As we all know, Japan isn’t the easiest country to be vegan. As a nation that uses fish daily in their meals and cooking, you have to be extra careful when reading food labels. Animal products are used as a base for a LOT of food flavours and snuck into products we would usually think is ok.
By recognising just a few keywords like 乳 and かつお you’ll be able to work out what you can eat on a late-night snack run to your local konbini. Whilst this isn’t an exhaustive list, it should make you feel confident the next time you go into a shop as a vegan in Japan.
However, there are a few pitfalls and challenges you’re likely to face in supermarket aisles which can lead to accidental purchases. Let’s find out what those are together and make sure you’re confident reading Japanese labels as a vegan!
Read to the end for your free guide on reading Japanese food labels!
Where to find food labels on Japanese products?
You’ll usually find the label on the back of the food packaging, or on the side if they are in boxes. There you’ll find the ingredients list, followed by the allergen list in brackets and sometimes an allergen chart.
The issues with food labels in Japan
Believe it or not, Japanese laws don’t require manufacturers to list ingredients used if it’s only a small amount. So, even if everything looks ok on the ingredient list, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is.
In these cases, you often won’t know if something is vegan unless you contact the company and manufacturers in Japanese. This makes things rather difficult and far from convenient.
It’s up to the individual how you move forward on these occasions. However, I’d assume many of you don’t think emailing and phoning Japanese food companies should be high on your list of things to do in Japan!
How to read Japanese labels as a vegan
The way I like to navigate food labels is first to see if they have an allergen chart, and then move on to the ingredient list. If the allergen chart doesn’t list anything obvious, I then look at the full ingredient list. This is a great way to eliminate certain products a lot of the time.
A lot of konbini own brands will have an allergen chart, which makes things very handy. I wrote a post on vegan-friendly konbini food to help make navigating easier!
For example, an item may have eggs or meat listed in the allergen chart that you can quickly identify and know it’s not suitable. However, not every item will have an allergen chart to point out the obvious so you’ll have to look at the full ingredient list and the allergen information which follows after, (the info in brackets).
In total, there are 28 allergens that manufacturers are required to inform the consumer of in Japan.
It looks something like this and is sometimes referred to as 28品目. If the allergen is contained in the product, it may be highlighted or bolded on the allergen chart or at the end of the ingredient list, inside the brackets.
The 28 allergens are:
Now as you can see, animal products are included in the list of 28. If there is a allergen chart, you can get a quick snapshot of the allergens which is super handy to look at and a quick way to eliminate any products not suitable.
However, as mentioned earlier, just because the allergen chart and list haven’t listed the product doesn’t always mean it’s suitable.
At first glance looking at just the allergen information, you may presume that it’s suitable.
If we look at the ingredients list, we can see seafood extract is present. Although some seafood is on the allergen list, as bonito and scallops are not one of the 28 allergens, they have not been highlighted.
Although the allergen list and chart are very handy at first glance, it’s still important to look at the full ingredient list.
Google Translate is very useful
If you can’t read Japanese, google translate will be your best friend. The google translate app has a lens function where you can take a picture of the item and will translate it for you. It’s not always 100% accurate, however, it’s much better than not having it at all – I use it daily!
For google lens, you will need access to the internet to be able to use that function. However, I know not everyone will have the internet available to them so if that is the case, just make sure to download the Japanese language on Google Translate so you can use some of the features even if you’re offline!
Get yourself familiar with 7 words
There are SO MANY words relating to animal products but learning all of those might take you a while (Keep reading to see the extensive list of words!). Instead, learning to recognise just a few words will save you a lot of time and hassle in the future.
As there is still a lack of understanding in Japan when it comes to veganism, even if you ask someone to check a specific ingredient, they may say a product is ok when actually it’s not. So the quicker you can recognise even a little bit of Japanese, the better and easier it will be!
Here’s a quick snapshot ↓
And now let me explain…
Milk | 乳
Most of the time if you see this kanji, 乳, it will mean there are dairy products inside. It may not be in the main ingredient list if it’s written down as a different word such as yoghurt (ヨーグルト) or cream (クリーム).
Either way, you should see it visible in the allergen chart or list.
- 牛乳 = cows milk
- 乳成分 = milk component
- 乳糖 = Lactose
- 乳製品 = Dairy products
The exception is 豆乳 (soymilk) and 乳化剤 (emulsifier) which has the same kanji in the word but does not necessarily mean it contains dairy products.
Emulsifiers can be both from animal or plant products. Although, most emulsifiers in Japan are plant-derived – but it’s still worth double-checking.
Egg | 卵
If this kanji is visible, you’ll know that eggs are present in the product.
- 鶏卵 = chicken egg
- 鶉卵 / ウズラの卵 = quail egg
- 卵白 / 白身 = egg white
Another egg-related word to also look out for: 黄身 = egg yolk
Meat | 肉
When talking about the animal that’s been turned into meat, they will have this kanji 肉.
- 鳥肉 = Chicken
- 牛肉= Beef
- 豚肉 = Pork
Do you recognise the meat kanji?
However, if we’re talking about the animal product being made into something else such as sausages, bacon, or burgers, it will not have that same kanji in it. Although, I doubt you’ll pick up anything that falls under this example.
Fish | 魚
The same can be said for the fish kanji. Not all, but a lot of fish will have the same kanji 魚. When mentioning a type of fish, the fish kanji will be paired with another character like this 鮪 (tuna). The fish kanji can be seen in the first section of the tuna character.
Do you see it?
- 鰹 = bonito
- 鮭 = salmon
- 鰯 = sardine
Bonito | かつお, カツオ, 鰹
Being a nation that loves seafood, you have to be particularly aware of this character that gets sneaked into a lot of unassuming products.
- かつお節粉未 = dried bonito powder
- かつお節 = small pieces of dried bonito
- 鰹だし = bonito stock
Dashi | だし & Extract | エキス
Japan uses a lot of dashi (soup stock) and animal extract when it comes to flavouring their food. So if you see either of these words, I would ere on the side of caution and presume that it probably isn’t suitable. Of course, there are some exceptions but generally, you won’t be able to eat it.
だし & エキス examples:
- だし / ダシ/ 出し/ 出汁 = dashi
- こんぶだし/ 昆布出し = seaweed stock (not all vegan)
- カツオエキス/ 鰹エキス = bonito extract
- 豚エキス / ポークエキス = pork extract
- チキンエキス / 鶏エキス = chicken extract
- ビーフエキス / 牛エキス = beef extract
Even if the allergen information looks ok, always have a look at the full ingredient list to be safe.
These are some of the most common words you’ll be able to spot on food packaging. Just being able to recognise these words will help you massively and help you figure out what you can and can’t eat.
It’s worth remembering that even if you don’t see these words on the packaging, it still may not be suitable to eat. But with the knowledge of these words and the help of google translate, you’ll be more equipt with navigating Japanese labels than you previously were.
How to read Japanese food labels:
1. Is there an allergen chart?
Are any animal products highlighted?
2. Have a look at the allergen information which is in brackets
If there is no allergen chart, have a look at the allergen information in brackets. Is there anything that’s standing out?
3. Look at the full ingredient list to double-check
My tip for reading Japanese food labels as a vegan
Read the labels carefully, do some research beforehand and go easy on yourself. Mistakes will likely happen (as they have for me, many times!), especially in a new country with a different language. We can only ever go with the intention of doing our very best, and anything else is a bonus.
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IMAGE BY EBHY ON FREEPIK