10 Japanese Foods That Aren't Vegan!

By Catherine Cornelius
Updated: June 20, 2024

With how many Buddhist temples one can find dotting the Japanese landscape, leading a plant-based lifestyle should be easy... Right? Wrong! Contrary to the common belief that Buddhism equals veganism in abundance, many travelers realize it’s rather difficult to find vegan food in Japan. Veganism and vegetarianism as they are understood in Japan have been an increasing hurdle for tourists looking for a bite to eat, especially outside the big cities. 

From restaurants not listing allergens or dietary restriction-breaking ingredients on their menus to chefs including animal-based ingredients that they assume fit the vegan or vegetarian diet, navigating Japan while on a plant-based diet can be difficult. Fish and dairy-based foods are often the sticking point, as water-based wildlife does not fall into the “meat” category within the Japanese language, and milk and dairy aren’t meat, either. 

A top-down shot of soba noodles in broth.

The common misconception within Japan is that vegans only refrain from eating land-based meats, and not from animal-based products altogether. Veganism, vegetarianism and pescetarianism are all treated as the same thing in most of Japan.

We’ve made a list of some of the biggest culprits when it comes to “not vegan at all” vegan Japanese food. Some of these foods are pescetarian friendly, but none are vegan. Of course, a few items on the list have vegan options — you just have to check the ingredients before eating them!

Check the FAQ at the end for some tips and tricks for finding vegan food in Japanese.

10 Japanese foods that aren’t vegan! 

  1. Ramen and noodle broths
  2. Anything with bonito flakes
  3. Anything including consomme
  4. Anything with shirasu on top
  5. Japanese curry rice
  6. Okonomiyaki
  7. Mochi
  8. Onigiri and inari sushi
  9. Oreos
  10. Japanese bread (shokupan)

1. Ramen and noodle broths

A chef making ramen while wearing gloves.

Unfortunately, one of Japan’s most famous dishes, ramen, is also the worst culprit of not being vegan-friendly unless you find the right specialty restaurant. Most of the soup stock used in ramen, plus other noodle soups like soba and udon, is a fish soup stock called dashi. Even ramen labeled as vegan or vegetarian might still use dashi stock in its broth.

2. Anything with bonito flakes

A wooden bowl of bonito flakes.

You've finally found a spot you’re sure is vegan-friendly, but wait! What is that thinly sliced garnish? If your dish contains katsuobushi bonito flakes, you’re in for a shock. Bonito flakes are made by grating the smoked and fermented meat of the skipjack tuna — hardly a vegan-friendly addition to your meal. 

3. Anything including consomme

A vegetable soup made of consomme broth.

Vegans and vegetarians, beware... Consomme, a soup stock used in most Japanese-Western fusion dishes, is made using ground meat. It is not plant-based and is often the base soup stock used for any clear soup at a family restaurant like Gusto.

4. Anything with shirasu whitebait on top

A pair of chopsticks holding a bunch of shirasu whitebait. In the background, a full bowl of shirasu.

When you see shirasu, you’ll know immediately that what you’re eating can no longer be considered vegan. Shirasu are small white fish that are served as a topping on many rice dishes in coastal areas. 

Although not found everywhere, their presence is plentiful enough at popular beach tourist spots like Enoshima. Memorizing the word shirasu and its English translation, “whitebait,” will save you from being blindsided while enjoying a day at the beach.

5. Japanese curry rice

A serving of Japanese curry. The bowl is split down the middle with curry on one side and rice on the other.

While South and Southeast Asia have a variety of vegetable-based curries, Japanese curry is often meat-based. Most curry roux in Japan are made using animal fat or extracts, and even if you order a vegetable curry, it might still use meat during the cooking process or have some hidden chunks waiting to surprise you while you eat.

6. Okonomiyaki

A traditional Japanese okonomiyaki cabbage pancake, smothered in sauce and bonito flakes.

Japan’s savory “pancake," okonomiyaki is a must-eat if you’re in Osaka or Hiroshima, but unfortunately, it’s not very vegan-friendly. While most restaurants list their flavor options and ingredients, okonomiyaki stalls at festivals may only have one flavor that contains seafood or pork. 

Aside from this issue is our sneaky friend, dashi. Depending on the store, okonomiyaki batter is made using dashi stock, so you’ll need to ask if there’s any in your meal. The batter might also contain eggs.

7. Mochi

A skewer of dango mochi with a background of a Japanese street.

Mochi are Japanese rice cakes that are very vegan-friendly. However, you might encounter dairy in the form of a custard or whipped cream filling, or you might see honey used as a topping. You also need to be aware of savory mochi, which is often flavored using shellfish.

If the mochi you’re planning on snacking on isn’t pure white, make sure to double-check the ingredients.

8. Onigiri rice balls and inari sushi

A hand holding up a onigiri rice ball, bought from a konbini.

Onigiri rice balls and inari sushi (fried tofu skins stuffed with rice) are often considered the safest snacks for vegans, but check the ingredients carefully! Depending on the store or restaurant, the rice used in your onigiri or inari sushi may have been flavored with dashi or might even have shirasu or small meat chunks mixed in.

9. Japanese Oreos

An open package of Oreos spilling out onto a blue background. Some biscuits are broken, revealing the cream inside.

Oreos are vegan-safe in most countries, but in Japan, the Oreo filling is made using milk powder. Due to this use of dairy, they can’t be considered vegan-friendly.

10. Japanese bread (shokupan)

A batch of Japanese shokupan resting on a cooling rack.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a grain-rich bread that doesn't use milk or eggs in Japan as the vast majority of baked goods are fluffy white breads and pastries. To achieve the fluffy texture that Japanese baked goods are famous for, eggs and dairy are a must. Stick to European-style bakeries and import stores if you want to find vegan-friendly bread in Japan.

While Japan’s restaurants are still grappling with the concept of plant-based diets, there are still many locations where you can find vegan food in Japan. 

Use our convenient Ultimate Japan Vegan Guide to get an idea of plant-based options in the areas you’ll be traveling to! Or, if you want to make your own vegan Japanese cuisine, check out this vegan shojin ryori cooking class or this vegan sushi-making class!

Vegan in Japan FAQs

Three vegan breakfast toasts: avocado, banana and cherry tomatoes.

Is it hard to be vegan in Japan?

While being vegan in Japan is often labeled as impossible, there are more options for vegans now than ever before, if you know where to look. For a stress-free trip, check out our regional vegan guides! We currently have guides to Kyoto's vegan scene, Nara’s vegan scene, Hiroshima’s vegan scene, Okinawa’s vegan scene, and the vegan scene in Kobe and Osaka.

How to be vegan or vegetarian in Japan?

Being vegan or vegetarian in Japan requires caution and some Japanese language knowledge — that way you can double-check the ingredients in what you’re about to eat. You may also need to know how to ask whether a dish has a certain ingredient and whether or not that ingredient can be removed or replaced.

Check out our Japanese for vegans guide for some basic phrases and the Japanese words for common ingredients you might want to avoid.

Another resource of note is Happy Cow, a website that lists vegan-friendly restaurants on a global scale.

We strive to be as accurate as possible and keep up with the changing landscape of Japan's food and travel industries. If you spot any inaccuracies, please send a report.
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Catherine Cornelius
Catherine is a backwoods wild child who flew straight from rural America to rural Fukui Prefecture and started hanging out with the farmers. She won’t openly admit it, but seeing Japanese farmers driving little orange tractors makes her feel a little nostalgic. An avid fan of eating local, she spends her time going from farmers markets to local food festivals to niche pop-up restaurants and back again.
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