Gluten-Free in Japan: What to Know When Eating Out
Maintaining a gluten-free diet is a useful and, in some cases, essential part of many people’s lifestyles. However, in Japan, gluten-free diets are not broadly known, so there isn’t a widespread understanding of which foods do and don’t include gluten and why people may need to avoid gluten.
Because of this, the responsibility is very much on the consumer to navigate which foods fit into a gluten-free diet in Japan. A number of essential base ingredients in Japanese dishes include gluten, so maintaining this lifestyle can be difficult. Keep reading to find out some ways you can sustain a gluten-free diet in Japan.
Japanese Foods That Are High in Gluten
While rice is the traditional staple food of Japanese cuisine (and doesn’t contain gluten), in modern times there are many Japanese foods that do use wheat and other ingredients containing gluten. The most straightforward of these are Japanese versions of Western foods, which can include cake, bread, pizza, and the like. While these foods are often made differently in Japan, they do still contain gluten.
Among more typically Japanese foods, most noodle types contain gluten including ramen, udon, and in some cases soba. While soba is a buckwheat noodle and traditionally is gluten-free, they are now often made using a combination of buckwheat and wheat flour.
Another common ingredient in Japanese cuisine containing gluten is soy sauce, which serves not only as a condiment but as a base to a range of sauces and seasonings. Dashi, a flavor enhancer to most broths in Japan, contains gluten and so do most modern versions of miso. These three ingredients — soy sauce, dashi, and miso — are included in a large range of Japanese meals. Finding foods without these three ingredients, or with gluten-free versions, can be difficult in Japan.
A number of Japanese foods made with a dough or batter include flour as an ingredient, and therefore have gluten. These include dishes like the Osaka favorites of takoyaki and okonomiyaki. The popular Japanese souffle pancakes also fit into this category. Gyoza and other dumpling types are also usually made with a flour containing gluten. Fried foods, like tempura, croquettes, and katsu are commonly made with a batter that includes gluten and so should also be avoided.
This may seem like a never-ending list and those with gluten intolerances may be starting to wonder if eating gluten-free is even possible in Japan. Luckily, there are a number of foods that are gluten-free as well as ways to work around those that aren’t.
Gluten-free Japanese Foods
As mentioned above, there are some Japanese foods that were traditionally made without gluten ingredients but have started to contain gluten over the last century or so. However, traditional versions of these foods are sometimes still available, although often at a higher price.
Rice and the large variety of rice-based products in Japan are also largely gluten-free including rice noodles, items made with rice flour, senbei (a thin Japanese rice cracker), and the ever-popular mochi. Mochi is a thick, chewy rice cake made from glutinous rice flour (don’t let the name deceive you) and has both savory and sweet varieties.
Sushi and sashimi are also gluten-free, as long as they are eaten without soy sauce. Shio yakitori (salted chicken skewers) is a great option for a standard Japanese pub meal as it’s made without the soy sauce glaze typically brushed on most yakitori.
A number of foods based on simple ingredients are completely gluten-free and able to be eaten by those with gluten intolerances including items like yaki-imo (roasted sweet potatoes), the recent trend of tapioca tea, roasted chestnuts, and edamame (boiled or steamed salted beans). Sometimes edamame is made using udon water and so can be at risk of cross-contamination, but this can be confirmed with the restaurant or pub where they are served.
How to Order Safely at Japanese Restaurants
It can be difficult to navigate gluten-free eating in Japan, however, there are a number of options to make things easier. While it’s not common to ask for adjustments or substitutions to meals at restaurants, if a serious condition such as gluten intolerance is explained to the staff they will often try to help.
Of course, this may be difficult to explain in Japanese, especially for tourists. A great option is to carry a card with a simple explanation in Japanese, like the one below, that can just be shown to restaurant staff before ordering.
I have a wheat/gluten allergy.
私は小麦粉、グルテンアレルギーです (Komugiko, Gluten arerugi desu).
I absolutely must not eat it.
絶対に食べられません (Zettai ni taberemasen).
If I eat it accidentally, I will become sick.
間違って食べると具合が悪くなります (Taberuto guai ga waruku narimasu).
In terms of which restaurants are a safe bet for gluten-free eating, sushi and sashimi restaurants are always going to be a good choice. Yakiniku and teppanyaki restaurants are also good as long as you can avoid marinated meats and soy sauce. For treats, there are a number of artisan shops that sell a large array of handmade, well-crafted mochi and daifuku.
This is a great way to indulge while sticking to a gluten-free diet. These can also be found in the basement floor of most department stores called the depachika. Outside of Japanese cuisine, most Indian and Thai restaurants in Japan have gluten-free options as they typically have less reliance on Japanese gluten-containing base ingredients like dashi and miso.
In Case of a Gluten-related Emergency While in Japan
In the event that immediate attention is necessary or an emergency, the first thing to do is call 119 for assistance. If you are in Tokyo, an English-speaking operator will be able to assist you, but outside of Tokyo it’s important to learn how to request help in Japanese as it’s unlikely that the operator will be able to understand foreign languages. Ask the operator to send an ambulance as soon as possible. Be ready to provide the operator with as much of the following information as possible: name, gender, age, address, description of location using landmarks, and the reason for immediate assistance.
For more information on medical care in Japan and how to find an English-speaking doctor in the Tokyo area, we suggest reading our article on Hospitals in Japan and In case of Emergency.
More Information on Dealing with Dietary Restrictions in Japan
While it can be difficult to keep a gluten-free lifestyle in Japan, we hope this information helps you meet your dietary requirements. For more information on allergies, nutrition labels, and other dietary needs while living in Japan, we invite you to read through our comprehensive list of Japan Food Guides for Expats.
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However, these are not always clear to the ordinary consumer. Keep reading as we cover how additive and additive-free foods in Japan are defined.
Find Gluten-Free Food on Amazon
These are carefully selected items that are food gluten-free. You can also search with word "グルテンフリー" (Gluten-Free).