The sooner you can read Japanese food labels for yourself the better.
Unfortunately, well-meaning people (including those with a good understanding of Japanese) sometimes say food products are ‘ok’ for vegans, when actually they aren’t. They may also say something is ‘not vegan’ when it is, or is likely to be. For example people may say something isn’t vegan when they see the kanji for ’emulsifier’ (乳化剤), which includes the ‘milk’ kanji (乳). While emulsifier can be plant or animal derived, in Japan it mostly comes from soy and other plant sources. Of course to know whether something is or isn’t vegan often requires more than just language skills. It usually also requires knowledge about the source and composition of food ingredients.
Following is a short guide on how to read Japanese food labels, focusing on the ingredients. Japanese food labelling is not consistent and some labels contain more information than others. But, generally speaking, when checking whether a food product is vegan, there are a few specific places you should look. These are discussed below. If you are interested, a more comprehensive guide to Japanese food labels can be found on the Surviving in Japan blog.
If you don’t know much Japanese, it may be helpful to use a smartphone app like Worldictionary (it uses the smartphone camera to ‘read’ the labels and then provides a translation using Google Translate). If you’re still having trouble, one way to avoid long lists of ingredients is to eat mostly whole foods while you are in Japan.
Below is an example of a Japanese food label with three areas marked:
1 – LIST OF INGREDIENTS
This is an obvious starting point and is marked in red on the example. Unfortunately it may not be possible to determine whether a product is vegan without contacting the manufacturer for more information about the source of certain ingredients.
2 – ALLERGEN INFORMATION
Immediately after the list of ingredients you may see some allergen information in brackets. This is marked in blue on the example. Japanese law requires the labelling of food containing certain allergens like wheat, egg and milk. This section will tell you if there is an allergen in the food product, even if it is just listed as something like ‘flavouring’.
3 – ALLERGEN CHART
There may also be an allergen chart like the one marked in yellow on the example. The allergens in the product are highlighted.
You may also see an allergen chart on the front of the package like this:
4 – POSSIBLE CONTAMINANTS
This is not shown on the example above, but many food labels contain a statement about possible cross contamination. You may see:
This means that the product is manufactured in a facility that also makes products containing egg, milk, wheat and peanuts (in the above example), so there is a possibility of cross contamination.
The kanji 含む (fukumu), seen above in relation to allergens and contamination, means ‘contains’ and the kanji 由来 (yurai) means ‘derived from’. You may see the latter in relation to emulsifier derived from soy: 大豆由来
You might also see 有機 (yūki), which means ‘organic’ and 遺伝子組換えでない (idenshikumikae denai) which means ‘not genetically modified’.
Please see the Dictionary on this website for more useful words when reading Japanese food labels.
A note on disclosure of ingredients
You should also be aware that Japanese law does not appear to require disclosure of all the ingredients in a food product. For example, take this Dan D Pak Fruitty Berry Muesli (a product imported from Canada):
The Japanese label was glued over the top of the English and French label. The list of ingredients in Japanese ends with ‘dry papaya’, making the muesli appear very wholesome. However the English label underneath lists the following additional ingredients after ‘papaya’: ‘sugar, citric acid, vegetable oil, sulphur dioxide, sodium metabisulfite, calcium chloride, tartrazine, sunset yellow FCF, allura red’ (see below). Of course this lack of disclosure is concerning, and particularly concerning for vegans.