Veganism in Japan

From 6th century Buddhism to modern society

by Eiko Azumano

Japan has long been a very vegan-friendly country. The 40th emperor, Tenmu, enacted a law to prohibit the eating of animals in the 7th century (year 675). The Japanese archipelago adopted Buddhism from China and Korea in the 6th century. Japan’s first encounter with Buddhism was a small bronze Shakamuni statue that came from Baekje (Korea) in the year 538. At the time, the innate religion was Shintoism. There was some debate between leaders to decide which religion should be considered as the main religion. However, fortunately, there was never a big war over the matter. Shinto and Buddhism blended in a somewhat harmonious way.

Japan is known as the “Galapagos” of Buddhism. In the early years of Japanese history (6th to 13th century), missionaries were sent to mainland China to learn the newest Buddhism teachings. The teachings were interpreted and mixed together with Japan’s own religion Shintoism. Since Buddhism prohibits eating animals with four legs, the Japanese have long been refraining from eating such animals. Some of the people in the mountainous side of Japan did at the time sustain themselves on wild boars, rabbits and the alike. In order to not be discovered, they gave the different types of meat secret names.

The Tibetan-influenced esoteric buddhist Shingon-sect founder Kukai (also known as Kobo-Taishi) established a buddhist sanctuary at Koyasan, a 900m high lotus-shaped mountain range (3 hours from Osaka) in the year 816. This is one of the oldest vegan heavens of the world. Even today, you can stay at the Shingon-sect temple monastery and eat delicious vegan meals – following  a more than one thousand year old tradition. There is a famous story about a monk who forgot to put away tofu outside and it became all dry. He soaked it in hot water and voilà! The tofu turned into sponge-textured tofu – today known as Koya-dofu. At Koyasan, or at any supermarket in Japan, you can find this Koya-dofu. It is an amazing meat substitute.

In the temple, the monks follow a very strict vegan diet called Shojin Ryori (literally, the food to attain enlightenment).

Another important vegan figure in Japanese history is Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen sect. In year 1244, Dogen founded the headquarter of the Soto Zen sect in Fukui prefecture, called Eiheiji. This is the temple Steve Jobs wanted to enter to do his Zen training in the 1970’s. In the temple, the monks follow a very strict vegan diet called Shojin Ryori (literally, the food to attain enlightenment). Eating is a part of Zen training. Dogen established eating manuals called the Tenzo, which the monks still strictly follow. They cook, eat and clean based on Dogen’s teachings.

Other hidden, and extremely ascetic vegan figures, are the mummified monks in the Shonai region, Yamagata prefecture. They lived approximately 350 years ago and ate only a few nuts a day for almost their entire life – all to become perfect mummies. Their aim was to save all of mankind for all of eternity. If you visit temples such as 大日坊 (Dainichobou) you can still see a beautiful mummified 真如海上人 Shinnyokai-Shojin, a monk from 350 years ago. 

Samurais also bowed to the same frugality as the monks. They maintained a healthy diet consisting of rice, vegetables and some fish. However, it was the age of discovery of the east in the 19th century and the US Navy admiral Matthew C. Perry arrived in the small port town of Uraga in the year 1853.

Japan had changed drastically during the 700 years from the secluded samurai era to the Meiji restoration. During the Meiji restoration, the newly made Meiji government emphasized a strong military and started to recommend people to consume beef, as they believed that by eating meat the boys would be bigger and stronger like westerners.

Sadly, nowadays, it is not easy to be vegan in Japan. Even something as clearly vegan as potato chips sometimes contain chicken powder. In addition, newly launched soy milk coffee contain dairy-derived casein.

After the dark age of Japanese empire totalitarianism from 1910 to 1945, and the dropping of the two atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan rendered an unconditional surrender to the allied forces by signing the Potsdam declaration in 1945. After that, the meat-consumption culture rushed into the country mostly from the US and today meat pops up everywhere in Japan. Sadly, nowadays, it is not easy to be vegan in Japan. Even something as clearly vegan as potato chips sometimes contain chicken powder. In addition, newly launched soy milk coffee contain dairy-derived casein.

Mass TV commercials promote drinking milk and celebrities eat “delicious” Kobe beef – the Japanese people have no doubts at all regarding eating meat. Now, many people suffer from modern diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and allergic problems. Therefore, they go to hospitals and take many medications, which provide a lot of money for pharmaceutical companies.

Therefore, the vegan culture in Japan is still not yet advanced. I once went to the Vegan festival in Osaka and they were selling eggs and honey. Many people are not quite sure what vegan means.

Some of the big companies have started to launch “New Meat” series. I had a tear in my eyes when I saw the whole stall of meat substitutes (soy ham, soy chicken nuggets etc.) right next to the dead animal meats in the supermarket. But sadly, they contained dairy and egg.

Seven Eleven has recently launched vegan soy taco sauce and soy bolognese for the stunning price of ¥118 (US$1,00) This is absolutely fabulous news. I am feeling that something is changing in my country’s diet!!

Macrobiotic cooking was originally started in Japan by Mr. Michio Kushi. He went to Boston, Massachusetts, in the US to teach the macrobiotic methods to cure modern diseases and such.

However, we do have quite a few traditional “vegan” ingredients that are very healthy and can be used in many versatile ways. I would like to share with you some of these Japanese traditional “vegan” ingredients with pictures:

Natto: Soy fermented beans. Due to fermentation, the beans have a slippery texture. You can eat with it together with a dab of soy sauce and rice. Some types of natto being sold at supermarkets in Japan contain fish stock based sauce, so you may avoid using that sauce and instead use soy sauce like Tamari.

Nori: Dried seaweed. Contains sea minerals which are good for shiny black hair. We eat with rice or as topping on cold soba (buckwheat) noodles. Some of the nori sold in supermarkets contain oyster or fish extracts, please double check.

Goma-dofu: Sesami tofu with wasabi and soy sauce. It is a Koyasan speciality.

This article was written by: Eiko Azumano 東野映子 – A polyglot interpreter based in Osaka, Japan. Vegetarian since 1999. Vegetarian website Happy Cow ambassador. Japan Vegetarian Association Counsel. She wrote “A Little Book of Zen” in 2020.

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