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Veganism in Japan: How ‘soft’ activism is changing minds in a meat-eating nation

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To reduce the binary between 'vegans' and 'non-vegans', vegan organizations in Japan are promoting being vegan to the extent that it is 'practicable and possible'.

RUBY RAMSDEN: Japan is a country with a long history of government-enforced meat bans. The first meat-ban, enacted in 673 CE, prohibited the consumption of horses, dogs, chickens, and monkeys, and was likely issued to promote rice cultivation and dissuade citizens from hunting during the spring and summer seasons. Other meat bans had various motivations, from economic to religious.

In his book Animal Care in Japanese Tradition, W. Puck Brecher points out that local Japanese religion typically encouraged good treatment of animals, in contrast with Judeo-Christian teachings, which have long been critiqued by critical animal theorists like Peter Singer as contributing to oppressive notions of human “dominion” over animals. However, meat and fish were continuously consumed throughout the bans and, to quote Brecher, “Animals’ instrumental value to humans continued to eclipse their perceived intrinsic value.”

Japan’s history of “vegetarianism” is situated within an economic context that made high-meat diets impractical, and a religious context that promoted vegetarianism but failed to ban meat-eating completely because it remained essential to human life…

Japan today is known among tourists and foreign residents as a difficult country to navigate as a vegan or vegetarian. Blogs and YouTube videos cite the ubiquity of fish, animal-derived gelatin, milk products, and animal extracts in foodstuffs, as well as the scarcity of eateries that cater to vegan and vegetarian customers, as reasons why it is difficult to be vegan in Japan. Language barriers and unfamiliarity with the concepts of veganism and vegetarianism also present a challenge: even the Japanese words for “vegetarianism” and “veganism” — saishoku and kanzen saishoku respectively — have variable interpretations.

Preliminary studies suggests that the social component of veganism seems to be the biggest issue for vegans and vegetarians in Japan. Graduate scholar Sumida’s 2011 study of eight vegetarians found that nearly all of them had experienced “interference” in their diet from family, friends or co-workers, who believed that the vegetarian diet was inherently unhealthy. Some participants only experienced negative comments, while for others “interference” meant being forced to eat meat at family gatherings. Another university bulletin paper found that vegans struggle with criticism from peers, isolation, and challenges in relationships with nonvegans.

Pressure to consume meat at parties and company events presents an additional boundary to becoming vegan in Japan, particularly because communal meat-eating has become an important part of Japanese work culture. As a result, many vegans forgo their dietary requirements when eating with others in order to preserve human relationships. In Japanese, this is called yuru vegan, or “loose vegan”, but in English, we might call it “flexitarian” or “reducitarian”.

In her 2011 article, Sumida suggests that the issue could be a matter of “common sense” norms around food, disseminated by the Japanese educational system. In Japan, the vast majority of elementary and middle schools implement standardised school lunches, or kyūshoku, which serve as a vehicle to educate children about manners and appreciation for their food. However, every student is required to eat the same meal, and vegan or vegetarian options are rarely, if ever, prepared. Asakawa elementary school in Tokyo became the first school to regularly offer vegan kyūshoku in 2021…

Veganism is growing in Japan, albeit slowly. In addition to over 3,000 stores and eateries that provide vegan options, there are a number of vegan and vegetarian events, online and offline vegan communities, and several vegan non-profit organisations.

For instance, Non-profit Organisation (NPO) Vegeproject Japan focuses on expanding vegan options and raising awareness about veganism in Japan, upholding that veganism is an important part of “a society that respects diversity, the environment, the lives of animals, and people’s health”. It produces a useful “vegemap” that lists eateries with vegan options in both English and Japanese, and awards vegan certifications to food products, both vital pieces of vegan infrastructure.

Another NPO, Japan Vegan Community, hosts events for vegans and those interested in veganism and produces an online vegan magazine. It also maintains the website V Cook, which posts vegan recipes and information on how meet nutritional requirements as a vegan. Animal Alliance Asia, an NPO that does work in Japan, helps vegans to be effective animal rights advocates, provides resources and information to organisations, and builds trans-national solidarity, with a mission of creating a “more diverse, inclusive and culturally-appropriate movement in Asia”.

To reduce the binary between “vegans” and “non-vegans”, vegan organisations in Japan are promoting being vegan to the extent that it is “practicable and possible”. While animal agriculture abolitionist vegans might frown upon approaches that condone meat-eating in any capacity, Nick Cooney, a prominent animal advocate and founder of the Humane League, suggests a softer approach to veganism has been proven far more likely to create long lasting change. Indeed, hard-line vegan activism, which is often ridiculed even in Australia where veganism is arguably more socially acceptable, may be even less likely to succeed in Japan, where veganism is still a highly marginalised movement.

Japan Vegan Community encourages people who are interested in veganism to make vegan choices when they can; Animal Alliance Asia encourages participation in animal advocacy without demanding veganism as a prerequisite; and Vegeproject Japan focuses on increasing vegan options through partnership and education. The goal for the moment seems to be to make space for veganism in Japanese society. SOURCE…

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