Vegans of Color

Because we don’t have the luxury of being single-issue

Veganism/Vegetarianism in Japan March 3, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — Maho Cavalier @ 9:07 am

I tell you, being vegan in Japan is not so easy.  Reason number 1, veganism and vegetarianism are hardly accepted in modern Japanese society.  Number 2, thus there are not so many vegan or vegetarian restaurants.  Number 3, social pressure of “being in the same and harmonize with others” is strong.  If I said, “I am vegan,” I would usually get responses such as, “What’s that?” “are you some kind of cult religious?” or “But you eat eggs right?”  I respond simply to avoid any complications.  “I disagree with factory farming and commercial fishing.  And it is also good for the environment.”  The reactions vary.  Some would get shocked to the idea itself and some would ask more questions with interests.  They are not bad people, they just are not well informed, likewise me five years ago.  In any case, it is not easy to be vegan in Japan.  The safest way to eat vegan food without any stress is to cook at home.  Actually a lot of non-meat ingredients are available at stores, including soy, kelp and dried vegetable products and so on.

For me, the most challenging situation is when going out with our business clients.  Business over meals and beers is very common here.  My husband and I have a business, so we occasionally need to go out to talk about business over meals with our clients.  This is really merely to built rapport.  We try to guide them to restaurants where we can order meatless food.  But sometime, we fail to persist. (We ask the restaurants to take out meat and fish though…)

A list of vegan/vegetarian restaurants is a must item to take with me.  There is a good website here.

Last month, I traveled to Hokkaido on business.  I had imagined that eating out would be extremely difficult for me, because I was in the countryside.  But fortunately a closest restaurant that was opened that day was a vegan place!  Bravo!  In the middle of a snow country, where the most of the businesses were shut due to the bad economy, there was a bright hope for me!  The restaurant was very homey and welcoming.  I highly recommend you dropping by, if you happen to travel to Kushiro.
5-38 Horikawa-cho, Kushiro-city, Hokkaido  Tel: 81-154-23-5594


13 Responses to “Veganism/Vegetarianism in Japan”

  1. johanna Says:

    Yay, thanks for this post, Maho!

    I’m surprised there was a vegan restaurant in Hokkaido! That’s really cool.

    I ate a lot of onigiri (ume) from convenience stores when I was traveling in Japan, because it was the easiest thing to grab sometimes that I knew would be okay!

  2. Alicia Says:

    wow, that seems so opposite of what I would think eating in japan would be like. When I was in China it was really easy to eat vegan. To avoid confusion I didn’t say that I was vegan just that I was a vegetarian who didn’t eat eggs or dairy products. That seemed to be an easier concept to grab and I was always quickly accomodated.

  3. ThoughtCriminal Says:

    Thanks for the post, Maho!
    It’s interesting for me, having never traveled to Japan, to get a perspective of living as a vegan there. I really appreciate the insight.
    You may already know about this but have you given Happy Cow a look?
    You may want to send them a mention of the restaurant you found in Hokkaido because I don’t see it listed.

  4. meerkat Says:

    As an obvious foreigner, I think I get excused from a lot of the social pressure to conform in Japan. But I do tend to avoid going out to eat with people (or at least not expect actual food unless they are willing to come with me to a veg-friendly place), and I think it would be a lot worse if I were more extroverted (i.e. went out more often with more people). I am not such a good cook, so I rely on macrobiotic and veg*n restaurants a lot, but it gets expensive and sometimes a little monotonous (small selection of restaurants in convenient locations). I would like to visit Hokkaido someday, so thanks for posting about that restaurant!

    • maho318 Says:

      Thank you very much for your warm comments! Meerkat, you are right. ThoughtCriminal- I will add Amamu to the list. Yes I do know Happy Cow! Thank you for reminding.

      Since I have became vegan, I have avoided going out with friends or coworkers, which is very sad, because I enjoy eating out with friends and I am a friendly person. I still go out occasionally but I don’t enjoy as much as I used to, because I will get special attentions being vegan (just want to be left alone… you know?) People would ask me why I became vegan, what I can eat or whatnot… When I go the the U.S., it is much easier. There are menu for vegetarians at least and people do not look at me as a total abnormal person… Here in Japan, being Japanese vegan, people tend to give me a sort of wierd look. (or just me being sensitive…?)

  5. Alicia Says:

    Maho318 I think you are taking the wrong approach to your veganism. It seems that you are making veganism look isolating and off putting to the people who knew you before you were vegan. I’ve heard this before where people go vegan and then don’t want to go out and eat with their friends anymore even though they used to do it all the time and now their friends think that being vegan has made them anti-social and it just makes veganism, once again, look extreme. Even in big, veg*n friendly cities in the U.S. people still give you weird looks when you say you’re vegan but you know what…who cares! I’m not about to let their weird looks ruin my good time. If anything they are ruining their own dining experience, which frankly sucks for them but has nothing to do with you.

    I can definitely understand not wanting to be the center of attention, and the announcement that you’re vegan can certainly put you there. But the dinner table is not the time to start going into reasons why you are vegan, even if people ask. When someone asks why you’re vegan while you’re out trying to have a good time with friends and don’t really feel that it’s appropriate to be put on the spot then a quick one liner like “for ethical and political reasons, but we can discuss that more after dinner” works just fine. It gets people thinking without being off-putting and you can actually have a meaningful conversation later about it if they really wanted to know the answer to the question.

    Another quick tip is to eat at home before going out. I know it seems redundant but if you truly enjoy going to hang out with friends then eat out before hand and then go hang out with them at dinner, drinks, etc. That way if they don’t have much for you on the menu you don’t have to sweat it because you’ve already eaten and you don’t have to worry about having something specially made for you.

  6. johanna Says:

    Alicia, I appreciate the intent behind your comment. But cultural pressures to fit in seem to work differently in Japan & in the US (as they would in many countries), & … I dunno, I’m not sure how useful it is to tell Maho how to handle them by giving advice that may work in the US, which has some significant cultural differences from Japan. Maybe you have a lot of experience w/Japanese culture that is informing your comment & your suggestions (if so, that wasn’t apparent to me from your comment; perhaps I misread).

  7. Alicia Says:

    I’m no authority on Japanese culture, not by a long shot. But it sounds like there is a personality difference here more than a cultural difference. If an occasional perceived odd look is enough to keep someone from going out and enjoying time with their friends then so be it. But like I said, I’m no authority on Japanese culture. I have a very small group of friends who lived in Japan, are from Japan or currently live in Japan (by small I mean small like 5 people, 4 are vegan). They have never expressed that the occasional weird look from people would be enough for them to not go out and enjoy their lives and the things they like to do which is why I perceive it to be more of a personality thing than a cultural thing. But as I said, it’s a very very very small group of people I know. I wish you all the best Maho! I can’t wait until you start blogging more I look forward to saying that I know at least one more person in Japan – bringing my grand total up to 6 🙂

  8. brivari Says:

    I’m amazed when I hear people complain about how hard it is to be vegan in Japan nowadays. In the ’80s I had a globe trekking job and spent quite a bit of time in Japan and my experiences were quite different. Any time I hit a new country I’d politely explain my ‘dietary problems’ to my coworkers there and ask them for help finding suitable foods. I’m not saying my Japanese coworkers exactly agreed with my being a veg, but they certainly did all they could to help me find suitable foods. We’re restaurants a problem? Most of the time yes, but even back then there were quite a few non-Japanese run restaurants, and they were better at ‘getting it’ about what I couldn’t eat, especially the Indian takeaway type places. There’d be resistance to accomadating my needs at some Japanese restaurants, but many were willing to do things like noodles in miso (instead of dashi) or just some simple steamed veggies with plain rice.

    Quite frankly, Japan in those days was no worse, and in fact in many ways it was much easier than being veg in the states!

    Could it be that the real problem isn’t with Japan, but is instead with ‘modern’ vegans that have never really had to work hard at being a vegan? Those three reasons about why it’s so hard to be veg in Japan sound like everywhere in the US pre-’90s or so.

    To not end on a negative note; when I was traveling I’d get a trusted local to go grocery shopping with me since they could read the ingredient panels to me so I’d know what packaged foods to buy. Then I’d clean and save the empty package to take shopping by myself so I’d know what was ok.

    To deal with restaurants I’d always get a trusted local to write a statement/question describing what I couldn’t eat and that would also ask the restaurant if they were able to prepare foods that meet my needs. In Japan I never ran into a problem where they lied and tried to give me non-vegan food, even today that’s a BIG problem in the US.

    • Karynna Says:

      I’m not American but I do belive you. In my contry it’s not easy eather to be vegan. Sometimes people had make fun of me or give me weird looks. I think people are used to have a easy life but I don’t belive it’s more dificult being vegan in Japan than in other contrys. Actually there is far worst in some others. At least they have some buddhist and other religious influence that are vegan friendly and there is some good original vegan products.

  9. supernovadiva Says:

    thanks maho for this post. i’ve always wondered about veg life in japan. some western books i read act as if japan is mostly vegetarian. i’ve always seen different in the states. i would love to hear more.

  10. brivari Says:

    Maho, I feel that I owe you a bit of an apology. I was under the impression that you were an American living in Japan, I just realized that my assumption was incorrect and that you’re native Japanese. At least in part my error is because a Yahoo group I moderate (veganview) is currently discussing the situation of an American that’s essentially given up veganism whilst in Japan, but who continues to describe themselves as vegan.

    Again; I apologize if my comments above seemed like they’re
    ‘beating up’ on you! Mayhaps the next time I’m in Japan I can consider you one of my trusted locals? ‘-)

    • maho318 Says:

      Brivari, please no worries! Thank you for your comment! And thank you very much everyone for your comments. I read them with a great interest. I hope the vegan lives in Japan gets easier as the time passes and we may have to change our food completely due to the environmental issues.

      In Japan, it seems that it is easier for foreign residents to be vegan/veggies than Japanese being vegan/veggie, because people expect Japanese people to be the same as other Japanese. This is a social pressure to be “the same”.

      I was invited by one of the valued client of ours. It took a courage to tell him that I was vegan, explaining I don’t eat any animal products. He said, “oh my wife will take care of it well, don’t worry.” I went to there house, but the table was covered by fish products, sashimi, fish salad. I was very shocked and disappointed ( of course I did not eat any fish).

      But people certainly aware of food now, so I hope that continued acceptance of vegetarianism actually leads to a universal acceptance veganism.

      Thank you Maho

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