A Short Guide to Dietary Restrictions in Japan
Japan offers a wide variety of foods and dishes, and those without any dietary restrictions will have little to worry about enjoying a bite. Those with dietary restrictions might however find themselves a bit concerned with the food – not in the least because the language barriers will make it harder to communicate their diet to any local restaurant host. If you happen to have a dietary restriction, we offer a short guide here that aims to explain any food issues you might encounter, and provide some Japanese words and sentences that help communicate your diet.
When you dine out in Japan, several things are good to know: in general, Japanese food is considered healthy, although the dishes popular among tourists –such as ramen, sushi, or fried meat, are less so, because they contain a considerable amount of oil. Portions tend to be smaller than the portions in Europe. Plates tend to be served to the entire table so do not be alarmed if the food you ordered is not served to you individually.
Not every restaurants offer an English menu (although some do), but many restaurants have a window with fake food dishes displaying what the restaurant has to offer. This helps you to tell if their dishes (might) contain something you cannot eat before you even enter the restaurants. Family restaurants tend to have pictures on their menu, or even offer English menus. An exception to this rule are izakaya, bars where most if not all food and drink options are written in Japanese without any pictures to guide the customer.
Vegetarian diets are becoming more common in Japan, but are also mostly associated with foreign visitors. In big cities used to tourists such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, your local host will likely not give you a weird look if you tell them that you are vegetarian. A vegetarian diet is usually understood as the person not eating meat. However, here are a few things of which you need to be aware:
- Chicken and fish are not always considered meat. It will help to clarify if you do or do not include fish and/or meat in your diet.
- Even if the food does not seem to contain meat, Japanese cuisine makes extensive use of dashi –fish stock, or meat stock. Chances are high that at some point you will eat a dish that contains this. Specifically ramen, udon, or any other noodle dish contains meat or dashi Occasionally they might contain a stock based on shiitake (mushrooms), so it serves you well to ask if you want to avoid eating any this broth.
A vegan diet is less common, and will likely be considered as the person not eating meat only. Eggs for example are a very common ingredient in dishes that you will see in restaurants, and might therefore not be considered not to be part of a vegan diet.
Aside from eggs, dairy products are not common, because of the high rate of lactose intolerance in the country. Milk, yoghurt, or crème fraiche are usually not used in Japanese cuisine, but you will find them in ‘Western’ dishes such as pasta carbonara (which is a popular dish).
There exists a general lack of awareness about gluten in Japan. For those with a gluten-free diet it will therefore likely be more helpful to say specifically which foods they do not eat instead of mentioning that they eat gluten-free.
Among the gluten-based foods and beverages in Japan, a few are extremely common:
Soy sauce is one of the most commonly used ingredients, as a base for a dish, or as sauce to pour over the fish. Meat dishes like teriyaki and yakiniku tend to be covered in soy-based sauces, but restaurants or bars serving these dishes usually also have sauce-free varieties. Ramen or udon soups can have soy sauce as the base ingredient for the soup.
Likewise, miso, such as miso soup or miso product, is used as a base in Japanese dishes. If the base ingredient for dishes such as ramen, or udon soups is not soy, it usually is miso (or dashi – fish stock).
Furthermore, beer is a common beverage to drink in social settings. If you do not mention to your host at an izakaya, a bar, that you do not drink beer, then that is what the host will likely order for you.
Tempura dishes –such as fried chicken, fried vegetables, or fried fish, are usually made of batter consisting of wheat flour, eggs, and more. In some cases, these dishes are made with panko – bread crumbs, which means they are not technically tempura, but are called furai (fry) instead.
Ramen, udon, or any other common noodle dish likely contains wheat flour. Here is an article by Lara Neuman on the eight types of noodles in Japan: https://gogonihon.com/en/blog/8-types-of-japanese-noodle/
A point of attention, mentioned by Lara Neuman in her article on eating gluten-free in Japan, is that Japanese restaurants do not tend to modify or accommodate your requests. I recommend reading her article to obtain some additional information on the topic, and which foods exactly to avoid: https://gogonihon.com/en/blog/a-guide-to-eating-gluten-free-in-japan/
|Dashi （出汁，だし）||Fish stock|
|Guruten (fushitsu) （グルテン）||Gluten|
Here are some phrases that can help communicating which foods you do and do not eat:
|[niku/sakana] ga haite imasu ka?
|Does it contain [meat/fish]?|
|[gyuuniku/tori/butaniku/guruten] ga haite imasu ka?
|Does it contain [beef/chicken/pork/gluten]?|
|[niku/sakana] o taberaremasen
|I cannot eat [meat/fish].|
|[gyuuniku/tori/butaniku/guruten] o taberaremasen
|I cannot eat [beef/chicken/butaniku/gluten].|
|[niku/sakana] o tabemasu
|I eat [meat/fish].|
|[tamago/yasai/pan] o tabemasu
|I eat [eggs/vegetables/bread].|
|Biiru o nomemasen
|I cannot drink beer.|
|I am vegetarian/vegan .|
If you feel that it is challenging to communicate your dietary restrictions to the restaurant hosts, I offer to make a simple digital image that lists in Japanese the foods and beverages you cannot eat. Please contact me (email@example.com) if you want me to make one for you.
 You can also use the English words for vegetarian and vegan instead of these complex words.
You can use cards by printing six cards on one sheet.Guide Dietary Restrictions-card