How Japan Killed my Vegetarianism

“Okay, how ‘bout a sheep. Would you have sex with a sheep?” I asked.

“Mmm,” Ryan replied. “Boy sheep or girl?”

“Like it matters?”

“If it’s a boy sheep, that’s gay. Okay, let’s say I bought a hamburger, would you eat it?”

“Nope,” I said, “No way.”

“For a hundred dollars?”

This was twelve years ago. Ry and I were driving Route 1 down from San Francisco, winding through Big Sur as the sun and clouds painted patterns on the Pacific. We had loads of time to dream up sophomoric questions.

“Would you eat a person for a hundred dollars?” I replied. “Like a manburger?”

“How about for a million?” he continued. “A million bucks?”

“Still no. Would you eat your dog for a million bucks? Like if I ground up Clipper’s little ears and paws and cute nose and tail and stuffed ‘em in a sausage skin?”

“Well, maybe not the nose.”

“Okay, say we take out the nose,” I said. “Clipper sausage for a million bucks?”

“Throw in the sheep and you’ve got a deal.”

Six months later I was in Tokyo. I hadn’t eaten meat for more than a decade, and after a while, the thought had come to disgust me. I mean, who amputates a limb and then starts gnawing on it—-what’re you, a zombie? That’s pretty gross. But I also knew being a vegetarian in Japan, where even miso soup is swimming with fish stock, was basically impossible. And I had no intention of moving to this country only to sequester myself in the back of Indian restaurants and vegan cafés. So I cut a deal. I’d eat seafood. Any seafood. Okay, and eggs. And milk. But that was it.

Being a Vegetarian in Japan

So I was at this yatai near Idabashi station. It’s basically half a rundown shack with red paper lanterns and like eight stools. Maybe you’ve been there. It was night, and winter, and I was having hot sake and oden, which is a mix of steaming broth with daikon radish, fried tofu, shitake mushrooms, and a hard-boiled egg. Sure, other combinations are possible, but that’s not the point. Anyway, after about an hour chatting with other customers, the proprietor leaned over the counter. She was a sweet and horribly decrepit old lady who appeared to be about a hundred and forty. She laid a skewer of grilled chicken in front of me.

“Service,” she said. That’s Japanese for “On the house.”

I looked down at desiccated pieces of some bird’s body, stuck through with a wooden poker and tortured over a fire, like a little chicken Jesus on my plate.

“Oh, uh, thanks,” I replied. I’m nothing if not polite. It was disgusting, but I ate him, washed his little body parts down with a bottle of Asahi beer. Then I thanked the kind old lady, paid the bill, and calmly descended into Idabashi station and puked in the bathroom. So that didn’t work out too well.

What Gaijin Eat

But it’s good to make friends in Japan, and my objective’s always been to just be a regular guy. Speak Japanese, drink beer, eat . . . a bowl of lentils and broccoli. Ah, there’s the rub, hey. So when my neighbors Shun and Makiko invited me to dinner at their apartment, I went. I brought three cans of malt liquor and half a bottle of shochu. I mean, you can’t show up empty handed. “We’re having curry!” Shun proudly announced. I looked into the big earthenware pot, bubbling with carrots, onions, potatoes, and lurking somewhere deep under the surface, pieces of meat.  But the last thing I wanted was to make everybody adjust for me. And I was conscious of being, you know, a foreigner.

Because here’s the ever-present dialog: You foreigners don’t shower before bed, right? You people can’t use Japanese squat toilets, right? You don’t brush your teeth after lunch, right? You people don’t like hot baths, right? You don’t eat raw fish, pickled vegetables, or rice, right? Japanese folks love to probe for ways that you are different, and Seeroi Sensei’s not trying to reinforce any stereotypes. But how’re you gonna fit in to Japan, unless you fit in? Aside from language, food’s about the number one thing people people connect with.

So when Makiko ladled out a hot bowl of rich, brown curry, I gratefully ate it and said it was good. Actually, it was good. To be honest, curry’s so damn strong it doesn’t much matter what’s in it. I’m pretty sure Japanese moms have accidentally knocked in a few kitchen sponges over the years and no family’s ever been the wiser.

Traditional Japanese Food

So that was the start of the end of my vegetarianism. What’s the emoticon for sighing? Eh, I’ll look it up later. Anyway, Ken Seeroi came to Japan with sky-high ideals and pie-eyed notions of what Japanese people were like. This, by the way, did not include the fact that they eat every damn thing that moves, and are crazy for meat. So over the years and entirely against my will, this is what I’ve wound up eating:

Bear soup
Snapping turtle soup
Wild boar curry
Raw horse
Raw chicken
Whale meat
Whale tongue
Shrimp with the head, tail, shell, and all
Sting ray
Sea snake soup
The flesh off a live fish still writhing and staring at me
The flesh off a live squid whistling and struggling to breathe
Pickled squid innards
Cow innards stew
Fish eggs
Fish sperm
Fish eyeballs
Some horrible sluggy thing like a giant escargot
A mouthful of tiny fish that swim around as you swallow them
Whatever the fuck this is

And here’s the question Japanese people ask because I’m “a foreigner”:  Can you eat . . . natto?”

Soybeans. Seriously. That’s your test? Did I mention I’m starting to wonder if Japanese people are actually retarded? I did? Oh, right.

Being a Vegetarian in Japan

After all that, I still didn’t eat meat, and I still don’t. I mean, except for fish, and even then I feel a bit guilty. But over the years I’ve been invited to hundreds of dinners, welcome parties, and goodbye parties, and nobody seems to notice if I go heavy on the edamame and pick around the bacon in the potato salad.

So last Friday night, I went to an end-of-the-year party with a bunch of coworkers. Hard to believe it’s that season again, but sure enough Christmas music was blaring and the pine trees were all decked out with lights and tinsel. Very traditional about their Christmas, the Japanese. I was seated at a table with three other folks, and we were slugging down beer and bantering. Things were going great, and then the waiter set down a small wooden platter with four pieces of bruschetta carefully arranged into a diamond shape. And on top of each one was a thin slice of ham. I really wanted to lift it off and stash it somewhere. Like maybe in a planter. But then everybody picked up a slice of bruschetta, and I did too, and we ate them. It didn’t kill me. Probably can’t say as much for Wilbur the pig, however. Sucks to be him.

And Michiko to my left turns and says, “You people love bruschetta, right?”

I was like, “Well, um. Some people do, I mean, I guess. But, you know, ham . . .”

“Right?” said Shohei, sitting across from us. “They love ham. And bacon, any kind of pork. For Christmas, they eat ham and turkey and sausage.” And then he launched into a story about living with an American family as an exchange student.

Everyone nodded like mad and made that Japanese sound of heeeey, which means “Oh really? Very interesting.” And I did too, of course. Because it was interesting. I’ve learned many amazing things about foreigners since coming to Japan. Including the fact that you guys eat some really weird foods. Miracle whip, Cheese Whiz, Sloppy Joes, raw mushrooms, kale, baby carrots, Hamburger Helper, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, green bean casserole. I don’t understand it, but hey, apparently you people love that stuff. Right?

68 Replies to “How Japan Killed my Vegetarianism”

  1. This kinda reminds me of the Guangdong people stereotype in China eating anything that moves.

    The Japanese can’t be that bad right? Do culinary limits exist in Japan?

    1. Not many. I’ve been consistently surprised at just how ravenous Japanese folks are for all things meat related.

      One of the questions I’ve posed repeatedly in English classes is “When it comes to eating meat, where do you draw the line? Would you eat a dog? A cat? A monkey?” Granted I’m working with a limited sample size, but a common answer is “I would if it was delicious.”

  2. Ken, a (semi) vegetarian? Whoa.
    The ‘service’ thing is funny. You could make a post about the english japanese people made up or Wasei-eigo (like light novel), also words they just use with a different meaning.

    1. See how layered and deep I am? Like an onion. A delicious onion.

      Japanese English? Man, where to start. Japanese is rapidly morphing into a bastardized form of English, with terrible pronunciation. I’ll keep that idea on the back burner.

    2. Like my Okinawan ex-wife… She always said here’s a black joke, which meant a joke about morbid or taboo things, and not a racial joke like one would think…

  3. Hey I had no idea you were a vegetarian Ken. It was the same situation for me. Actually my vegetarianism didn’t even survive the plane journey.

    I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about whether I ought to become a vegetarian again.

    On the one side you have being able to socialise and eat out, and on the other you have, you know, moral integrity.

    In Japan self-respect is very expensive. On the other hand, a gyuudon is 500 yen.

    1. I’m not sure vegetarian is so much an identity as a pattern of behavior. I just feel it’s good for you, the planet, and the cows, pigs, and chickens. So I’d definitely support you doing that.

      I manage to eat vegetarian, or at least fishy-vegetarian, a good 360 days of the year. The few times I get backed into having a slice of roast beef or a bite of chicken, you know, I just chalk that up to living in the real world. Sucks, but somebody’s gotta live there.

  4. You could’ve always, y’know, quit trying to fit in with Japanese people and just been honest with yourself and everyone around you and say “Sorry, I don’t eat that”.

    Why are you so obsessed with fitting in?

    You think you represent all foreigners for people in Japan or something? Just do what you need to do to be you.

    Sad thing is, you let the Japanese people around you stereotype foreigners as being big meat eaters. Your massive desire to fit in led to Japanese people having an ever so slightly more stereotyped view of non-Japanese people than before.

    Way to go.

    1. “Just do what you need to do to be you.” Okay, I’ll do that. Although you seem pretty intent on telling me to do otherwise.

      1. Ken-sensei! Are you sure you’re not devising problems for yourself just to get to write about them? Next time, why not try getting a grip and tell others about your vegetarian aspirations? You shouldn’t keep hiding things this important forever, even if it’s just to please people.


        1. Fair point, but let’s talk it out. I mean, maybe you’re seeing vegetarianism as more “important” than it really is. Hell, everything’s important. Race, religion, politics, sex, drugs, smoking, donuts…can’t we let a little bit go? The amount of meat I eat in a year is less than many people eat in a day, so you know, I don’t feel the need to make a huge deal about it.

          Another secret you may not be aware of is the fact I don’t eat donuts. Do they even exist? I certainly don’t believe in the horrible little things. It’s a matter of principle. But if the office is having “donut day” and everybody gathers in the conference room and Mary from Accounting says “Hey Ken, have a cruller,” how much does it violate my “principles” to say Yeah, a-ight and accept the greasy bastard? Maybe later I can ditch it behind the copier.

          Sure, we could label this “pleasing others.” But being polite and getting along with others isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t equate to discarding your own individuality. Adapting to the people around us is the very definition of society.

          So although I’m firmly convinced of my own perfection, I might still entertain some thoughts to the contrary, and try what somebody else suggests.

          1. You should have some sort of like button or something, so that I can agree with these thoughts.
            The point you mentioned in this comment is not just what people need to survive in Japan. I think it’s what the entire world needs right now, actually.
            With all the racism, feminism, veganism, vegetarianism and other many bullshit-ism, humanity is losing track. Stick by your principles and all that but try not to hurt others. That’s more important, I think. Heck even go out of your way to make someone’s day once in a while.
            Go grab that donut, even if you do not agree with the idea of having a donut, unless you are allergic or something.

            Anyways, now that I have finished all the blog posts, I am combing through the comments. Loneliness in Nihon.

  5. The line I wouldn’t cross is the whistling squid. I know people who won’t pay for food in restaurants if they have to cook it themselves. While I don’t take it that far, I at least expect to have its pre-plate death included in the price.

    1. Yeah, I’m really not cool with still-living animals dying in front of me. People in Japan seem to get off on it though. Kind of hard to avoid it, if you eat out with a lot of Japanese folks.

  6. I completely understand how you can find meat disgusting. Seeing something like a chicken or a fish on the table, still having pretty much the same form it had when it was alive and every person getting a piece of it is definitely barbaric. It is weird how I got this way, because people around me have eaten plenty of meat this way. I guess I somehow just never got used to this demonic ritual and get sick from seeing it in action. But it is not like I am vegetarian, I don’t like vegetables either. So I am in this weird limbo where I eat meat if it is in the form of a ham that is probably only 50% real meat. At the same time I wouldn’t eat a salad, but I would a tasty pizza with some vegetables. I can seriously start throwing up from something like green beans and other things considered normal around here. My diet is made of sandwiches and a few different soups. And pizza. And fries. I guess spaghetti are fine too, though not a favorite. Some other things too, but let’s not make a long list about the small number of things I eat. I don’t even like natural orange juice. I always pick the one that says “50% real” or something, because if it is more than 50% real orange juice it becomes too bitter for me.
    I imagine I would start puking left and right from Japanese food. I find the idea of living in Japan terrifying, because of that. Good thing I have no reason to do that. Well, maybe except running away from my family or something, but I can do that by going wherever.

  7. By the way, Ken, anything interesting to say about living with neighbors in Japan? Other than that one traumatic story you had. I mean more everyday stuff. How thin are walls in Japan? Lately I have been having a lot of noise pollution, thanks to my own family, the baby bellow me and the neighbors beside my room. So lately the idea of escaping to Japan to get some peace and quite seems nice. You know, if you work over 10 hours a day and drink for a few more with the co-workers, you are not at home that long anyway.

    1. Generally, there are two types of apartment buildings in Japan: wood-framed, where you can hear your neighbors sneeze, and concrete-framed, which are solid and quiet. Think the Three Little Pigs. I’ll let you decide whether you want a house made of straw or brick.

      One of the few requirements I have for a residence is: no foreigners. Those damn people are too loud. They play music and talk and barbecue on their porches. Generally speaking, if you stick with Japanese folks, you’ll be fine. Bear in mind, you’ll probably never see them, and the chances of making friends is pretty low, but at least they’re fairly silent.

  8. Nice story Ken.

    My vegetarianism began in Japan, when the sister of a girlfriend tried to make me eat raw egg on top of raw chicken. And I really mean they tried hard. I hung out at vegan and Indian places and basically cooked my own food, living like some kind of monk.

    But then, it also kind of ended in Japan five years later when I came back, and for much the same reasons. I still won’t eat raw chicken though…

    1. A raw egg on top of a raw chicken? Why didn’t they just stuff the whole thing in a raw turkey and go full turducken?

      There’s definitely a machismo associated with eating weird stuff in this country, and the women are leading the way.

  9. I absolutely love that you are a vegetarian. Which is a bizarre thing to say, but I honestly didn’t expect it at all. I also tried to be vegetarian in Japan, but it was impossible to NOT accidentally eat fish. I ate a box of convenience store mochi (healthy vegan dinner for the desperate) only to realize it somehow had fish in the ingredients. FISH MOCHI. What can mochi gain by having fish in it? What purpose did it serve? WHY, JAPAN? I eventually got a place with a decent kitchen and cooked at home a lot. I always figured that I would give up veganism once I got to Japan (so I wouldn’t seem rude/annoying to Japanese people), but it’s tough to start eating meat again. Even though I did end up eating fish pretty regularly when I went out, I always felt like an asshole doing it. Then again, I felt like a bigger asshole not doing it. Oh, the cognitive dissonance.

    1. I feel you. It’s like a thing in Japan to add just a weeee bit of meat to an otherwise entirely vegan dish. You order pasta with mushrooms, and on top somebody’s helpfully added just a few shavings of ham. Halfway through every potato salad, there it is again, the ham. Stashed away in the corner of your bento, there’s a meatball. And if there’s not an actual fish, there’s certainly fish broth in everything. Why, Japan?

  10. Hi Ken, I found your blog earlier today and have been here ever since. I’ve only visited Japan twice, but reading these observations is making me want to go back for round three. Can’t stop chuckling. I’m loving your realist take on life in Japan for a foreigner. Thanks.

    1. Ah, thanks a bunch. Yeah, you should definitely make another trip here. But wait till spring. Sakura season’s just around the corner.

  11. Yet another interesting, educational and entertaining post Seeroi Sensei. Keep ’em coming.

    I have a theory about why the Japanese diet leads to good health and long life. Hint: it’s not the white rice.

    Humans as a species evolved as hunter-gatherers and it’s only recently (about 6000 years) that we’ve had agriculture and a relatively larger portion of our diet as carbohydrates in the form of grains. Prior to that it was hunted animals and whatever plant food could be found in the wild. So I think vegetarianism, and especially veganism is a somewhat unnatural diet for the human organism. It certainly isn’t an ideal diet in terms of healthfulness.

    There’s a growing body of knowledge (at least in the US) refuting the conventional wisdom of the last 30+ years about heart-healthy-whole-grains, cholesterol, fats, proteins and the best ratio of these for a healthy diet. For example, wheat, which now is grown as a monstrous high-yield mutant almost everywhere, is linked to plethora of health problems. The USDA dietary guidelines originating with the McGovern Commission is one of the primary reasons the US is having a pandemic of obesity.

    Really, I think the reasons why many (but certainly not all) vegetarians and vegans choose such a diet is a moral reason, not a health reason. They don’t want to be participating in the killing of animals. I can appreciate this, but for some people the trade off is compromised health. I also think the moral reason is more prevalent with vegans. (How can you tell if someone is a vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll f***ing tell you.)

    I don’t want to go into a lengthy rant and go all Bud Martin on you so I’ll close with a few links for further reading if anyone is interested in more information.

    1. Do you really think obese people eat 1 cup of cabbage, 1 cup of carrot, 1 cup of green beans, an apple and two bananas every day? That’s what the USDA dietary guidelines have been saying for at least the last 30 years.

      1. Brett,

        No, they’re eating too much carbohydrate and sugar. Look at the food pyramid, which shows the lion’s share of portions as grain products. In addition, most of these are processed foods full of added sugar, sodium, preservatives, etc. Then there’s the soft drinks with loads of sugar (bad) or artificial sweeteners (even worse), chemically refined seed oils, junk foods like french fries, etc. The high carbohydrate and sugar content of the typical American diet causes spikes in blood sugar which can lead to Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes, among other health problems. The Cabbage, carrots, green beans and apple you cited would be great if it weren’t for all the other garbage foods that usually overshadow them.

        By the way, what do you think carbohydrate breaks down into during digestion? The answer is glucose. So when we talk about carbohydrate and sugar, that’s redundant. We’re really talking about sugar and sugar.

        Take the time to watch either of the Dr. Lustig videos I linked to above. Real eye openers. Also, if you can get a copy of the Fat Head video, prepare to be amazed.

        1. ” Look at the food pyramid, which shows the lion’s share of portions as grain products. ”

          It’s clear you have not looked at the USDA dietary guidelines as that is wrong and everything you mentioned above is completely contrary to them as well as not understanding basic science. E.g. you’re understanding of carbohydrates is simply wrong.

          Lustig is a hustler and snake oil salesman, his talks are misleading and people not familiar with biochemistry come away with completely the wrong message.

          1. Brett,
            In using an ad hominem attack in an attempt to discredit Dr. Lustig rather than logically debate the merits of your side of the argument, you discredit yourself. Dr. Lustig has had a very distinguished and reputable career. See:


            Furthermore my assertion that that the USDA food pyramid shows the lion’s share as grain products is proven here:


            My assertion that carbohydrate is quickly converted to sugar was also correct, and is supported by this article from Harvard, among others:


            So if you already knew this, your post was a lie. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are merely misinformed.

  12. Huh, hadn’t thought of you as a vegetarian. Maybe because you mention the delicious smell of grilled chicken (that seems to pervade the entire country of Japan) in every third post… Oh well.

    Great post, as always. I’m glad you’ve been posting more often lately. Lightens up my day every time.

    1. Dear Natalie,

      Thanks for writing in. Unfortunately, I had to edit out some of your post, as you’d mentioned a Japanese learning software that seems to be trying to advertise by subtly dropping positive reviews for itself around the web. If you’d like to promote this product, let me know, and we can work something out.



      1. Oh no, I was not trying to promote it at all. I just started a free trial and I wanted to know your opinion on it before I would go and buy the full version. No ulterior motives. Just a well-intended Japanese student looking for a piece of advice. So, now that you know what program I’m talking about, would you say it’s worth it?

        1. Well, unfortunately, the only thing that seems to work for learning Japanese is lots and lots of hard work. So maybe it’s not more software that we need; it’s backbone.

          1. Touche!

            I myself don’t speak a whole lot of Japanese, but I did spend three and a half years learning Mandarin, so I have some idea of the difficulties a Westerner has in learning Asian languages. I have this one friend who always talks as if he’s winning some language-learning arms race; he’s always going on about the latest software he’s using or the latest method he just employed to learn languages. And yet he can barely speak any Japanese! I just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him! You don’t need any of the ****ing garbage to learn a language. At best it’s just a supplement. All you need to do is sit down and study! Get out there and practice with native speakers in whatever Japanese you know! It’s really that simple.

            Anyway, that’s the end of my rant. Fun blogpost as always, Ken!

          2. Yeah, of course hard work is important but you still need some sort of resource to learn from, right? Classes are pretty great when you’re learning a language but sadly they’re not always an option for everyone. So for self learners, textbooks are pretty much the only thing to turn to. But aren’t softwares technically the same as textbooks, only in digital form?

            Little story: English is not my first language, so a few years ago I wanted to pimp up my rather humble vocabulary with some SAT/GRE words. I found a software that was geared exactly towards that. The course was great because it told you what contexts to use the new words in and also made you do A LOT of revisions. I learned more about the use of words in a sentence within 6 months of using that program than in 6 years of studying English at school. And my classes really weren’t bad. They did a good job on teaching me the essentials. But the program did a much better job on going beyond that.

            I’m not saying that the point of learning a language is to learn as much as you can in as little time as possible. And I’m definitely not saying that you can simply replace hard work with a fancy software and ride off into the sunset. But I think it’s fair to say that sometimes softwares can work better than classes or textbooks (especially if you keep getting emails with reminders to do your revisions, that haunt your lazy ass until you finally sit down and do your work). Of course even the best software, just as a great teacher or textbook, won’t do the work for you, but if you’re a determined, diligent student I can see no harm in using it as a tool.

            Well, hanging out on this Japan-related blog for a little while, talking about how right I am should be just enough to cover my Japanese studies for the day. I’m gonna go download the next software now. I’m already feeling a little smarter.

  13. There’s also how Japan can kill your taste for western food, given that the Japanese taste for many western foods like bread, cheese and ham is akin to the bland stuff only fit for small children back home.

    On the other hand, Japanese food is fantastic, and the beer is pretty good.

  14. I have gotten used to drinking sake on an almost empty stomach. Edamame and fries are not enough. Next time I might eat a big bowl of homemade spaghetti before I leave for Izakaya.

  15. Extending the topic of Japlish, there are “cunning”, “sign pen”, “skinship”, “high tension”, “my pace”.

    All these words mean exactly things you don’t expect them to be. LOL

  16. Oh dear. I have so much pity for vegetarians in Japan, since Japanese people don’t even understand the concept. If you don’t eat meat, their first response is “…why?”. And then they’ll be like “so you just order your tonkotsu ramen without the pork slices?” smh. As it is, I have enough trouble trying to explain to Japanese people why I’m appalled by ebi mayo pizza and refuse to eat it. I can’t imagine trying to explain why fried chicken or yakiniku disgusts me (luckily they don’t).

    You should have lived in Taiwan. Lots of vegan friendly options, and the food in general is cheaper and (imo) tastier.

    1. And I thought that the Chinese motto was, “If it has legs, wings, fins, scales … ah, what the heck … if it moves, you can eat it.”

      1. Veejay, I think that’s definitely true for the majority of Chinese people, but apparently Taiwan has a sizeable population of people who won’t eat animals for Buddhist reasons. Apparently the government has also promoted eating more vegetarian meals, and as a result, restaurants offer vegetarian options. I don’t know much about it personally though. Surely sounds like a better bet than Japan.

  17. Another well written piece, humorous and more shocking truths about Ken Seeroi. Hats off to you sir for putting the comfort of others ahead of yourself – that’s the polite and sincere Ken Seeroi we all come here to read about! (…although I’m just here for the lol’s)

    On a side note, there is one Japanese gentleman in my current department who is a vegan (although he has apparently succumbed to eating seafood) . And as you do in a Japanese company, we go out for drinks every so often. And even though its always mostly the same members, he will get the same questions everytime – ..Why don’t you eat meat? …What about chicken?…What if its fried? Ah, poor guy. So you at least aren’t adding to that almighty list of “Gaijin must-ask-questions” – cos that would take a lot more malt liquor to get through and answer…

    1. Ah, The Treatment. Japanese people love this. Anything that stands out becomes a topic of conversation for about an hour. Maybe all night. Maybe forever.

      I know some commenters have stated I should just announce “I’m a vegetarian,” but this is why Japanese folks (myself included) don’t share personal information. You could say that you’re a vegetarian, or you love meat, or you’ve mastered the yo-yo, and it wouldn’t matter. Even if it’s trivial, that fact will be talked about until you die, and will define you as a person. Because here in Japan we, uh, don’t have all that much to talk about. Give us juicy nuggets, please. So you’ll meet a random dude two years later and he’ll be like, Oh, I heard about you. You’re that guy who loves/hates meat/yo-yo’s.

      After about a thousand times of this happening, I tend not to reveal my opinions much anymore. And because nobody here expresses themselves, personal information garners insane amounts of attention. Welcome to the vicious circle that is Japanese culture.

      1. It seems like individualism (in this case, in the form of opinions) is a source of shame/guilt in Japanese culture. Not expressing one’s opinions, then, would be more ‘polite’. Any opinion or unique trait about someone becomes a weakness; it is as if everyone’s goal is to be /the same person/, or to strip everyone of their identities completely. Maybe that’s a good thing.

        I wonder how true these ideas are, though? I’ve heard that Japan is individualistic by Asian cultural standards but collectivist by normal standards. How else could Japanese culture possibly be individualistic if no one expresses their identity outwards?

  18. This blog post made me hungry. Happy holidays, and may they be filled with yummy (hopefully vegetarian) Christmas cakes!

      1. Happy Christmas from Ireland, Ken. Sounds like you’re going to be missing out on the ancient tradition of queuing up for a Yuketide KFC dinner! If I make it over there for next year’s holidaysI will eat two of them to keep the cosmic equilibrium intact, or something.

        1. Ah, thanks a bunch, Paul. Yeah, actually went out for Italian food instead. Can’t go without that traditional Christmas pizza.

  19. A Japanese lady I know became a pescatarian after watching some American documentary about food processing…. I think it was Food, Inc.

  20. Did you run into the “it’s not meat; it’s fish” arguments? I’ve been rather bewildered to find that in much of Asia, what is considered “meat” varies wildly.

    1. Oh yeah.

      “There’s no meat in it.

      “What’s sprinkled on top?


      But looking at the whole thing from a distance, maybe we can understand some of the confusion. Vegetarians don’t eat chicken, but many eat eggs, despite the fact that an egg’s pretty much what constitutes a chicken. Many vegetarians eat cheese, even though it’s made with cow milk and the lining of a cow’s stomach.

      Many of our beliefs and behaviors are culturally constructed, a lack a solid objective basis. We just agree amongst ourselves what’s okay and not okay. So vegetarians don’t eat beef. But a whole lot wear leather belts and shoes. Myself included.

      It’s easy to see how other folks might not decide to create the same distinctions.

  21. I’ve been reading your blog for quite a long time and I never imagined you were a vegetarian. Wow.

    I myself was raised at an ovo-lacto vegetarian house and I can relate to so much of this article.
    I was vegetarian since I was born, and the last years back at home I had started considering doing the final step my family never did and getting rid of Eggs and Milk, but then it turned out I was moving to Japan and of course I gave up on such a suicidal idea.

    To be fair when I arrived Japan I sorta thought the same as you. Like “Yeah, I’m probably gonna eat some sea food because oh well, that just can’t be helped”. And I did try. I remember eating one piece of fish, for real, once. But I couldn’t, it was the worst experience I ever had and I never tried it again. I think a whole life of never seeing meat as food had an irreversible effect on me.

    Of course I do eat a lot of things I know have Tsuyu, Dashi and so many of these fish-based seasonings Japanese are obsessed with. But you know what they say, what the eyes don’t see… Or what my teeth don’t pierce through, in this case. Giving up on those (and all the vegetables which were boiled together with meat at shabu-shabu, what I would NEVER eat back at home) would mean totally giving up on social life and on eating out, so nope. Bring all the Dashi, Tsuyu and meat-boiled vegetables, whatever. I think my peak was eating Ramen just taking the actual pork piece away.

    Yes, I do end in a lot of weird talks that I would rather try to avoid about vegetarianism with Japanese people, which get exceptionally tricky when they start trying to figure some logic on what I eat and what I don’t, while obviously there is none, like why do I eat eggs but not Tarako? But for our luck most Japanese don’t bother thinking that much.

    I totally understand your feeling of trying to be a normal person, but since I couldn’t manage to eat it, it became the one place where I just give up, play the Foreigner Card and let it roll. One can’t win all the battles.

    1. Your situation sounds exactly like mine. Living among Japanese folks puts one on a slippery slope. I really couldn’t eat any meat at first. Just mentally, I couldn’t deal with it. But you can, of course, get used to anything, and eventually I was able to eat some if it was the best solution to a complicated social circumstance.

      And even if our dietary choices don’t make 100% logical sense, it’s worth noting that most everybody makes some sort of arbitrary distinction. People eat pigs but not dogs, cows but not dolphin, or crabs but not cockroaches. There’s really nothing unusual about deciding not to eat certain foods. It’s just that most people follow established patterns, whereas maybe we’ve decided to draw the lines for ourselves.

      There’s also this strange culture in Japan, where people make the biggest deal out of small variations between people. Japanese people love to probe for these, even among themselves, and when they find them it’s always “heeeee~”. For some reason, folks here delight in discovering differences, and treating them as significant. But that’s another discussion.

      1. Yeah, what you say about arbitrary distinctions is very true. I usually get my discussions done by saying “I don’t know. I never ate it so I don’t see it as food at all, in the same way you don’t see bugs as food, even if they are eatable.” and it usually gets the work done.
        Now and then you have the smart-ass who answers they wouldn’t mind trying it (and god knows Japanese people do eat anything alive or not, as you’ve pointed, so I wouldn’t dare doubting), but that is enough uncommon in Japan to allow me to reverse the argument, just say “Oh well, that is your case” and follow to the next topic.

        And about finding differences, hell yeah. Gotta endure those endless talks between Japanese people comparing dialects and different pronunciations for the same word. Yes, it is somewhat interesting, but is it that big of a deal if it is your mother tongue? Like, whatever.

  22. I had a colleague in our Japan office who had to do the same thing– omni during company meals, but vegan at home. I really respect what you guys do! I tried continuing being PB during a short trip there, and ran into the same issues of “one too many ingredients”… like, this convenience store spaghetti & marinara would have been perfect without the ground beef I thought were tomato chunks through the fogged-up plastic top. Even inarizushi has dashi…

  23. As a twice-lapsed vegetarian myself, I understand the simultaneous joys and shame of the omnivorous diet. During my time in Japan, I’d like to be open to eating anything and everything – but there are some things I simply don’t want to eat. Like whale meat, for example. I’m not to keen on chowing down on Free Willy, if I can avoid it.

    Just out of curiosity, when it comes to seafood, do you try to eat “sustainable” fish species? Is that even possible in Japan?

    I ask since the overfishing of Bluefin tuna and other highly sought after sea creatures (with Japan being a primary culprit) is a moderate concern of mine. I wouldn’t necessarily restrict myself to not eating the “right” foods, but it’d be nice at least try to do my small part to ensure that some tuna remain in the oceans.

    1. Edit: Should be “I wouldn’t necessarily restrict myself to only eating the ‘right’ foods.”

    2. If you hang out with enough Japanese people, you’ll probably be confronted with plenty of stuff you “simply don’t want to eat.” Entrail stew, raw horse meat, live squid…whale’s certainly not the worst of it.

      As for eating “sustainable” seafood, I’m all for it. Truth be told though, I really don’t eat that much anyway. In a given week, I probably eat a total of about 3 fish, with two being small mackerel. In addition to eating better, it’s probably a good idea to just eat a whole lot less.

      1. Agreed. I try to go most of the day without eating or else eating very little, and when I cook, I mostly cook vegetarian. Unfortunately, when I eat out, I tend to eat a lot of meat.

  24. Over two years late but I’ve started relying on website (and app) called happycow to discover vegetarian places around me. It seems to work pretty well at least for Tokyo and Kanagawa area.

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