Preliminary Research for Summer in Japan 2014: Vegetarianism in Japanese Culture

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) ” (Wikipedia). The Buddhist practice of vegetarianism as it is known in Japan is called shoujin ryouri, translated “devotional cuisine” (Wikipedia).

Vegetarian dietary practices as they are understood in the West however, do not find in shoujin ryouri a Japanese analogue. 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 (The Japan Times). 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 (The Japan Times). 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.

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One thought on “Preliminary Research for Summer in Japan 2014: Vegetarianism in Japanese Culture”

  1. Phillips-san, This is indeed a very interesting topic, and you wrote an engaging proposal. I understand what you have presented, and even agree with a lot of it, but I also have some concerns, mostly based on the kinds of opinions you may get from the net. For example, I just Googled “vegetarians in Japan” and I found a blog post that was both accurate but was also, in my opinion, culturally insensitive, if not slightly clueless. It does bother me somewhat when foreigners in Japan complain about how Japan is not like “their” countries. One of the things we might perhaps talk about are the varieties of social attitudes in Japan that affect the situations to which people like that blogger are responding. On the one hand, there is what could be called a “group-think” attitude that doesn’t like to accommodate individual differences sometimes, but on the other hand, there is an attitude that sees the world as a continuum and not a place of absolutes (this is summed up in the idea of mujou). Anyway, I look forward to the results of your research.

    Oh, and before I forget, I was very interested in what you wrote about the “ethical” dimension of certain vegetarians and vegans, and how this may not seem to be a major factor (yet, perhaps) in Japan. This is definitely worth further study.

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