Eating Gluten-Free in Japan

How do you eat gluten-free in Japan?

Where do you find wheat-free food in a country known for everything breaded and fried?  Eating gluten-free in the US is not too difficult: many restaurants have gluten-free menus, and recent advances in bread technology are declared as not only edible but tasty by gluten-eating friends. As time goes on, Americans are becoming more aware of food additives with unpronounceable names, so within reason, we mostly know what’s in our food.  It’s easy enough to cook gluten-free at home, but eating out is sometimes a bit of an adventure, especially when there’s any sort of language barrier involved. At least in the Middle East, generations of folks rocking funky patches of the HLA-DRA gene have Celiac and almost everyone is familiar with wheat sensitivities, or at least the concept of Passover. Tel Aviv has numerous restaurants that cater to the gluten-free crowd.

But eating gluten-free in Japan?  Finding gluten-free food at Japanese restaurants, conbinis, or grocery stores? むずかしいです, difficult… Almost everything in Japan has gluten in it. Soy sauce, thickened with wheat, is ubiquitous. You think sushi is safe? The vinegar used for sushi rice is sometimes doped with gluten, added for color after the distillation process. Breaded cutlet, tempura, soba and udon noodles, curry, red miso… all have the dreaded (mugi, whether wheat or barley). Peanut M&Ms, Snickers… foods that are usually safe in the US all have wheat flour in their Japanese variants.  The Japanese also drink barley or wheat tea!  How do you communicate to Japanese waiters, cooks, and friends that you might get ill if you eat gluten, especially when you don’t really speak the language?

For the bonus round, MSG in China and Japan is made out of real gluten (unlike in the US, where it’s made from a different bacterial fermentation process) and is a tad more nefarious than its American cousins. Want a headache all day? Try eating packaged umeboshi (pickled plums), deli meat, or even pre-made onigiri rice balls at the combini around the corner. And it’s not labeled as MSG–it shows up as “amino flavoring”, アミノ (last post here).

What to look for in ingredients lists

The kanji common to wheat and barley is mugi: .  You usually see 小麦 (wheat), or 大麦 (barley).  しょうゆ, or 醤油, means soy sauce, and that’s usually a no-go.  アミノ酸など are amino flavorings, also known as MSG.  The Japanese variety of MSG guarantees a lot of headaches for foreigners.

“I’m allergic to gluten”

Most Japanese people I encountered have no idea what “gluten” (グルテン) is, so I told them I have an allergy to wheat and soy sauce.  “小麦も醤油のアレルギーがあります; komugi mo shoyu no areguri ga arimasu; wheat and soy sauce allergy.”

How to ask for gluten-free food in Japanese


There are a number of existing gluten-free restaurant cards, but they are not necessarily Japan-specific and do not mention some of the more popular foods in which gluten hides in Japanese food.

病気の為、私には食事制限があります。下記の食材は絶対に食べられません:
Due to illness, I have a diet restriction. I cannot eat the ingredients below:

Gluten(グルテン 、麩質)は絶対に食べられません。
I cannot eat gluten.

グルテンの含む食材は麦、黒麦(ライ麦)、大麦です。
Ingredients which contain gluten are wheat, rye and barley.

これらの食事を食べると大変病気になりますので、絶対に上記の食材を含む料理を遠慮させて頂きたいです。
I will become very ill if I eat food containing the above ingredients.

また、麦と混ぜている料理、あるいは接している料理も食べられません。

パン、パン粉としょゆうも駄目です。溜まり醤油は自分のを持ってきましたので、自分でかけます。
Also, I cannot eat anything which has come in contact or is mixed at all with wheat. This includes bread, bread crumbs and soy sauce. I brought my own tamari sauce to flavor my food.

主なソースは麦を含みますので、肉はソース無しでお願いします。
Most sauces contain wheat so please serve meat without sauce.

赤みそ、てんぷら(パン粉の為)、トンカツ(又パン粉の為)は食べられません。
I cannot eat red miso, tempura (due to bread crumbs), or tonkatsu (also due to bread crumbs).

食事の食材の分からない場合は絶対に教えて頂きたいです。
If you don’t know what ingredients are in a dish, please tell me.

Whatever version of this comes next will thank the waiter profusely for their trouble, and also include more examples of what can be eaten (rice, meat, vegetables, onions, etc.).

In addition to this prototype translation, From Japan With Love has some excellent resources on eating out and cooking gluten-free in Japan. The Internet informs me that gluten-free bread and dessert recipes exist in Japanese, so perhaps awareness of celiac and other gluten sensitivities is becoming more common. There’s also a page of recipes in Japanese appropriate for various allergen-free diets.

What to order in a restaurant

Sashimi, shabu shabu, donburi without soy sauce, Vietnamese pho, rice, salad without sauce, steak without sauce at a family restaurant, and Sasebo burgers without buns in Sasebo.  San-J, best known for their soy sauce, sells travel-sized packages of gluten-free tamari in the US, which are perfect for going out for sushi.  At Korean BBQ places, ask for meat without sauce, then make your own out of your gluten-free tamari with chili paste and garlic provided.

Grocery store and convenience store foods

While on the run, the Family Mart conbini has yogurt, bacon snacks, some lunch meats, white chocolate-covered freeze-dried strawberries, some lunch meats, chocolate-covered peanuts and almonds, yogurt, most nuts (check the ingredients for wheat), and purple onigiri rice balls with sweet black beans.  The rest of the onigiri have gluten or amino acids.  Don’t buy CalorieMate.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to cooking facilities, Japanese grocery stores stock the usual fish, meat, eggs, yogurt, vegetables, and rice that are safe.  Finding gluten-free bread or other gluten-free desserts is hard; expect to eat a mostly paleo or slow-carb diet while abroad, unless you bring a ton of quinoa and bread from abroad.  Don’t expect many places to have ovens, though you may have a rice maker that doubles as a bread maker.

What have you found to be helpful in a Japanese restaurant or while purchasing food in Japan for a gluten-free diet?  Happy (wheat-, barley-, and gluten-free) eating in 日本!

27 thoughts on “Eating Gluten-Free in Japan

  1. THANK YOU! This post is going to be a life-saver for me! We live in Misawa and grocery shopping hasn’t been an issue so far, but I haven’t eaten a single meal out since I was diagnosed as a Celiac. We are going down to Tokyo next week and I have been extremely worried about getting sick. Thank you again!

    • Hi Kari!

      I really hope this winds up being useful while eating out. I’d love to visit Misawa next time I’m in Japan. You may want to start with Vietnamese and Korean food before progressing to Japanese food in Tokyo. Curry houses and ramen shops should be off the menu. Sushi-ro, a kaiten zushi (conveyer belt sushi) place, marks on their menus what food has wheat and other allergens. Good luck in Tokyo, avoid the soy sauce (do you have your own wheat-free tamari), and enjoy!

      Sondy

      • I do. My amazing mother in law sent me some gluten free soy sauce so that will help. I made a ton of snacks just in case but will try using what you have first and see where we go from there! We just pulled in to Tokyo Station so we are all set!

  2. Your information helped me immensely. We went our entire trip through Tokyo eating out and I didn’t get sick once! Thank you again!

  3. Thank you for this post! I am only Gluten sensitive, and it took me less than 2 weeks here, to get noticeably contaminated (and sick) even if being extremely careful, as *every day*, I get glutenized somehow, by mistake. You are right- there is soy EVERYWHERE. What I do do, is buy at the supermarket some imported Prosciutto , some fresh avocado and tomatoes, boiled eggs, plain white rice, and some fruit and chocolate.That makes a light meal right there, and can serve as a lunch or even dinner. There are also some “Mochi” balls I found withOUT gluten (most though, are with), that I like to eat after meals. Shabu Shabu is a good solution for a meal out (I bring my own American Tamari sauce, but the other night when I forgot my Tamari at the hotel, I just used salt instead, and it worked pretty well). Other than that and Sushi, I still haven’t come across a restaurant meal I can trust. Unfortunately – it’s *extremely* difficult here.

    • Hi Rini, I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to find food at the markets that works for you. Difficult, for sure! Can you read the kanji for wheat? That helped me find mochi at the combini I could eat.

  4. Thank you very much for taking the time to post this information and writing the translated request for eating out. I have looked through many forums and sites and your’s has proven the most helpful.

    There is just one question I need to ask. At the end of your translation card for eating out you say:
    “Whatever version of this comes next will thank the waiter profusely for their trouble, and also include more examples of what can be eaten (rice, meat, vegetables, onions, etc.).”

    Do you have the rest of the text for the thank you at the end like you stated? If you do please send this to the email i’ve provided. It would be greatly appreciated because I want to be as polite as possible when hand it to our Japanese waiters when we are eating on our Japan holiday.

    • Hi Phillip,

      Thanks for writing! I’m sorry I haven’t finished the translation here; a basic phrasebook should give you the tools to piece together “I can eat vegetables/rice (gohan)/meat; どもありがとうございます”. As a foreigner I received a lot of leeway in Japan for attempting to speak the language and be polite. The fact that you are trying to speak Japanese and have phrases printed out will go a long way in helping the waiter help you. Of course, when in doubt, don’t eat something if it has sauce, bring your own gluten-free tamari, and just order sashimi if necessary. I find fresh Japanese food is much more interesting than the more prepared and cooked counterparts. がんばるう!

  5. This article is so useful i could kiss you!

    I was eating those rice balls all the time 🙁 no wonder i got glutened.

    I was also eating crisps called ‘VEGIPS’ as i found a site saying these a ‘likely’ to be safe from gluten. However i do not know.

    Shame about s komatsu not having gluten free restuarant bit anymore.

    I also just found out asahi beer is not gluten free too 🙁

    also do you drink the kirr kiri gluten free beer??

    • Hi Peter,
      Sorry to hear you encountered gluten in the onigiri rice balls. Do the ingredients for the crisps contain MSG or shoyu soy sauce? I’d steer clear of beer, as it usually contains barley unless labeled otherwise.
      Best of luck,
      Sondy

  6. Thank you so much for posting this information. My husband, who has been diagnosed with Celiac disease, may have to travel to Omiya city and Hanyu Japan in the very near future for business. The trip will last for nearly two weeks. He is very gluten sensitive and is easily cross contaminated, so we are trying to figure out how he will be able to eat while he is gone. Cooking for himself will not be an option as the hotels he will stay in do not offer the equipment for guest use. I will print up the translation cards that you posted to help him explain his situation. But he get very ill if he eats even the slightest amount of gluten. Are you aware of any restaurants offering gluten free choices in the cities he will be visiting? Any additional ideas will be greatly appreciated.
    Thank you so much for your time.

    • Hi Patti,
      I hope your husband has a good trip! I have not yet visited Omiya or Hanyu, but if your husband has a work colleague who can help him that might be best. Make sure that he clearly communicates to the cooks what works and what doesn’t, and if in doubt eat plain rice and bring a stash of protein bars. There are many opportunities to buy food at combini stores in Japan that are safe, and things like yogurt are okay. Good luck!

  7. Pingback: Gluten Free Japan {gluten free Japanese translation card} | Bulldog Bistro

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  9. I live near Tokyo, and have recently discovered that a gluten free diet helps me with several health issues, so am trying to limit my intake of gluten. I guess that makes me gluten sensitive, rather than intolerant, like my brother who is a full blown celiac.
    I’m looking for somewhere I can buy or order Wasa gluten free crispbreads. I think they are made in Germany. Amazon carries other Wasa products, but not these.
    Any suggestions for these and/ or other gluten free products.
    Thanks for any advise you can give me.

    • Hi Heather,
      Glad going gluten-free has helped you! I’m no longer in Japan, but I wish I knew where you could buy Wasa gluten-free crispbreads. Have you checked iHerb or other specialty vendors that ship internationally? Maybe a specialty food shop could order some for you?
      All the best,
      Sondy

  10. Thank you for giving me some ideas. I will be traveling with my daughter who has a strict diet of gluten free and casein free. I appreciate you posted this. Thanks

  11. This is such a great website! Helped me no end before I headed off to Tokyo
    I have written my own guide to going gluten-free in Japan – check it out here! I hope it helps someone.

    Thank you!!!

    Nicola, xo

  12. I have been in Tokyo for one day. I don’t know how I could try sushi, due to the restaurants being so tiny that trusting preparations to be cc free seems too risky for me when there is tempura nearby, the eel/unagi/roe is not gf, sometimes sushi rice us not gf, and could be on the cutting surface or knives, etc. I know in Orange County and LA where the sushi places understand my language, I have yet to find a sushi place that will serve me. I only can get plain, sub-par salmon/tuna sushi at a Irish pub and Americanized sushi place Even high end ones refuse to serve/accommodate me.
    I have drank hot chocolate at the fancy garden and bought Philly cream cheese and prosciutto to eat on my Udi bread (I used up my peanut butter packets on the plane), jell-o, yogurt, fruit, fruit nectar, and delicious Japanese dried lemon w sugar- to die for! I also brought gf Krispy ‘non-oat’granola’ bars (most of us in my celiac group can barely tolerate certified gf oats), Craisins, Kinnickinnick gf Smoreables Graham Crackers, and potato chips. I flew for free on a C5 military plane and for $6 got a boxed lunch w a turkey salad w Kraft dressing packets and the croutons were sealed in plastic wrapper so no worries w chips and a drink. I’m lucky the Commissary on the military base carries lots of gluten free food I plan to stock up on now that Im here and don’t have to worry about transporting it (weight limit, cumbersome, etc.).

  13. Very informative! I didn’t know about some of the hidden wheat sources you mentioned.

    I spend a lot of time in Asia, including Japan. I’ve pretty given up on eating out, unless it’s a “cook at your own table” restaurant, and I can see that the meat is not marinated.

    In Taipei, unfortunately, virtually all meat is marinated. There’s a chinese saying about how the marinade is the most important thing. And you can’t explain and get them to leave out the gluten. It’s almost bizarre how that ends up. One time I picked out a fresh fish, had an interpreter explain to the waitress that it had to be cooked only in olive oil (Taiwan recycles filtered fryer oil and sells it as new), she brought out the cook who swore he understood, and it came back absolutely covered in an unknown blend of stuff that surely had gluten in it. Another time I brushed up on my mandarin, explained myself that only unmarinated meat and plain rice was safe. he swore he understood. He came back with a pile of wheat noodles with a few pieces of obviously marinated chicken on top.

  14. I feel like I have hit the lottery with your post. We are traveling to Japan in May to visit our son and have been very worried about what to eat. Your blog will help immensely and all the post of successes and what to not eat. Thank you for being so thorough.

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