But, Japan didn’t always used to be that way. In fact, with the introduction of Zen Buddhism in the 6th century BCE, the Japanese population was primarily vegetarian or vegan until about the 19th century. This was due to the fact that animal rearing was more expensive and that the mountainous terrain of this East Asian archipelago didn’t really allow for a lot of the typical farm animals to thrive. Another reason was due to the two state religions: Buddhism and Shintoism:
‘[V]egetarianism in Japan still retains close ties with the Zen Buddhist community. Its cuisine, shojin ryori, is an important part of monks’ devotion to a life of abstention from violence against living beings. Shojin ryori is found almost exclusively in Buddhist temples, meaning it’s not a feasible option for fueling your entire trip to Japan unless you’re staying at shukubo (temple lodgings) the whole time.’ — Travel Japan
It wasn’t until Western influences entered Japan during the Meiji period that the general population started to eat meat. According to Meathooked by Marta Zaraska, the rather metropolitan poet-emperor Meiji publicly ate meat for the first time in public — the first time in centuries that a royal leader hadn’t denounced meat in some way shape or form. Emperor Meiji’s reasoning behind this was to not only spread his modern vision of Japan, but also buttress his army to be physically stronger through diet, said Zaraska.
The author also added that the American influences post-WWII also increased the meat-eating culture in Japan.
One thing to note is that unless having an option is an option, Japanese restaurants will rarely substitute or remove ingredients from a plate. The reasoning behind this is because in the eyes of the chef: once you change their recipe, they can no longer stand behind the dish. Kind of like those people who leave one-star reviews on recipe websites after changing half of the ingredients, the restaurant does not want to serve you a meal that they didn’t create. Fancier places may be more accommodating by asking if there are any allergies or dislikes, but those who want to eat on the cheap can have trouble when trying to adjust plates that fir their diet.
(Even being a Japanese speaker, I couldn’t order a specialty, seasonal coffee with soy milk instead of regular. Even though they had soy milk available for other beverages. *sigh*)
However, things are looking up for those who abstain from eating meat and dairy. Facing the (ill-fated) 2020 summer Olympics, Japanese restaurants started thinking about expanding their menus to include vegetarian and vegan options to cater to the influx of travellers coming to see the international spectacle.
With the hit of COVID-19, this progress never really came to fruition but restaurateurs and chefs are thinking more globally as the nation opens back up for leisure travel.
Where to Look
First stop would be the convenience stores like 7–11, Lawson, Family Mart, and more. Beware of any “sauces” that come on the side (like that for noodles or natto), as they may have dashi (出 汁, だし). After that, look toward the rice dishes like Onigiri or Maki for some quick snacks! A lot of them are filled with some type of meat or fish but the Umeboshi (pickled plum) flavour is good to go. While the Kombu (sea kelp) seems tempting, some rice balls come with trace amounts of dashi which makes it a no-go if you absolutely cannot have any kind of meat products. (via I Travel for Vegan Food)
A chain worthy of note is Natural Lawson — a health and organic-focused line of Lawson convenience stores which will have the most vegetarian and vegan options out of all of the chains in Japan. This ‘konbini’ is also the friendliest for people with other dietary restrictions like lactose or gluten intolerance. (They even have an Instagram page featuring their products!)
Hint: Familiarise yourself with the Kanji for things you can’t eat like beef, chicken, pork, eggs, fish, and others. Therefore when you look at ingredient lists you can spot if it fits into your diet.
In Osaka, Green Earth is the oldest Japanese restaurant in the city, says Never Ending Voyage. With the lunch set and curry being the main (and affordable) attraction, the restaurant also seems to be English-friendly! OKO seems to be another hit with people of all diets serving the famous Southern Japanese dish — Okonomiyaki.
If you’re at a loss and don’t know where to go in a Japanese city — Coco Ichibanya is always a safe bet in terms of availability and flavour. They’re famous for their wide menu selection but also offer a lot of veggie curries and additions to satisfy your hunger with one of the best dishes in the world.
We found this great website called Happy Cow that not only catalogues vegan restaurants in Japan but also across the globe! In case you like to plan ahead, search through the different cities to find restaurants that catch your fancy without the stress of trying to read a foreign language.
Unlike the US, UK, and the EU, it’s not as easy accommodating dietary restrictions in Japan. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy great Japanese culture and cuisine! Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto are probably the most vegan-friendly cities so make sure not to miss out on those cities during your visit!