Japan is not the gluten-free mecca you think it is

Back from hiatus, during which I moved apartments and my mom and siblings came to Japan. My mom made delicious classics like salad and cabbage while she was here! I dream of my mom’s salad. They left two days ago and I could barely hold it together on the train on the way home. I love living in Japan but my “Japanese self” is a timid, neurotic little ball of stress, so it was lovely to be my crude American self for a few weeks, where my family and I did nothing but laugh and poke fun at each other as loudly and boisterously as possible. Also, my new apartment is a palace, with a clean kitchen and a new cook range. My mom snapped a photo during dinner on our last night.

I mean, the tiles aren't even crumbling.

I mean, the tiles aren’t even crumbling.

My younger sister Jackie has a condition called ulcerative colitis. It’s an autoimmune disease where her body attacks her colon and large intestine. Over the past few years she’s gone through many treatments, including a round of strong steroids that made her face look like Betty Boop’s for a while. My sister’s tried many diet modifications to assuage her symptoms, the most prominent being the avoidance of gluten. I knew about this before she came, of course, but I thought she was just avoiding gluten. “Okay,” I said, “Just don’t use extra soy sauce or eat udon.” But then she arrived in Japan, and it turned out I’d been mistaken; she wasn’t just avoiding gluten, she was completely gluten-free. Zero gluten. It’s easy to eat a low gluten diet in Japan, but avoiding it all together is a gargantuan task indeed. What’s worse, if she were to ingest any gluten, she would become immediately ill. In fact, once anyone goes gluten-free – whether they have a medical intolerance to it or not – the reintroduction of gluten is quite hard on the system.

Japan, at first glance, might seem like a gluten-free paradise. Unlike the Western world, the staple grain here is rice, not wheat. But, as we discovered, while it’s very easy to eat low-gluten, gluten-free is difficult, requires lots of planning, and – this is the worst part – Japanese skills that are definitely beyond my own. Yes, there’s a lot of rice here, but there’s also a lot of barley and wheat, the latter moreso with the influence of Western-style snack products and foods.

I’m not going to sugar-coat it. Being gluten-free in Japan is a pretty miserable experience. Seeking advice for how to handle my sister’s situation, I chatted with a fellow ALT, Mark, who has Celiac’s disease. He basically told me that the solution to eating out in Japan is not to eat out. My sister remained very chipper during her time here, but I felt terrible about it most of the time. Jackie quickly learned the kanjis for flour (小麦粉 komugiko) and barley (麦 mugi) and we set to work scanning each and every product we wanted to buy to look for it. In the process, we learned a lot and had a few meltdowns (mostly me crying and her snapping, “I do NOT want another bowl of goddamn rice!”). Everything seemed to contain some form of wheat flour or barley. We may have been totally vanquished if it weren’t for . . .

Halleluijah!

Yes, Soyjoy! One of the few gluten-free snacks in Japan! But Man does not live by soy bar alone. I scoured the internet for resources on gluten-free Japanese foods, and found very little, so I decided – in honor of my sister and her purse full of Soyjoy wrappers – to compile a little reference for any sufferin’ Celiacs or otherwise gluten-intolerant gaikokujin.

Let’s start with the positive. Here’s a list of gluten-free snacks that can be safely consumed. I tried to choose things that can be bought prepared or ordered out, because of course, it’s easier to be gluten-free when you cook yourself:

  • O Soyjoy. All flavors
  • O X Certain rice crackers. Like the shrimp/squid flavored ones at the convenience store, or plain salt (shio) flavor – but not the ones flavored with soy sauce, which is most of them. If the rice cracker doesn’t contain soy sauce, you can probably bet on MSG (I don’t mind MSG but some people are physically sensitive to it).
    Update: I recently learned from Gluten Free Gaijin that MSG is made with wheat! So, most rice crackers are probably out.
  • O Mochi. All kinds, both traditional rice mochi and also arrowroot (kuzu) or bracken (warabi). Even the ones that looked like they were floured were dusted with either soy or rice flour. Real azuki bean paste should not contain any gluten, but the cheap, fake stuff contains starch syrup (水あめ mizuame), which does.
  • O Yatsuhashi. Yes! Kyoto’s best-known omiyage is made from rice flour, cinnamon, and sugar. When it contains the traditional azuki bean filling, yatsuhashi is 100% gluten-free. I’m not too sure about the fruit-filled ones, though.
  • O Boba milk tea. Tapioca pearls are gluten free – they’re made from cassava.
  • O Salt-only non-marinated kushiyaki. Excluding marinated meats (like kalbi) and wieners or meatballs (tsukune), many izakayas and yatai stalls offer two choices of sauce for your meat – salt (shio) or soy-based sauce (tare). Choose salt and you will be fine. We found that chicken thigh skewers (momo) were not marinated anywhere we went.
  • O Edamame
  • O Natto
  • O Traditional Japanese pickles.
  • O Kimchi
  • O Yakiniku. Excluding marinated cuts like kalbi, and avoiding dipping sauces.
  • O Yakiimo. Baked sweet potatoes, which we didn’t eat, because it’s the g-d’ed middle of summer.
  • O Tofu. I’ve heard that it can be made with flour, but we didn’t find one package of tofu containing flour. Even fried tofu (atsuage/namaage) is just tofu fried in oil with no breading, so it’s gluten-free, too.
  • O Some pre-made onigiri. Pickled plum (ume) onigiri is usually a safe bet. Some fish and roe versions are also okay, but the ingredients list should be consulted. Convenience store onigiri is especially suspect, as it most likely contains MSG, but perhaps you live next to a nice rice ball shop?
  • O Indian curry. Japanese curry isn’t gluten-free, but Indian curry is.
  • O Thai food. Thai curry and pad thai are usually gluten free.
  • O Sashimi and sushi. Ah, hello old friend. Excluding marinated varieties, such as eel (unagi), nigiri sushi is a great bet. Maki rolls can be trickier, since sometimes they contain egg sweetened with soy sauce (tamagoyaki) or pickles/vegetables marinated in soy sauce.

The above list should give you a good idea of what my sister ate while we were out in Japan: a lot of black-sesame flavored ice cream, a lot of fish and tofu, and packages of mochi. Luckily, we rented an apartment when we went to Kyoto and so were able to cook nearly every night.

Sad gluten-free panda.

And now, for the sadness: that which is not gluten-free in Japan. You can sniff out most of it by sight and name – anything dredged or breaded, anything containing soy sauce, cakes and cookies, noodles, etc. – but then there’s the less obvious. I assume an intelligent audience, so here I’ll only detail the less obvious:

  • X Soy sauce. Okay, so that’s obvious, but what may not be is that it’s in many things, including meat marinades, salad dressings, yaki-onigiri, tare sauce, tamagoyaki omelets, dried jerky, and the sauce on those mitarashi dango rice balls.
  • X Ponzu shouyu. Straight ponzu sauce does not contain any soy sauce; however the ponzu that is on the table when you sit down at a restaurant is actually ponzu shouyu, ponzu mixed with soy sauce, often simply called “ponzu.”
  • X Tamari. Apparently, the gluten-free crowd back home is big into tamari, which is a thicker dipping soy sauce. It contains less wheat than regular soy sauce (which already contains a pretty negligible amount), but it is not gluten free. 100% soy versions do exist, but we couldn’t find any in the grocery stores we visited.
  • X Miso soup and miso-marinated dishes. Actually, a lot of miso is gluten free, being made from beans, salt, and rice, but several varieties are not – they may contain flour or barley. Unless you are making it yourself, you can’t be sure if the dish you’re eating  was made with a wheat or barley-free miso. And sometimes chefs don’t know either.
  • X Japanese curry and yoshoku dishes. Yoshoku – which is the Japanese “Western-style food” like omuraisu, hayashi rice, et cetera, often contains wheat. Curry, hayashi rice, and cream stew are all made from roux which contain flour, omelet batters all contain soy sauce, and even the hamburg-onion or menchi-katsu (like meatloaf) is most likely made with flour.
  • X Soba noodles. 100% soba noodles are gluten free, but since buckwheat is so difficult to bind on its own, it is always cut with flour to make noodles that won’t fall apart. I couldn’t find any pure-buckwheat noodles in Japan, but they can be ordered from organic stores online. With many soba noodles, wheat flour is actually the first ingredient – bah!
  • X Barley tea (mugicha). If you know what this is, then it should be obvious. But a lot of people don’t think to ask whether the tea their guest is handing them is made from gluten. Mugicha is an incredibly popular and common drink in Japan, so be sure that what’s in front of you is made from tea leaves before you drink.
  • X Cold-cuts. Pre-packaged sausages and weiners contain flour to bind the bits (ha, ew). These are often found in convenience store bentos.
  • X Gummy candies. If it contains starch syrup (水あめ mizuame), it’s not gluten free.
  • X Certain sweet azuki bean desserts. If the shop is using pure azuki bean paste (餡 an), you’re fine, but many use a pre-made paste that contains starch syrup and thus, gluten.
  • X MSG. As I mentioned above, I recently discovered that Japanese MSG is made with wheat! This complicates matters, doesn’t it?

Food allergies are rarer in Japan than elsewhere, but they do exist. Unfortunately, they are still not taken as seriously in Japan as in the Western world – many people do not understand their severity. There is also less of an emphasis on accommodation in Japan as there is in the West. Does accommodation disrupt group harmony? Are people worried that it will lead to entitlement, self-aggrandizement, or arrogance? I don’t know, I can only guess. The saying is, “The customer is God,” but this seems to refer more to reverential treatment and pampering rather than adjusting to the customer’s wishes. We were told our requests were impossible more than once – they essentially told us to leave, but they were like, really, really nice about it, man. So, while Japan is known internationally for it’s service, I think there is an implicit message: This is what we have to offer you. If you cannot accept it as is, then please go somewhere else. There is a hole for every peg in Japan, but when the two don’t fit together it’s the peg that’s changed, not the niche.

But a food allergy is not the same as pickiness. It’s not even the same as a voluntary lifestyle choice, such as vegetarianism. Nobody with an allergy ever asked for it. Last year, a young girl died when her teacher refused to take her insistence of a milk allergy seriously. There was a small bruhaha in the news, and maybe even an official statement or two diplomatically handed down from some official body, but as far as I can tell, students are still encouraged to clean their plates each and every day, whether or not they like the food, whether or not it upsets their stomachs. If I had to guess, I’d say things are unlikely to change soon, and until the gluten-free fad makes a jump across the Pacific, it will be harder to eat this way in Japan.

And that’s it. I personally love gluten, and so to counteract this post, I think I’ll post soon about fu, which is literally straight wheat gluten in a bag that you can buy for a dollar and add to your soups and stews.

If you’re interested in reading more, I found a blog, Gluten Free in Japan, from a Celiac detailing her experiences living in Okinawa.

5 thoughts on “Japan is not the gluten-free mecca you think it is

  1. Pingback: Having a Wonderful Gluten Free Life in Japan | Gluten Free in Japan

  2. Pingback: Putain, Gluten! | The Japan Saga

  3. While it isn’t an absolute cake walk and more so with a language barrier, out almost two years in Japan have proven to be quite manageable. I would recommend learning enough Japanese to briefly explain that you have an allergy and also have a Japanese GF dining card on hand- they are available online for free.

    Sure it took us a few months to get it down, but honestly we have not had issue 1.

  4. I want to buy bread when I’m in japan could you help with where I might buy it. Regards justine

  5. Pingback: Japan trip

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