Being Vegetarian in Japan

A brief guide for vegetarians coming to live in or visit Japan

A lot of people imagine that Japan must be a great country for vegetarians. After all, this is the country that made tofu famous, and they’re Buddhists, aren’t they? Well yes, but my first piece of advice to vegetarians coming to Japan is this: think carefully – do you really, really want to come here? Is the lure of that job, this culture, those almond-eyed girls or boys, that great? Are you sure you don’t want to go to Thailand instead? Okay, so you’re determined to come. Let’s be positive. Here is a brief, personal guide to surviving as a vegetarian in Japan, specifically Tokyo, with a list of restaurants and some useful links. I’ve been here for just over ten months, and haven’t gone hungry, so it is possible. And by the way, I’m talking proper vegetarian here – that means no fish – but I’m not vegan, so dairy products are okay.

There are very few vegetarians in Japan. At one point last year, out of 15 teachers at the language school where I work, there were 6 vegetarians, from England, Australia, the US and Canada. Out of 2000 Japanese students there are only 2 vegetarians, and one of them eats fish so isn’t really veggie, and the other one will eat meat if the social pressure is great enough (ie when she visits her in-laws) and both of them used to live in London, an interesting coincidence that suggests that an English love of cute animals must have rubbed off on them. Most people in Japan think that vegetarians are weird – it’s something that only gaijin do – and they take pride in their indifference to animal welfare. Loads of Japanese people will happily wear fur. I asked a woman about this once and she said, ‘I don’t care – I’m Japanese.’ The word for vegetarian here is bejetarian, taken from English, like other unsavoury words such as furigan (hooligan) and rapu (rape).

Handy phrases
Firstly, you should try to learn as much food vocab as possible. Niku is meat, sakana is fish, hamu is ham, toriniku is chicken, yasai is vegetable, as in ‘yasai pizza’ (not a hard one to remember). Cheese is another of those imported words – chisu – and egg is tamago. You can get other food words from any Japanese phrasebook (I recommend the Lonely Planet one). Here are some handy sentences:

Niku wa tabemasen = I don’t eat meat
Niku to sakana to hamu to toriniku wa tabemasen = I don’t eat meat or fish or hamu or chicken
Watashi wa bejitarian desu = I’m a vegetarian
Saishokushugi desu = I’m a vegetarian
Bejitarian no ryori ga arimasu ka = Do you have any vegetarian dishes?
Kono ryori ni niku ga haitte imasu ka = Does this dish contain meat?

Vegetarian Restaurants – Tokyo
This is not an exhaustive list. These are places I have been to, and are ranked in order of my personal preference. Just to make life harder, the address system in Japan is a surrealist’s dream – there are few street names and restaurants can be hidden in basements or high-up, in residential areas, in the backs of shops, etc… I strongly recommend that you buy the bilingual Tokyo City Atlas. It’s very difficult to find anything without it, and when you’re a veggie in Japan you need every bit of help you can get.

Tokyo Vegetarian Guide
Vegetarian Journal
Japan Vegetarian Society
Happy Cow
Tokyo-Yokohama Veggie
Digital City—Veggie Restaurants Kyoto
Metropolis Guide to Veggie Restaurants

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