About Gluten-Free in Japan

Ever since I arrived in Japan, I’ve been seeking information about how to live a healthy gluten-free life in this beautiful country.  When I first arrived, there was only one blog online that mentioned what it was like to live gluten-free in Japan.  Other than that, there were really no resources available that I was aware of.  None of my Japanese colleagues or friends had ever heard of either gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease and they didn’t know what gluten was.  They did understand what allergies were though, so I often told them that I had a wheat allergy.  Unfortunately, this did not really prevent me from being exposed to gluten.  I ended up quite ill several times during my first year, which lead me to begin researching exactly what I needed to know to live here and stay healthy.

Until I came to Japan and had to start constantly checking what was in food, I didn’t understand how much knowledge about gluten and gluten intolerance/Celiac Disease that I lacked, even in my own language.  Like many people, I had been following what I considered a gluten-free diet, via mostly GF labeled goods, fresh foods like vegetables, fruits, etc, while still taking my chances eating foods that looked safe.  I didn’t understand how important it is to adhere strictly to this diet, or maybe I was just in some form of denial.   My experiences living and eating in Japan have completely changed my perspective on this.   Because of language barrier issues, I had to quickly learn how to understand important Japanese words for wheat, barley, rye and oats as well as soy sauce.  But that didn’t even scrape the surface of the numerous hidden sources of gluten in Japanese foods that appear to be gluten free.

I started this website to offer my own experiences living and eating in Japan, as well as some advice and guidance for those of us who are gluten intolerant/sensitive or who have Celiac Disease.  I’ve been blogging about living in Japan at my other blog Eigo no Bento, but have decided to make a separate blog for gluten-free issues and information.    If you’re planning to travel or live in Japan and you need to follow a gluten-free diet, I hope this blog will give you a sense of what it’s like to live here while following this diet.

Living in Japan has given me so much insight and has changed me in many ways.  Among many things, it has lead me to come to terms with my dietary limitations and in doing so allowed me to learn how to accept these limitations and advocate for myself.

I hope the information given here helps you.  I’m hoping also to reach out to others who follow a gluten-free diet in the hopes that we can form a more visible community while living in Japan.

If you’re currently struggling with adapting to Japan because of your dietary limitations, please know that you’re not alone.  Feel free to reach out and ask questions, offer your own insight and experiences, recipes, etc.  I wished someone had written this blog when I was just starting out here, so I decided to do it.

If you are interested in writing a guest post or a series of articles based on your experiences living or traveling in Japan and following a gluten free diet, please send me an email.  Because many of the readers must follow a strict gluten free diet for health reasons, you should take this into consideration when offering your reviews on this blog.   I can’t offer any monetary payment, but I will be happy to promote your blog and writing.

Love,

Autumn

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16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sammy
    Jul 08, 2013 @ 16:29:39

    Thanks so much! I was recently diagnosed with Celiac (about 1 year ago this month) and the one place I have always wanted to visit was Tokyo! I knew it would be very difficult as wheat is hidden in many of their foods, and Celiac Disease is not something most Japanese people have heard of. I also know that adult food allergies are uncommon and culturally they see allergies as a thing children have but usually grow out of. It has been hard to find resources online about gluten free travel or living in Japan, and I am so happy to have found your site! I will continue to watch it over the next 3 or so years as I research and plan this trip 🙂 Thanks for you help!

    Reply

  2. autumnaki
    Aug 07, 2013 @ 09:48:46

    Great! Thanks for leaving a comment. I will try to post more regularly on this blog. I am writing two different blogs and sometimes I forget to focus on the gluten free part of my life. If you have any questions or you would like advice on living in Japan, let me know.

    Reply

  3. Tamara
    Nov 04, 2013 @ 03:12:57

    Just came across your blog and so happy to have found someone else trying to be GF in Japan!I’ve been living in Japan since 2003, but I just started this fall to try and change slowly to GF as recommended by my endocrinologist for thyroid issues. Will definitely keep up with your posts here! Thank you!!

    Reply

  4. Susan
    Feb 11, 2014 @ 23:39:42

    Do you have any advice for getting a
    Celiac diagnosis in Japan? People don’t understand it so I’m not sure even about what type of doctor to go to.

    Reply

    • autumnaki
      Apr 30, 2014 @ 14:38:11

      Sorry for the late reply. I don’t really have any advice, but I think it’s possible. You’d have to request a test, which includes bloodwork and a biopsy.
      The gastroenterologists who have trained in Europe, Australia, or the USA, should be familiar with it.

      Reply

  5. joachimhollander
    Feb 15, 2014 @ 21:34:27

    Thanx for being here! We have just started to plan a trip to Japan together with my family. My daughter is a Celiac and we think this would be hard to deal with in Japan. She turnes 12 this summer and our plan is to save money and knowledge in Japanese culture and food. Maybe we will travel there in 2-3 years if everything goes well. I am 45 and for many years in my youth I was very interested in Japanese culture and buildings. Now, when my daughter are interested in the new street fashion culture in Harajuku (Lolita) I had a rebirth of my interest in Japan.
    We will follow your blog with great interest – we are so happy we found you – and we are VERY happy you started this blog. Thanx a million 🙂

    Reply

  6. Me
    Apr 04, 2014 @ 03:55:12

    As a celiac who has been in Japan for about a year and a half I have actually found it fairly easy to navigate. While the non-celiac members of the family have it much easier, my son and I manage without fail- though we do always carry a snack attack pack with us just in case.

    Places like Disney have fixed allergy menus that are free of most allergens and the more we eat out the more we realize that with just a little bit of effort we can find a decent meal that will satisfy everyone.

    I will try to get back and post a list some of the venues where we have found eating GF to be a snap- either by way of an allergy menu, cook your own or otherwise.

    Reply

    • autumnaki
      Apr 30, 2014 @ 14:36:32

      That’s interesting. Every situation is different, I suppose. Do you live in the Tokyo metropolitan area?
      I live in Okinawa, where I’ve found it to be incredibly difficult to find restaurants that are happy to make gluten free meals. I was just turned away from one that claimed it made 100% rice flour crepes. I went to a pizza chain the claimed to make gluten free pizzas and was sickened because the chef prepared my pizza on the same board as regular pizzas. I feel like it’s Russian Roulette, so I am wary of going to restaurants unless I have to.

      It would be great to hear what others are experiencing in living here. I did have a few nice experiences in mainland Japan in Kyoto while traveling there recently. I will post soon about it.

      If you’re interested, let me know if you’d like to guest post about your experiences.

      Best wishes.

      Reply

  7. autumnaki
    May 01, 2014 @ 10:38:24

    Well…I have one more comment regarding being Celiac or gluten intolerant in Japan. Just today I was told that I cannot attend my school’s last English Dept. welcome party because the restaurant refuses to serve me out of fear that they might unintentionally expose me to gluten. So…I don’t know how easy it is where you are, but it hasn’t been very easy for me. This is a big disappointment since I will be leaving my school in 3 months time and this is one of the last dinners I will get with my department. Too bad.

    Reply

  8. Jamie
    Jul 21, 2014 @ 08:45:15

    Do you know is there is a good list anywhere of places in Tokyo that people have had success with? I’m probably going to be there from August 9-12th. I’m hoping to at least find a sushi place that I can trust without too much hassle.

    Reply

    • autumnaki
      Aug 15, 2014 @ 15:45:57

      Hi Jamie,

      I missed this post of yours. I apologize. I asked everyone I know about this and no one could give me a good response. I didn’t live in Tokyo so I don’t know the city well. If you did have a good experience there, feel free to share it with everyone on this blog. Let me know if you want to write up something as a guest blogger.

      Reply

  9. katie moch
    Jul 30, 2014 @ 20:58:14

    Thank you for creating this blog! I’m planning a trip to Japan next year to visit a friend of mine, and I recently was diagnosed with celiac disease. Being a complete alien to Japan I had no idea what to do, and this at least gives me a little bit of an idea of what to expect. 🙂 So thanks again, and I’ll be following this blog with interest!

    Reply

    • autumnaki
      Aug 15, 2014 @ 15:56:23

      Hi Katie! Thanks for the lovely comment from you. I am actually not using this blog anymore too often. I am about to post a few links and some info that I have gathered over my 4 years living in Japan and eating GF. Before coming to Japan, I recommend doing some research on the places you will stay (hotels, apartments, etc) and places you intend to eat at. I think a trip to Japan is an amazing experience, but for those of us with CD or Gluten Intolerance, it requires strategic planning in advance in order to enjoy our trip.

      Since moving to Japan, I have embraced the Paleo lifestyle (I eat more veggies than I eat meat though). This has moved me away from the traditional Gluten Free world and moved me towards a whole foods approach to living. It worked the best for me in Japan, because this country does not label things gluten free (nor does it always label things that have wheat, barley, rye, oats or anything derived from those in them unfortunately). MSG is a very big problem for us because it’s a flavoring used in so many processed and prepared foods (on the CTRL-ALT-EAT article for Gluten Free traveling in Japan, they recommend Combini onigiri as safe, but it’s clear to me that they haven’t done their research about MSG/flavoring because none of the Combini onigiri are safe for us to eat). Be wary of online reviews from gluten free websites that claim that there are a ton of easy access foods available on-the-go that are GF. There aren’t. To me, it seems like these reviews are written by people who might be following a GF diet but do not have Celiac Disease.

      Last thing, I just moved back home after living in Japan 4 years, so I won’t be updating this site much.

      Good luck on your trip! If you want to post a follow up guest-post about your trip afterwards, please send me an email.

      Reply

  10. patriciaormsby
    Feb 08, 2015 @ 08:01:10

    I have been celiac in Japan for about ten years (and have lived her 30). I started having problems attributable to gluten after a trip back to the US, when I ate a lot of soy that was probably GMO.
    It took me a couple of years to finally eliminate all of the major sources of gluten in my diet. Suffice it to say, I cook from scratch almost everything I eat. If you eat with others, which you have to do to be sociable, they can grok that you cannot have soy sauce, but trying to get them to realize that soy sauce is in dashi, which they use liberally in their cooking is impossible, so I have to deal with contamination on a regular basis.
    If this were a more serious issue for me, I would handle it by eating nothing with them but fruit, white rice and packaged items where I can see the label.
    If you are just visiting, the only reliable choices I can think of are sushi, sashimi and “shioyaki” fish, which is liberally coated with salt and roasted over coals (and then they will give you a little grated daikon and some soy sauce,but you can refuse the latter). “Yaki imo” roasted sweet potatoes are reliably free of soy sauce, and of course, white rice is safe. With sushi, you must be careful not to eat imitation crab, ham or fish cake. There is no way to tell what they’ve put in pickled vegetables. In salad dressings, the vinegar might have gluten. They do not sell gluten-free soy sauce, so you may want to bring your own. (I am currently attempting to make my own.)
    If you can read the labels of things at the supermarkets, you have a great advantage. The law requires labels to indicate hidden wheat, because there are a few people here with life-threatening wheat allergies. If you cannot read the labels, you’ll have to stick with whole fresh fruits and vegetables or other items where you can visually ascertain the ingredients. Half of the ice cream contains cookies, some of the custard has wheat, caramels contain gluten. Beware of herbal teas. Japan is a minefield for celiacs.
    The Japanese word for “celiac” starts with “shoni” which means “infantile.” That does not help us at all. Instead, I just tell people, “mugi arerugi,” which means “wheat allergy.” For various cultural reasons, I do not expect the Japanese to catch onto the reality of adult celiac any time soon. They are lucky to have less GMO contamination of their food here, which might be the reason Americans in particular are having this problem

    Reply

  11. PETER O'SHEA
    Feb 04, 2016 @ 19:56:36

    Hi,
    I am going to Japan during April 16 for a mouth. I know I’ll have a hard time out there but i will stick to white rice, pure fish, veg and fruit also saki. Has saki gluten in? I hope not.
    Peter

    Reply

    • patriciaormsby
      Apr 12, 2016 @ 17:42:36

      Luckily, sake (rice wine) has no gluten. Every variety I know of is pure rice fermented with yeast. Shochu (distilled spirits) might have various ingredients. For fish, ask for “shio yaki” (salt roasted) or sashimi (raw). I hope you have a nice time here! The wines here are also good.

      Reply

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