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Saishoku and culture shock: Vegetarianism in Japan

June 5, 2017

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Global Expansion

Around the world, vegetarianism and veganism are on the increase. Reasons include health and religion, as well as concerns over the environment, resource consciousness, and animal welfare.

Estimates suggest that in Australia, Germany, Italy, Israel and the United Kingdom up to 10% of the adult population is now lacto-ovo vegetarian (avoiding meat and fish, but not dairy or eggs), with figures of up to 30% quoted for certain urban centers.

And a recent explosion in the popularity of completely animal-free diets has seen some countries experience a trebling in the size of their vegan communities, as retailers and eateries scramble to accommodate this lucrative new demographic.

And though precise figures are scarce, in Japan, too, some of these ideas appear to be gaining traction. The social media group for the Japan Vegetarian Society now has over 700 members, up from just 78 members three years ago.

Though still some way behind the 270-thousand-plus followers boasted by the group’s UK counterpart, this eight-fold increase does point to growing interest in a meat-free or “saishoku shugi” diet.

This seems to be backed up by a 2014 survey conducted by the NPO Animal Rights Centre. Of over 1000 respondents between the ages of 15 and 59, some 4.7%—one in 21 individuals—said they were vegetarian.

This figure included 2.7% who self-identified as vegan, and among teenage participants the figure was even higher: a startling 9%, possibly influenced by social media and an increasing number of Japanese celebrities who publicly eschew red meat.

Echoes of an Ancient Heritage

Above: Shojin-ryori

It’s certainly true that more and more restaurants in Japan are offering meat- and fish-free options, and vegan products are also becoming progressively easier to find.

Yet despite such trends, and a vibrant tradition of vegan Buddhist cuisine (shojin-ryori) that stretches back to medieval times, vegetarian visitors should be aware that eating in Japan does continue to pose challenges.

Though Japanese cuisine uses a cornucopia of tempting vegetables, dishes that at first glance appear to be meat free often contain hidden ingredients like animal fats, as well as perhaps the country’s most ubiquitous seasoning: katsuobushi. These dried, smoked skipjack tuna shavings are used as both a stock and a garnish, and provide the smoky depth and umami that are characteristic of many washoku dishes.

This can leave vegetarian and vegan holidaymakers lamenting the fact that they are unable to match the kabuki, tea ceremonies, and temples with an authentically Japanese culinary experience—especially in provincial destinations. But despair not! A little foreknowledge can go a long way, so let’s take a brief look at some of the viable options and where to find them.

One obvious place to begin is with shojin-ryori. This Buddhist temple cuisine, which became established thanks to the popularity of Zen in the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and remains a staple for the devout, is prepared using only plant-based ingredients, and can be found in historic locations like Kyoto, Kamakura, and Koyasan, as well as Mount Takao on the western fringes of greater Tokyo. Some restaurants are also available closer to the heart of the metropolis.

Golden Age for Veggies

Above left: natto-maki / right: seki-han onigiri

The bustle and clamor of kaitenzushi conveyor sushi restaurants may seem an unlikely setting in which to find anything fish free. But here too, vegetarians can enjoy a colorful, affordable and, most importantly, tasty selection, including numerous maki-zushi (rolls)—kappa-maki (cucumber), ume-kyu (cucumber and pickled ume), and oshinko-maki (pickled daikon)—as well as inari, fried tofu envelopes filled with sushi rice.

Another sushi option for adventurous vegetarians is natto. These sticky, fermented soybeans have a distinctive aroma and flavor that is not to everybody’s taste, but successfully wolfing down a plate of natto-maki is one sure-fire way to impress fellow Japanese diners.

Natto-maki and inari also feature in the sushi selection at most convenience stores. And for a quick snack there are onigiri rice balls, but do be aware that vegetarian options like konbu, umeboshi, and takana sometimes contain katsuobushi even if it isn’t listed on the ingredients. You often see only the rather ambiguous umbrella term "chomiryo" (flavorings). If this is a concern, it may be best to stick to seki-han (red rice with azuki beans) or shio musubi (plain salted rice).

Hot or cold, soba and udon are another unmissable staple of subtly-flavored Japanese food. Unfortunately, the tsuyu broth in which these noodles are typically served is almost guaranteed to contain katsuobushi stock.

Though some establishments do offer veggie-friendly variants, this is rare, especially in the tachi-gui standing noodle bars often found down cramped alleyways or on station platforms. In sit-down establishments, however, it is often possible to request tsuke-men with a dipping sauce prepared using soy sauce.

While a steaming hot bowl of ramen might seem like a satisfying way to round off a night on the town, only a select few restaurants offer vegetarian fare. Even those that do tend to cater more to a health-conscious crowd, and so are seldom open into the small hours.

What I have described are just some of the available options. Despite certain difficulties, not least when it comes to reading menus and labels and communicating with restaurant and retail staff, it has never been easier for vegetarians and vegans to enjoy gastro tourism in Japan. And to make your own stay easier, be sure to carry our handy list of useful phrases for vegetarian and vegan diners.

And with 24 million foreign tourists arriving in 2016, and the country’s hospitality infrastructure busily preparing for further increases as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics draw nearer, the picture looks likely to get brighter still.

After all, meat- and fish-free dishes can easily be prepared in a way that meets the needs not only of vegetarians, but also those with halal, kosher, or other religious dietary restrictions, or people with various allergies.

As one shojin-ryori chef once told me, “The real appeal of this food is that it doesn’t exclude anybody, so everyone can enjoy eating together.” Could vegetarian cuisine hold the key to barrier-free dining in Japan?

Text: David McMahon

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