Myth 1: Japanese food is rice-based, so it is easy to eat GF.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of hidden gluten in Japanese food. In fact, sometimes just plain gluten, fu, is added to miso soup.
Just because something does not appear to have gluten in it, does not mean gluten is not lurking somewhere. Staff also might not be aware that certain ingredients, like soy sauce, contain gluten.
The good news is that gluten-free awareness is on the rise, and more restaurants are becoming aware of gluten in their ingredients.
Myth 2: Japan has a lot of allergen labeling, so eating GF isn’t an issue.
There’s been a massive improvement in the labeling of allergens recently. Allergen-free sections are even being added to many grocery stores.
However, not all products and menus will have allergen labels. Other menus and products include the disclaimer that things are made in the same factory or “might” contain an allergen.
Also, barley and malt aren’t considered allergens. According to Japanese law, there are 7 allergens (shrimp, crab, wheat, buckwheat, egg, milk, and peanuts) that should be labeled. “Allergen-free” items in Japan might not be celiac-safe unless they explicitly say so.
Myth 3: Japanese people have amazing customer service, so they will happily accommodate my allergy.
Be prepared to have a variety of experiences that range from warmth to curiosity to shock to stone-cold rejection.
I have had staff say that a dish is fine and then realize that there are bread crumbs on the plate. Them: “Bread crumbs have wheat?”
I have had people try to turn me away from shops. Me, looking at the menu: “Isn’t blah blah blah GF?” and the staff would realize they could serve me.
Some people don’t want to take accountability or might feel you’re being troublesome. Some might think it’s a diet, so a little wheat or soy sauce won’t hurt.
Fortunately, I have also had shops that make no claim to being GF carefully read labels and consult their chef and whip up a fantastic GF meal for me.
Don’t get discouraged if the first place you ask isn’t very helpful. Just ask another.
And of course, check out our map to find some GF recommendations. It is a work in progress, but we are adding new places all the time.
Myth 4: Japanese people speak English, so communication won’t be a problem.
This will vary dramatically even in a big city like Tokyo. Many people have studied English but are uncomfortable communicating. They might have weak listening skills and vocabulary. Learning some basic Japanese words (soy sauce, wheat, barley etc.) will help you a lot. Also, check out our links to allergy cards in Japanese. Using Google Translate can also help!
Wait, wait…don’t cancel your trip!
Once you get past this GF mythology, you will be able have a wonderful time in Japan.
I have lived gluten free here for many years, including many visits to remote places. Despite many challenges, it was well worth it.
Nevertheless, don’t underestimate the task ahead. Be prepared with gluten-free snacks brought from home and plan meals ahead of time.
Tell us what you think!
What has been the most challenging or surprising while traveling/living gluten free in Japan? Or what has been the best experience? Let us know in the comments!