Photo Credit : Rob Maxwell

by Sarah Hodge

So you’ve made the move to Japan – congratulations! 

On your first trip to the local Japanese grocery store, you are quickly overwhelmed: EVERYTHING is labelled in Japanese only. The packaging (and products within) may be unfamiliar. How in the world do you know if it’s vegan-friendly?? 

Unless you have the option to shop at a US base commissary at Yokota or Yokosuka or live conveniently near National Azabu in Hiroo (all of which carry familiar American products, including vegan and vegetarian ones by major brands such as Tofurkey, Gardein and Amy’s) you will need to learn the ins and outs of grocery shopping in Japan. If you’re lucky to live in or near Tokyo, you will find a wealth of vegan grocery stores and restaurants, but if you live in rural Japan (as I do), your options may be much more limited and websites like iHerb (iHerb) for vegan supplements and personal care products and Alishan Organics (Alishan) for groceries can be lifesavers.

 The AEON supermarket chain (found in most large cities) carries Beyond Tofu products  and a good range of soy and almond milk, while French-based Bio C’ Bon (found in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki) carries a wide variety of vegan products labeled in English like vegan ice cream, mayonnaise, cookies, bread, plant milk, curry, burgers, cookies and candy, cleaning products and personal care products.

Having lived in five countries, I can attest Japan is the most difficult place I’ve lived in as a vegan; pretty much everything in commercial and prepared foods (including restaurants) includes animal products, including the ubiquitous fish-based dashi. Overall, there is still limited demand for and understanding of veganism in Japan, although with BentoYa and other outreach and events like vegan festivals, that is gradually changing. (The one exception is the well-established Buddhist temple cuisine of shojin ryori, which is generally (but not always) vegan; there are numerous shojin ryori options in Kyoto, Kamakura, Koyasan and Tokyo. For more on shojin ryori, see my article here 🙂 

In some ways, some Japanese vegan products (like fresh tofu and soymilk) are far superior to US and European commercial ones. Once you’ve tried (or tried making) Japanese soymilk, you’ll quickly find that American ones are bland and watery in comparison (and are actually too low in fat to make homemade yuba, delicious tofu “skin” that can be eaten as-is or used to wrap other ingredients). Soy is a popular ingredient in Japan – you will likely run across soy ice cream, soymilk chiffon cake, puddings, and others , but be careful of commercial soy products – they may still contain gelatin, cream, eggs or other animal products.

Japan is light years behind Europe and the US on labeling products as vegan. There are also many fewer commercially prepared vegan “meat” and nondairy options compared to Europe and the US; you will find TVP (dried soy meat nuggets / granules) and almond milk in health food stores and some larger supermarkets, but don’t expect aisles of nut and grain milks, plant-based yogurts, soy cheeze, packaged soy “meat” or other stand-ins. A really helpful resource for navigating unfamiliar products and packaking is Is It Vegan?.

One useful clue to whether a product contains major animal products is to check the allergy labels; all Japanese packaging requires the top seven allergens (shrimp, crab, wheat, buckwheat, egg, milk, peanut) to be labeled. (This is not a guarantee that the product is in fact vegan, but will help you quickly move on from ones that contain obvious products like eggs, milk and seafood). Also beware of products that use honey or gelatin (kanten is a vegan gelling agent made from seaweed and is vegan; some traditional desserts like anmitsu are made with kanten). Japanese traditional sweets like dango, nerikiri, ohagi, and others are generally free from animal products (and many are also gluten-free with the exception of wheat-based manju). 

Another lifesafer is using smartphone apps like Waygo or Google Translate or that use your phone’s camera to instantly translate labels and ingredients. Granted, this is an imperfect science, but should give you a rough idea. Just like the US, animal products can be lurking as “natural flavors,” and unfortunately the majority of rice balls and breads in Japanese conbini and bakeries contain dairy and animal products (even those seemingly vegan / vegetarian like inari zushi; the commercially prepared ones have all been simmered in fish-based dashi). If unsure, your best bet is to contact the company (in Japanese) and ask for a detailed ingredient breakdown. 

I also regularly take cooking classes that teach participants how to locate vegan items in Japanese grocery stores complete with handouts featuring photos of common brands; this is also useful if you can show staff a photo of the product you’re looking for. And taking vegan Japanese cooking classes will also help you learn how to navigate the many types of miso, soy sauce, dried seaweed, dried wheat gluten, tofu, etc. that are all vegan and that will expand your cooking repertoire and help you make the most of your time in Japan.

One of the biggest helps in learning to navigate Japanese grocery stores and shopping was purchasing and downloading the Kindle version of “Guide to Food Buying in Japan”; although a bit dated, the book contains super-useful info on Japanese labels, how to ask for items (including which Japanese counters to use), what packaging looks like, and other useful information. 

Good luck on your grocery shopping adventures; don’t be afraid to purchase unfamiliar fruits, vegetables, and pantry staples, and most of all have fun!