04 : Qualitative Analysis of Vegetarian Dining in Japan as Experienced by Taiwanese Tourists

Tsaiyu Chang

The Faculty of Economics and Management, Surugadai University

Saitama, Japan


This study aims to investigate the practice of vegetarianism in Japan through informal interviews with Taiwanese vegetarians who had visited Japan on self-catering trips. The interviews reveal that, despite the difficulty and high searching cost of finding vegetarian food, travelers’ level of satisfaction was low. In addition, there is a lack of understanding of vegetarianism in Japan. Vegetarians are at times forced to behave as flexitarians at restaurants in Japan, since they cannot find vegetarian Japanese food. Vegetarians who travel with non-vegetarian friends often have to eat only desserts or cold foods to avoid animal products. Because there are no clear vegetarian labels, vegetarians often find it difficult to buy processed products because of animal-derived additives commonly used in Japan, such as gelatin and fish flakes (bonito).


Vegetarian, Japan, Taiwan, Flexitarian, Vegan, Tourism, Vegetarianism 

1 Introduction

There are few vegetarians in Japan, although there are no official statistics. Japanese food is often thought to be primarily vegetarian, but most of the food is heavily flavored with animal ingredients such as chicken stock or fish flakes (bonito). In Japanese cuisine, dashi is the foundation of taste. Typically, Traditional dashi comprises a stock made from seaweed and bonito. However, many commercial (instant) products are available, but commercial products are made using flakes of dashi broth.

For this study, vegetarians from Taiwan, who had visited Japan, were interviewed to assess what they ate during their visit. The study used informal interviews; participants were asked to describe freely what they liked about the food they ate during their visit to Japan.



2 Background

In general, the main categories of vegetarians include lacto-vegetarians (consume dairy but not eggs), ovo-vegetarians (consume eggs but not dairy products), lacto-ovo vegetarians (egg- and dairy-eating vegetarians), and vegans, who eat only plant products. The term “flexitarian” is a term used to describe a person who is normally a vegetarian, but may on occasion eat animal products 

It is estimated that about 14% of the Taiwanese population is predominantly vegetarian or practice vegetarianism at certain times (Huang and Chen.2019). Many are lacto-ovo vegetarians, and some do not eat the five pungent vegetables (onions, garlic, scallions, leeks, and asafetida) proscribed by Buddhism. In addition, similar to the flexitarian, there are also people in Taiwan who do not eat meat or fish but frequent restaurants with a meat menu. If there is only non-vegetarian food available, they will ask clerks or waiters to prepare a dish that is as close to vegetarian food as possible, or they will avoid animal products from the existing menu. In recent years, many restaurants in Taiwan have introduced vegetarian menus; however, there are still some eating situations that cannot be adapted to vegetarian meals, such as eating in small restaurant with a limited menu. The acceptance of these flexitarian situations by vegetarians depends on their individual beliefs and the environment they face.



3 Methodology

In this study, we used face-to-face interviews with Taiwanese vegetarians to record the content of meals they consumed in Japan and to examine the difficulties encountered in choosing a restaurant or a meal, and what kind of vegetarian meals they would have liked to eat. The interviews were conducted between 21 and 28 December 2017.

The interviewees were located via a social networking site using the snowball sampling method. Since vegetarians do not differ from the general population in appearance, no rosters exist for random sampling. The interview took on average between one and two hours to complete, including recall of travel experiences. People who had been introduced by a personal reference were more likely to participate in the study, since they were asked to provide photos and other materials for corroboration. Although there is a possibility of bias in the content of the sample because it was not a random selection, this did not interfere with the goal of gathering a variety of opinions about their experience of vegetarianism. A total of 21 people were interviewed. As the problems experienced by vegetarians on package tours differ from those on self-catering trips, and because the employment and education of participants also have an impact on research interviews, the following analysis is based on only 10 cases of full-time workers with a university degree or higher who went to Japan on a self-catering trip.



4 Surveys and Findings

Table 1 shows the results of this survey. Since all participants were self-catering travelers, this study also investigated their past experiences of visiting Japan on their own.

While 9 of the 10 interviewees were not flexitarians in Taiwan, 6 out of 10 interviewees adopted flexitarianism in Japan. In addition, the choice of flexitarianism was not related to how many times they had visited Japan or their ability to speak the Japanese language.

Table 2 reports on interviews conducted with the same 10 people about their meals. As the first row reveals, 4 of the 10 people traveled with the expectation of good meals as part of the experience. The second row shows that most people took time to investigate the Japanese vegetarian diet in advance. Of the 2 people who did not, 1 was flexitarian.

Generally, when traveling, the participants enjoy different meals whenever possible, but 8 of these 10 people ate the same meals repeatedly in Japan. After they investigated vegetarianism in Japan, they knew there may be no vegetarian food; therefore, 5 of the 10 interviewees brought their own meals from Taiwan, such as instant noodles.


Table 1: Information of 10 vegetarian self-catering travelers

ID 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
age  24 24 25 30 31 33 35 39 52 54
flexitarian in Taiwan Yes No No No No No No No No No
flexitarian during trip in Japan Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No No Yes
how many visits to Japan  5 6 1 1 3 4 3 3 20 5
how many self-catering trips 3 1 1 1 2 3 3 3 20 2
How many days in the recent self-catering trip 11 20 14 5 74 6 6 8 9 5
study in Japan before Yes No No No Yes No No No No No
I speak some Japanese Yes Yes No No Yes No No No Yes No-
recent trip year ’17 ’17 ’14 ’15 ’15 ’17 ’17 ’17 ’17 ’17
Visited city






 Tokyo West Japan  Kyoto  Kyoto Tokyo Nagoya Kyoto

Although most hotels do not serve vegetarian meals, 8 out of 10 interviewees indicated that they would choose hotels that did offer vegetarian meals. All the respondents answered that they were less satisfied with their meals during the trip in Japan than with their usual meals in Taiwan.


Table 2: Vegetarian tourists’ eating experience in Japan

ID 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Food is a trip purpose or not. Yes Yes Yes No No No No No No Yes
Time to examine the food. No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes
I ate the same food more than twice. Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes Yes Yes
Take your own meals from Taiwan Yes Yes No Yes Yes No No No Yes No
Willingness to stay in a hotel that explicitly states that it offers vegetarians Yes No No Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Compare Japanese meal to you often eat in Taiwan worse worse worse worse worse worse worse worse worse worse

Word frequency analysis in Table 3 performed on the interviews reveal that few traditional Japanese meals were mentioned in the interviews. Instead, “Indian,” “curry,” “Chinese,” “bread,” “pasta,” “burger,” “salad,” “buffet,” and “caf” were mentioned. “Tofu” and “udon” (noodles) are the only Japanese meals mentioned. The names of ingredients often appear, such as “fish,” “rice,” and “eggs.” Many of the interviewees were worried about animal-derived food additives, and words like “gelatin,” “sauce,” and “bonito” were often used. Another category related to Japanese food is dessert, e.g., “sweets,” “fruits,” “matcha,” and “ice.” Words related to communication are “communicate,” “English,” “Japanese,” “clerk,” and “ask (asked),” which indicates that many of the interviewees were troubled about communication regarding food. “Guesthouse” also appeared as a word because many people chose to stay in guesthouses where they could prepare their own meals.


Table 3: Word frequency more than 3 times during interviews

Words frequncy Words frequncy Words frequncy
vegetarian 20 sweets 6 asked 3
food 15 tofu 6 bonito 3
sightseeing 13 bread 5 burger 3
restaurant 12 checked 5 clerk 3
japanese 11 convenience 5 eggs 3
time 11 matcha 5 foreign 3
delicious 10 meals 5 fruit 3
rice 9 salad 5 hot 3
soup 8 ask 4 information 3
breakfast 7 bother 4 izakaya 3
fish 7 chinese 4 kitchen 3
friends 7 communicate 4 milk 3
hotel 7 english 4 ordinary 3
meat 7 gelatin 4 own 3
pasta 7 google 4 pudding 3
sauce 7 guesthouse 4 shibuya 3
store 7 ice 4 shops 3
buffet 6 restaurants 4 small 3
curry 6 tasty 4 style 3
indian 6 temple 4 supermarket 3
meal 6 times 4 sweet 3
nothing 6 vegetarians 4 udon 3
stores 6 advance 3 vegetables 3

The following are some of the participants’ answers directly related to meals. “Most of the time, we fill our bellies with something not meal, such as sweets (ID 2)”. “I have not been eating any meals that look like meals. Sometimes, three meals a day are served at a convenience store. There are hot meals I can eat (ID 4)”. “Mostly, I was eating pasta, which is just fine. Sometimes in Chinese restaurants, if you communicate with them, they make something for you (ID 5)”. “I ate more than usual, but I do not think it was a proper meal (ID 5)”. “I was not able to eat lunch properly because I usually go to the tourist attractions. I ate dinner at a restaurant, I checked (ID 6)”. “The first time I went there, I could hardly eat anything. By the third time, I found out that a curry shop had a vegetarian curry, so I could have a proper meal after that (ID 7)”.

The participants felt disappointed that they could not eat Japanese food. They had to behave as flexitarians at Japanese restaurants, although most of them were not usually flexitarians. They struggled to find Japanese vegetarian food. There are few vegetarians in Japan. The interviewees often had to eat desserts or cold foods to avoid animal products. Almost all the participants, regardless of whether they could speak Japanese or not, cited communication problems. If their travel companions were non-vegetarians, the restaurants they went to were often non-vegetarian. In restaurants that did not have vegetarian options, waiters were not necessarily familiar with the requirements of vegetarianism. Some waiters asked detailed questions such as “Do you eat fish or shellfish?” or “Would the dashi broth be fine?” but such communication was often lost during the process. Those respondents who had studied in Japan were familiar with the situation in Japanese restaurants, so they tended not to ask those clerks. As a result, once they found a place where they could get vegetarian food, they always ate the same food. In addition, even if they did not eat in restaurants, it was also difficult to buy processed products because of the additives commonly used in Japan, such as gelatin and bonito, which are often unlabeled. It is worth mentioning that most of the respondents traveled in cities; they mentioned that they might have more difficulty in rural villages with less diversity, so they had not yet travelled to the countryside.

From this study it is clear that the vegetarian environment in Japan is not friendly to travelers. Therefore, there is much scope for improvement. Although this study is aimed at vegetarian travelers to Japan, the small number of vegetarians in Japan may also face similar problems that need to be solved.




This work was supported by JSPS KAKENHI Grant Number 19K15921.


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