How to Stay Vegan in Japan

pile of vegetables

Living a vegan lifestyle is becomes easier each and everyday. At least, it feels that way back home. Being able to walk into virtually any restaurant and order off their vegan menu, albeit some menu options may be considerably limited depending on where you go, you still have choices. For Japan though, it’s a different story. The struggle with how to stay vegan in Japan is very real, so it’s best to prepare yourself mentally before you come here.

Veganism is still an extremely new concept in Japan. It can be quite difficult finding vegan options, whether you are eating out, or just shopping for clothing and other items. Group meals, such as school and company lunches, is another thing to consider. You will likely need to pass up many meals you cannot eat, despite having to pay for them. The same goes for school and company outings. To maintain your vegan lifestyle, you will need to be hyper-aware of the products you use and food you consume, and maintain a will of iron.

Cooking Your Own Meals

It should come as no surprise that cooking all of your own meals is the only go-to 100% ironclad way for how to stay vegan in Japan. If you can give up restaurants, processed foods, cafes, the whole lot, and just only consume food and drink that you prepare yourself, then you will never have to worry about losing your vegan lifestyle. It’s just that isn’t really feasible and most people can’t live like that. Thankfully, the folks over at Is It Vegan Japan compiled quite the comprehensive list of vegan food and products. Definitely give their website a look (click here), and if you happen to know of anything vegan that isn’t yet listed there, shoot them a message and let them know.

As far as food goes, first thing’s first: be aware of all of your local grocery stores and super markets. Sticking with the fresh produce is always your safest bet. In Japan, not everything has a breakdown of all the ingredients, and even when it does, it can sometimes be a bit ambiguous. Unless your Japanese is near native level, you will either need to shop with someone who can read the labels, be very proficient at distinguishing the correct meanings of kanji from the gibberish results by google, or just avoid certain products altogether. For an interesting Japanese snack, why not cook your own vegan takoyaki?

Be aware of hidden ingredients. Many seemingly healthy vegan foods actually have non-vegan ingredients added for flavor. These ingredients are not always listed on the food’s packaging, so buyer beware. Dashi, a type of soup base ingredient, is a staple in most Japanese cooking, and is commonly used in preparing umeboshi (pickled plums) and many other pickled vegetables. There are various kinds of dashi, such as seaweed or fish stock. Do your best to stay informed about what ingredients are in your food.

Eating Out and Bites on the Go

This is where the average crash and burn occurs. Many expats struggle with how to stay vegan in Japan when there just enough any options anywhere, or in some cases, none. Running into a conbini on your way to work, you’d think you’d have no issue, as they sell almost anything. While it’s true they do have some foods that are vegan, you just need to be aware and not blindly buy something just because it looks vegan. You need to constantly be doing your research on what you can and cannot eat, or you will eventually consume the wrong thing and regret it.

Try these methods the next time you expect to be eating out or picking up food on the go:

  • Check restaurant menus online before eating out
  • Ask restaurant staff if they have any vegan options
  • Google the product or ingredients of something before you buy it
  • Check Is It Vegan Japan
  • If it’s an option, just bring your own food with you

Shopping for Vegan Non-Food Products

Shopping for things like clothing and laundry detergent can sometimes be even more challenging than shopping for food. For those wondering how to stay vegan in Japan, your best bet is to order online. While there are a number of vegan companies in Tokyo, they are few and far between. That means you either need to know beforehand exactly what you want to buy, or do your research afterwards, once you’ve found a product you like.

Here are some methods you can try while shopping for vegan non-food products:

  • Ask your vegan Japanese friends where they shop
  • Look up products online before you buy them
  • Google vegan businesses in your area
  • Check Is It Vegan Japan
  • When all else fails, just shop online

Dealing with Non-Vegans

When you throw in many of Japan’s cultural norms, such as the emphasis of always prioritizing the group over the self, it can quickly stack the deck against you. Nobody wants to be that one person who upsets the group. Maintaining peace and harmony is a big part of in Japanese culture. By continuously putting your needs before others, you risk being ostracized, so for vegans, you’ll need to manage such situations tactfully.

If you are a grade school student, many schools, especially junior high school and below, require you to eat kyushoku (school lunch). Don’t expect to find any vegan options, so it’s best you address your diet with your teachers in advance. For those employed in Japan, it’s common for companies to provide group meals. You will likely need to pass on these meals, as it’s usually the same for every employee, and lack vegan options.

School and company outings are another thing to watch out for, especially if you are expected to pay upfront. A common outing location, such as onsen, Japanese hot springs for bathing, may involve bathing with non-vegan soaps and shampoos, wearing non-vegan towels and robes, and include a non-vegan meal. Be sure to always read up what your outing will entail and prepare for it the best you can.

Try these methods the next time you believe you will be participating in group activities with non-vegans:

  • Communicate with others that you are vegan
  • Always be polite and respectful
  • Seek out vegan friends and coworkers
  • Check Is It Vegan Japan
  • Research group outings and events ahead of time

Staying Vegan in Japan

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to do right by yourself to keep your vegan lifestyle. Remember, the concept of veganism is still very new in Japan. While some businesses are just starting to cater to the vegan market (MOS Burger recently released their Green Burger), many do not. Many people are still uneducated about what it means to be vegan, and that being vegan is more than just what type of food you consume. Be the change you want to see, by helping spread awareness and sharing knowledge with your friends and coworkers.

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