Are There Any Vegetarians In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Chris asks:

I was wondering if vegetarianism is something practiced by a notable amount of people in Japan. In anime I've only noticed a few cases of characters being vegeterian or vegetarianism being mentioned, so is it correct to assume that it's not as "widespread" as it is in the West (mainly North America and Europe)?

Japan is not a very welcoming place to vegetarians. Ask any vegetarian friend who has visited: it's virtually impossible to avoid fish and animal product of some sort. It's in EVERYTHING. If you're pescatarian, or only a loose follower of vegetarianism, you might be OK over there, but trying to stay strict vegetarian or vegan in Japan is extremely difficult, and is basically only possible if you cook everything yourself.

The fact of the matter is, Japan is historically a nation that thrived largely on eating fish. Fish has always been extremely important to the Japanese diet, and one of the main sources of protein in the Japanese diet. As the country built its culture and religious practices over the centuries, fish was seen as a basic requirement of life. While there are definitely some people who don't eat red meat, fish and Japan are inseparable.

The big exception to this is shojin ryori (devotional cuisine), which is the type of food prepared for and by Buddhist monks. According to their ascetic practices, monks are to eat a diet that is as balanced as possible in color, flavor and nutritional value, and does not kill any of its ingredients: even root vegetables are spared (as digging them up kills them). in addition to being vegetarian, shojin ryori is usually vegan as well, since it rarely uses dairy and almost never eggs.

But shojin ryori is not something you can find most of the time -- the odds that you'll be around a buddhist temple that serves it at any given time is pretty low, and it's too fancy and expensive to eat every day. And if you're not eating there, the odds that you can find a single restaurant that understands those dietary restrictions are pretty low.

So, to answer your question, no, vegetarianism isn't really a thing there outside of the monastery life. Japan tour guides are full of stories about vegetarians trying to tell waiters that they're vegetarian, and then having to list everything they won't eat, and then STILL being served soup made with grated fish flakes, or croquettes with pork. Even Japanese tomato sauce has fish sauce in it. Japanese restaurants typically will not modify its recipes upon request, and even if that wasn't the usual rule, most chefs just wouldn't know what to do with a request to leave meat out of something.

Moreover, Japanese and Asian culture in general isn't big on people standing on principle and declaring themselves different, in any capacity. Asking for special treatment (unless it's for a medical condition) is not something that Japanese people tend to do. Expecting people to serve you differently based on those preferences is absolutely a Western thing. I have several vegetarian friends who have visited Japan and had a great time, but every time they went they ended up having to relax the rules they'd eat by, simply because if they didn't, they'd probably starve. Or be reduced to trying to cook in their hotel room.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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