The ramen that Yu and I are eating, which has a carrot broth flavored with sweet potato, mushrooms, and a dozen other vegetables, is the best I’ve had—vegan or otherwise. Even though it’s the only vegetarian ramen option at Soranoiro Japanese Soup Noodle Free Style in Tokyo, the staff’s shirts all say, in English, “Happy Veggie Life.” When I ask why there is a jar of hair ties on the table, Yu tells me the owner set out to create a more “female-friendly” ramen joint. Traditionally, ramen places are filled with businessmen and the strong aroma of tonkotsu broth, made from pork bones. This restaurant, and the many other spots now offering vegan ramen in Tokyo, are looking to change that.
I met Yu, 33, after messaging him on a local vegan Facebook group. Plagued with stomach ulcers and other digestive problems, he decided to give vegetarianism a try ten years ago, after online research suggested it would help. Within weeks, he says, his health improved dramatically. The ethical component came later. The more YouTubers he watched—“Vegan Gains, Vegetable Police, and then some girls, just because they are pretty”—the more undercover slaughterhouse footage the algorithm suggested to him as further viewing, and he started feeling morally opposed to eating animals.
For a culture known for its precision, reliable statistics on the number of vegetarians in Japan are surprisingly hard to come by. According to a 2014 survey (of only 1,188 people), 4.7 percent of the Japanese population are vegetarian or vegan (2.7 percent identified as vegan, compared to 7 percent in the US—in both cases, these self-reported numbers are likely much higher than actual ones due to a misunderstanding of what “vegan” truly means).
While the number of vegan dining options is rising in Japan, so is the country’s meat intake, which set new records in 2016, increasing by 3.4 percent—the tenth consecutive year of gains. Interestingly, before the 18th century, the country was largely vegetarian; both the Buddhist and Shinto religions omitted meat and dairy for ethical reasons. However, now most Buddhists and Shintoists do eat meat. According to Meathooked author Marta Zaraska, these habits changed when the 1860s, the Japanese began associating meat-eating with European wealth and a rejection of feudalism.
Japan is one of many countries that once treated meat as a rare delicacy but now puts it at the center of the plate, a seemingly small change that is proving to have catastrophic consequences. Global greenhouse gas emissions are expected to increase 80 percent by 2050, largely driven by high demand for meat. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the livestock sector is one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide pollution and the single largest source of both methane and nitrous oxide. Animal agriculture is responsible for nearly 90 percent of Amazon rainforest destruction; we lose more than 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest each day to grow livestock feed, and are quickly running out of space to raise all the animals we want to raise and kill for food.
As in the US, entrepreneurs in Japan are working to make viable “clean meat” (real meat grown from cell cultures instead of harvested from slaughtered animals) so consumers can still enjoy their meat, albeit with a lighter environmental footprint. Shojinmeat Project is an open-source clean meat project that aims to make scalable production a reality in Japan.
Meanwhile, the animal rights movement in the country—still small and decentralized—appears to be growing as well. Animal Rights Center Japan and Animal Advocacy Japan work on issues similar to those of US-based groups, and are currently pressuring large food corporations to source eggs that don’t come from caged hens, while Vege Project Japan has successfully established vegan menus at several university campuses and restaurants.
Last year, The Humane League met with Nestlé to confirm their cage-free egg policy in Japan—and they agreed that, yes, Nestlé Japan should be required to go cage-free. “I had meetings with major food companies and restaurant chains in Asia,” says Maho Uehara, regional manager at The Humane League Japan. “The corporations are open to having a dialogue.”
I met another vegan, Mia, over a four-course vegan meal in Osaka. Sharing miso-drizzled greens straight from the owner’s brother’s garden and sipping yuzu fruit liqueur, we traded vegan origin stories at Organic Vegetarian Cafe Le Coccole.
Mia has been fully vegan for the past three years and has lived in Osaka half her life, since she moved from Mexico City with her family at the age of 18. She became vegetarian after her friend was hospitalized from salmonella poisoning, then went vegan after watching the notoriously explicit animal rights documentary Earthlings. Now, she’s returned to school so that she can merge her passion for vegan cooking with food photography.
Mia says it’s possible to be strictly vegan in Japan, and knows several other people who share her diet. She found a vegan community in Osaka through Facebook, and she says her parents, who were at first mystified and skeptical, are now mostly accepting of her vegan lifestyle. “At least my dad believes it’s not a phase now,” she said over our chocolate mousse pie.
In the United States, veganism and vegetarianism are more popular with young people, but Uehara says that in Japan, older generations may think more about where their food comes from because they grew up during World War II, when food was scarce. People like her mother “grew up seeing chickens or cows in their backyards, and they know that these animals were killed for human consumption,” she says. “There is a connection between life and food, so they seem to appreciate it more.” Younger generations in Japan, who grew up eating packaged foods, may be more likely to experience a total disconnect.
Indeed, when I go out with Yu and his Japanese friends, one woman in her mid-twenties looks horrified as we talk about slaughterhouses. As Yu translates our conversation, her eyes widen—but she doesn’t speak.
“She is typical Japanese,” Yu tells me. “She’s not going to ask questions or challenge you when she’s taking in new information about something she doesn’t know about. But it seems like this may be the first time she’s actually thinking about the fact that meat is an animal that has to be killed.”
In many ways, Japan’s vegan and animal advocacy communities appear to be where those in the US were 20 years ago—full of grassroots energy and excitement, but still small and lacking in political and financial capital. Here in the States, politicians and celebrities from Cory Booker to Beyoncé have boosted the image of veganism, but in Japan, the movement doesn’t yet have such high-profile supporters. That might also be changing; cabinet official Norio Kojo lobbied to get a vegan lunch menu on Fridays at Japan’s cabinet office, and is helping to promote Meat Free Monday, to some success. Uehara and Yu are far from alone; the Tokyo Vegan Meetup Group has over 6,000 members, and if Japan mirrors the rest of the world, those numbers will only continue to rise.
But seeing as Japan’s vegetarian movement is still quite young, those who ascribe to it can sometimes feel like they have to put their beliefs on hold to please their loved ones. Though Yu identifies as vegetarian, he’ll still occasionally eat meat if an elderly friend or relative asks him out to dinner. In Japanese culture, he explains, it wouldn’t make sense to suggest a vegetarian place, even to an old family friend. When I ask why, he seems baffled by the question. “They want to pay for dinner, and they want to eat meat. I cannot say I don't want to eat meat because I value their connection more than the way I eat, so I just say, ‘OK, if you want to go eat meat, then I'll just join.’”
That said, Yu’s not opposed to “coming out” as vegetarian to new people—though usually he’ll just explain that he has a “meat allergy.”
“This actually happened yesterday, at my new workplace,” he told me. “This older guy, maybe he’s 50. He asked me to go for a drink sometime soon. And I said, ‘I don't eat meat.’ And then his reaction was like, ‘Oh no, then we have no place to go,’ and I let him down.”
Morally speaking, Japanese vegans and vegetarians tell me that many of their peers agree with the principle behind vegetarianism; they view adherence to it as a “noble action,” but far fewer are interested in being vegetarians themselves.
“It may be because [vegetarian diets] are thought to be linked with Buddhism, so people may view [them] as more religious and something devoted religious people do,” says Uehara. But out of respect, “even Buddhist monks eat animal products when it is offered,” she adds. “It is hard to say no to anything offered by your friends, peers, or family.”
Rachel Krantz is a founding editor of Bustle whose recovery plan includes writing about veganism, nonmonogamy, travel, and living in LA. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.