Having dietary restrictions or allergies can make traveling or living in a foreign country a challenge. Whether your dietary restrictions are based on religion, personal beliefs, allergies and intolerances, or health goals, there are some tips and advice to keep in mind to make food choices with confidence.
How Dietary Restrictions Are Viewed in Japan
First, it helps to understand how dietary restrictions are viewed and understood in Japan. Japanese culture is known for its uniformity and homogeneity, and this can apply to food choices too.
Having unique dietary restrictions or preferences can sometimes be misunderstood, especially when not based on a strict allergy or health issue. This begins all the way back in childhood, where children are expected to eat the same exact school lunch as their classmates, typically without any alterations. Being a “picky eater” isn’t common because children are exposed to and expected to eat a variety of food groups and flavors.
Still, food allergies and sensitivities do exist in Japanese children, though at lower rates compared to many western countries such as the US and UK. Increasingly, people in Japan are becoming aware of dietary restrictions in all age groups, slowly leading to more food options and allergen labeling on food products.
Experiencing Japan With Dietary Restrictions
When visiting or living in Japan, don’t feel limited because of dietary restrictions. While ingredients like seafood and soy may be hard to avoid, the key is to do a bit of digging to find authentic foods that fit your dietary needs.
Being open to learning new foods you’ve never tried—or even heard of—can give you a genuine taste of Japanese cuisine that might not be found in the typical, or even stereotypical, Japanese foods. For example, you may be familiar with ramen, but if you can’t eat it due to a wheat intolerance, seek out another authentic Japanese noodle, like soba noodles (be sure to check that your soba dish of choice is wheat-free first!). If you don’t eat meat, enjoy meat-free options like natto and veggie sushi.
Tips for Eating Out
Though Japanese restaurants are starting to understand and embrace food restrictions, there are still some limitations worth noting when eating out.
In your home country, you may be used to making changes and asking for substitutions for restaurant menu items. However, in Japan, restaurant staff and cooks tend to shy away from making menu and recipe alterations based on customer request. There are usually strict guidelines to follow when preparing food, so rather than changing a menu item, they may instead recommend simple dishes that fit your needs.
Another issue when eating out is that some dietary restrictions are treated as fad diets in Japan. For example, cafes and restaurants may advertise vegan options, yet those foods could contain dairy or other non-vegan ingredients. When a dietary restriction becomes a trend in Japan, it may be interpreted differently than what you’re used to.
This is why a little bit of preparation before going out to eat can go a long way. Look to chain restaurants with a variety of menu options, as well as restaurants and cafes that specialize in foods and drinks based on dietary needs. These days, it’s easier than ever to find halal options, vegan restaurants, gluten-free bakeries, low-carb cafes, and more. Be sure to search before your meal to be best prepared. You can find some useful information here on Guidable, as well as on Google Maps and in Facebook groups (search groups by keywords such as “gluten-free japan” or “vegetarian tokyo”).
Finally, one word of advice for those dining out with food restrictions: though Japanese society is starting to notice different dietary restrictions, you still might find, at times, that mistakes and misunderstandings happen when ordering food. Being as clear and direct as possible, stating that a certain food or food group is not at all a part of your diet is the best way to go. Some servers may ask for more details on why you can’t eat a certain food: “Do you not like the flavor? Is it part of your religion? Are you allergic?” Though stretching the truth isn’t ideal, it can sometimes be easiest to simply say you have a health issue or allergy/intolerance, even if you don’t, to ensure the staff and chef are as careful as possible when preparing your food. To help you communicate your dietary needs as clearly as possible, download our cheat sheet with simple Japanese to use and ingredients to look for when making food choices in Japan.
Cooking With Confidence
For many, cooking in Japan is much easier to navigate than eating out. When preparing your own food, you have more control over how food is prepared and what ingredients are included.
Still, cooking can be a challenge if you’re unfamiliar with Japanese food. Thankfully, food allergens are commonly listed on Japanese labels, sometimes even with an easy-to-understand picture or icon (for example, a small picture of a pig represents the use of pork). Scan food labels when shopping for these icons.
Sometimes, allergens are listed in Japanese kanji characters instead. Refer to our downloadable PDF here for a list of food kanji to look for, based on your dietary restrictions. Depending on your diet, you may find that the average Japanese supermarket doesn’t offer many options. For example, if you can’t tolerate gluten, you may discover that gluten-free bread is unheard of in typical Japanese supermarkets. Or if you don’t eat meat, you may struggle to find much more than tofu at your local Japanese grocery store. In these cases, be prepared to seek out specialty shops. In larger cities in Japan, it’s common to find at least one or two supermarkets that cater to your needs. Look for international supermarkets and health-food stores to stock up on pantry necessities.
Don’t Go Hungry in Japan Because of Dietary Restrictions
When traveling or living in Japan, planning your next meal with a dietary restriction or food allergy can feel daunting. Remember to stay open to new and unusual Japanese ingredients that fit your dietary needs, and be ready to do a little planning and researching. One way to feel more confident when eating out or buying food in Japan is by getting to know some basic Japanese. Download our free PDF cheat sheet with Japanese phrases and food kanji to help you choose the right foods for you (and avoid the wrong ones). Download the guide and print it or save it to your phone to use when in restaurants, cafes, and supermarkets in Japan!
Disclaimer: The information on this page is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice and does not ensure the safety or health benefits of specific food items and personal dietary choices.