Japanese people love food. All kinds of food. The more interesting, the better, and nothing should be left untried. A Japanese friend once told me she’d rather try eating snail and finding out she hates it than never trying it at all. Back in Europe, I had barely ever encountered that level of interest in and excitement about food.
Being an island, Japan has to offer a lot of fresh fish and seafood in general, but people equally love meat, which is something I didn’t anticipate before moving here. Fish or meat can be found in almost every meal in a restaurant and even in most meals in the prepared food sections of supermarkets. I once walked into a sandwich shop that had the nicest looking sandwiches, but regardless the variety of ingredients, literally every single sandwich had either ham or bacon on it.
To me this is baffling, but people in Japan are also pretty baffled when they hear that I’m a vegetarian. (Ovo-lacto, to be precise. But since I was told last year that I have a milk allergy, the lacto part sort of went out the window, too.) The reactions I get vary from curious “Is it part of your religion?“ to oblivious “But can you eat chicken?“ to completely mystified “What DO you eat??!“ Vegetarianism is not a thing in Japan, unless you’re a Buddhist monk.
Having been a vegetarian for 17 years now, I’m so used to these kinds of questions that I could answer them in my sleep. When I decided to become a vegetarian at the age of 10, vegetarianism wasn’t a thing in Germany either, nor was I being taken seriously about my decision by the adults in my life. (My grandma kept sneaking meat into my meals for a while, hoping I wouldn’t notice. I noticed every time.) Now there are plenty of vegetarians in Germany and even vegan has become “trendy“. This shows that cultural changes take time. Japan is on a whole different page when it comes to eating habits and it’s not something any vegetarian should take personal or get upset about.
What you can do instead when you are traveling or living in Japan as a vegetarian are the following things:
The first solution I believe is something every vegetarian does anyway: Scanning the menu within seconds, spotting the one thing they can eat and thinking “Score!!“ Carnivores might think vegetarians are difficult to please when eating out but I’d like to claim that we are not. We are used to limited options and it’s not something we give much thought to. I for example never think “Oh I wish I could eat this!“ about a meat dish. It’s just not for me. Moving on.
You can also nicely (and if you want to be successful, in Japanese!) ask the staff if it’s possible to leave the meat or fish out. I’ve read and heard several times now that Japan isn’t flexible when it comes to changing the dishes that are on the menu, but every time I’ve asked so far, changes were made for me. In my opinion it’s common sense to thank them when they do that, even though “the customer is God“ in Japan. Remember that as a vegetarian, you’re the odd one out in this country. You’re the one inconveniencing people, not the other way around.
Solution number three: Look up vegetarian or vegan places to eat out. They do exist here and there, but they aren’t the norm – yet. As I said, cultural changes take time.
Last but not least is what I do 99% of the time anyway: Eating at home, which means I can buy and cook whatever I want. It’s as simple as that. That way I can also bring my own lunch box with me when I’m traveling or going to work.
In my opinion, the most important thing in all this is to have a positive attitude about the whole issue. Not taking the food situation in Japan personal and being flexible is crucial. A good sense of humor also helps – a vegetarian friend traveling Japan explained his hilarious survival strategy to me by saying: “Whenever I find something I can it, I eat it, because I don’t know when I’ll eat again!“
Yes, being a vegetarian in Japan is a bit of a challenge, but nothing that can’t be dealt with. Take it from someone who’s been in Japan for 9 months now and is still alive.
You can do it. Ganbatte!