This paper intends to explore the concept of vegetarianism in Japan through the perception of the diet and its practice by Japanese individuals and groups.
Strict vegetarianism is not popular in Japan. The only significant Japanese population which adheres to a strict vegetarian diet is Buddhist monks. The subscription to a vegetarian diet is common to many sects of Buddhism throughout East Asia and is not unique to Japan. The dietary practices of Buddhism “[are] based on the Dharmic concept of ahimsa (non-violence) ” . The Buddhist practice of vegetarianism as it is known in Japan is called shoujin ryouri, translated “devotional cuisine” .
A typical shoujin ryouri meal –
Vegetarian dietary practices as they are understood in the West however, do not find in shoujin ryouri a Japanese analogue. The cuisine is considered extravagant in Japan, with shoujin ryouri meals having many courses and being highly priced (can cost 10,000 yen per person). The high price of shoujin ryouri cuisine in Japan differs from the Western conception of vegetarian food as unusual albeit commonplace and affordable. Moreover, Shoujin ryouri does not signify animal welfare; while vegetarianism as practiced in the West is usually conducted with the humane treatment of animals in mind. Interestingly, although in Japan vegetarianism in conflated with spiritual asceticism, ethical issues surrounding the consumption of animals are not important reasons for abstaining from eating meat . Accordingly, serious vegetarian dietary practices outside the context of Buddhism are virtually nonexistent. Vegetarianism, if it is seen at all, is practiced by women for the purpose of beautification. The only semi-legitimate excuse people in Japan would have for their vegetarian diet is that of health improvement . Indeed, an article in the Japan Times discusses the need for Japanese vegetarians to stay in the proverbial “closet” in order to mitigate intolerance among fellow Japanese who negatively stereotype and do not understand the diet. Moreover, the “closeted” analogy is apt since it emphasizes the insensitivity and lack of understanding that perpetuates the Japanese characterization of vegetarianism as a dietary anomaly.
Many Westerners tend to believe that Japan would be a vegetarian-friendly country, yet this common misconception does not understand the extend to which dashi is used in Japanese cuisine. Dashi is a broth made with fish flakes (katsuobushi), used to contribute umami flavor to virtually all Japanese dishes. Japanese food in general is very healthy due to the use of a lot of vegetables, grains, and fish. Japanese diets typically do not include large quantities of animal protein. That said, Japanese food is not necessarily vegetarian-friendly because of its small reliance on meat. Observing a vegetarian diet in Japan actually proves difficult because of the widespread use of dashi in most traditional foods. The use of dashi often compromises the status of otherwise vegetarian dishes. Makiko Itoh, Japanese author of the food blog Just Hungry, describes the components of dashi; she says, “All regular dashi recipes specify the use of katsuobushi or niboshi (dried fish). Even dashi granules, unless specified otherwise, contain bonito extract. There are dashi granules made from seaweed sources only, but these are not usually used in restaurants” . While vegan dashi exists in stores and can easily be made (it is made with seaweed and sometimes dried mushrooms), convention limits its use outside of home cooking.
Katsuobushi flakes –
Additionally, the concept of vegetarianism is unclear to most Japanese. Many Japanese know the word for vegetarian (bejitarian) but do not understand what it signifies. Saishokuka is a native Japanese word for vegetarian yet many Japanese characterized as saishokuka confusingly eat meat and fish. One author describes his experience as a vegetarian in Japan, saying that, “From talking to Japanese people I have perceived the following opinions:
Vegetarian means you only eat a bit of meat
“You must still eat fish, right?”
Being vegetarian is an aspiration, not a real, tangible goal.
Stock or sauces can still have a little bit of meat or fish in them…
“No meat, OK, I understand. Can you eat beef ? Chicken ?”
“Where does Ham come from?” ” .
This lack of understanding on the part of the average Japanese most likely results from insufficient contact with vegetarian ideals. As previously stated, vegetarianism is conflated with Buddhist spiritual practice and its shoujin ryouri. Outside of the Buddhist context, the meaning of vegetarian becomes muddled. Since vegetarianism really exists only for Buddhist monks, a cultural tradition of vegetarianism outside of strict religious practice does not exist in Japan. This lack of tradition could further explain the various misunderstandings regarding the definition of vegetarian.
The Japanese news media is however, in an influential position to educate about vegetarianism. In fact, The Japan Times has published a few articles about the subject. One article summarized the results of a US study on the relationship between vegetarianism and life expectancy. The article then continues to cite the findings from the research – e.g. a 12% increase in life expectancy for vegetarians over nonvegetarians, a reduction in high blood pressure and heart disease for males, among others . The article only discusses the facts of the research, without expressing any opinion on vegetarianism. Yet exposure to vegetarianism even in the form of an informational article signifies a move toward greater awareness of vegetarian culture for the average Japanese.
Moreover, The Japan Times has published a series of articles on vegetarian living as part of its LIFE column. The series’ articles detail the difficulties and rewards of living a vegetarian lifestyle in Japan. Eryk Salvaggio’s article about vegetarian holiday meals with friends and family exposes the Japanese public to the vegetarian lifestyle while hoping to educate for dietary acceptance. Salvaggio admits that many people have difficulty understanding the concept of vegetarianism, but he hopes that through “cultural cross-pollination” that vegetarianism will become more socially acceptable . Salvaggio’s article raises another important point, that vegetarianism is mostly a foreign concept to many Japanese. Despite the Japanese tradition of shoujin ryouri, most vegetarian influences are foreign, mostly Western, in origin. This foreign aspect to vegetarianism makes the concept even more difficult for many Japanese to understand because a native cultural basis for the lifestyle does not exist.
Despite the challenges, people are living as vegetarians in Japan. It can be done but the lifestyle has not become popular enough to create a subculture within Japanese society. Most vegetarians in Japan are likely Westerners who brought their dietary habits with them to Japan. Western vegetarians do not often eat Western food in Japan however, most Western-style food in Japan is modeled after the French tradition, itself not entirely vegetarian-friendly. Luckily for vegetarians in Japan, many Japanese-native vegetarian foods exist. One article aimed at providing resources for vegetarians traveling to Japan describes dozens of authentic Japanese vegetarian dishes based on vegetables, tofu, noodles, and rice .
Zaru Soba –
Kabocha croquettes –
While Japan may appear to be a vegetarian paradise, the ubiquity of dashi in much of Japanese food prevents the country from being very vegetarian-friendly. While shoujin ryouri represents historically the extent of vegetarianism in Japan, Western vegetarian influences are evident in some news media. Further research needs to be done in this area in order to clarify generalizations regarding the perception of vegetarianism among different Japanese populations – such as men and women; and younger and older Japanese.
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