I used to be a vegetarian. No, really. Ask my family and friends: between the years of 2008 and 2010 not a lick of meat passed my lips. And you know what? I am still proud of that fact. I’m not like someone who went through a dark stage in life where I was denied access to bacon but I’ve now seen the light. For those of you reading this who are still veggies, take a virtual fist bump from me. Seriously, good on ya.
So why did I stop? Well, Japan. That’s why. To this day, I remember saying to the recruiter that, although I was a vegetarian at the time of the interview, I was willing to give up my veggie-ness in order to come Japan. Yep, I was ready to give up an ethical belief for my own satisfaction. What? Oh, don’t look at me like that. You do the exact same thing every time you go to THAT certain chain restaurant that you tell everyone you hate. You know of what I speak. THAT one.
And I just had to give it up because…well, it is really, really hard to be a veggie here. Well, it’s hard being a veggie in most countries, but in Japan it is especially so. Now I know of at least two people living in Japan who very comfortably live as a vegetarian, and I am seriously delighted to hear that. But make no mistake: compared to the UK (and I’m sure most other developed countries) being a vegetarian in Japan is much harder.
For starters, there’s the sheer variety of fish and meat available. Especially fish: Japan is an island nation that thrives off of it’s maritime foodstuffs. I mean, they even made seaweed delicious. The national dish is sushi, though they also eat basically any other sea-dwelling creature if they can too. It’s quite disconcerting to be in aquarium and amidst the “ooh”s and “aah”s you will hear the occasional “oishisou!” (“That looks tasty!”).
Meat, too, is just as easy to come by and often sneaks up on you when you least expect it. After my first week at the school I worked at, the English teacher and a few other teachers invited me out for a bite to eat.
“What would you like to eat?” she asked me.
Not realising that turns of phrases and figures of expressions don’t translate, I said, “Well, I could eat a horse.”
Guess what I ate that night. Yep. Sorry, Seabiscuit.
On top of that, there’s a distinct lack of labelling to in Japanese supermarkets. There’s no handy ‘Suitable for Vegetarians’ symbol for packaging here, and there isn’t really the established movement of vegetarianism here in Japan to demand that. And that won’t be happening for a while, because the attitude is quite far behind the times: if you tell a restaurant that you’re vegetarian, they’ll either look at you blankly like you’ve just declared yourself Overlord of the Plants, or at best they’ll just scrape the meaty bits off of your plate. My wife, one of the least confrontational people I know, has openly told me that she would have a massive problem if I try to be a vegetarian again.
And that is a shame really, because Japan does so much good stuff without meat. When I travelled back to the UK, it really struck me just how much dishes insist on having at least one meat item. Usually a pie. But in Japan, they actually know how to make a dish out of vegetables alone – I regularly down dishes of rice, natto, tofu, various salads, hotpots, noodles and so on. That, and the culture and society seems to be primed and ready for it too: an animal-loving country that frankly doesn’t have that many animals to eat in the first place, with a population that is very keen on healthy living and eating. Maybe it wouldn’t take such a big change after all?
But yakiniku is just so darn tasty.