Plan on Traveling to Japan and have Allergies? Read this Before Departing.

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If you are foreigner in Japan and have food allergies, be sure to read the JAPANquickies guide to Japanese food labels and what to do if you have an allergic reaction.

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A very helpful Japanese label with pictures of popular allergic reaction ingredients.

Common Food Allergies

Japan has a very rich food culture that enjoys experimenting with different ingredients and flavors. Some of these ingredients are soy, wheat, fish, and shellfish. It just so happens that these ingredients account for half of the eight foods that account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions. The complete list of the eight most common foods that cause allergic reactions are:

Obviously, this can create a serious problem for someone visiting or residing in Japan. Japan is a very seafood oriented country. You will find seafood such as shrimp and other fish mixed in with everything from pizza to pastries. Wheat is another ingredient that is used in soba noodles and a popular tea called mugicha. Finally, there is soy. Soy, used in Japan’s most famous condiment soy sauce, is added to many soups, such as ramen and miso soup, and used for many marinating sauces for items like fried chicken. Needless to say, if you are allergic to any one of these ingredients be sure to have a firm understanding of their Japanese translations.

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A not so helpful Japanese label of ingredients. The red circles are the popular allergic reaction ingredients included in this product.

Reading Japanese Food Labels

It is always tricky going to a foreign country when you suffer from food allergies. What makes things worse is when the writing on the labels looks like Chinese, and in this case in quite possibly is (Japanese kanji derives from Chinese writing). The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) in Japan has made a legal requirement that all manufacturers must indicate the following seven foods if they are included as ingredients:

If you did not notice, soy is not listed as one of the seven food ingredients. The MAFF created another list of twenty additional foods that “recommends” manufacturers to display, a list that soybean is included on. However, this means the manufacturer is not legally required to list soy as an ingredient on their label. That complete list of twenty is:

·       Abalone ·       Orange
·       Apple ·       Peach
·       Banana ·       Pork
·       Beef ·       Salmon
·       Cashew Nut ·       Salmon Roe
·       Chicken ·       Sesame
·       Gelatin ·       Soybean
·       Kiwi ·       Squid
·       Mackerel ·       Walnut
·       Matsutake Mushroom ·       Yam

If you suffer from allergic reactions to any of these food items be extra careful and ask before eating, or completely ignore the item altogether if there are any concerns or hesitations. Another hurdle for those suffering from allergic reactions is the “inclusion rule.” An item like egg may be an ingredient, but unfortunately egg might not be labeled if mayonnaise is already listed. If something is supposed to be common knowledge that a particular ingredient is included in another (egg and mayo for example), there is nothing requiring the manufacture to provide one if the other is listed. Because, you know, we all should know that egg is included in mayonnaise. This can create obvious difficulties for those – most of us – that are not culinarily inclined, especially when dealing with foreign foods and languages.

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A fairly simple diagram of allergic reaction ingredients. The circle means these ingredients are included. In this case dairy (乳) and wheat (小麦) are ingredients included in this product.

Japanese Food Kanji and Characters to Know

If you are lucky, the item you want to consume will have English or pictures of the required seven foods. Unfortunately, it is more common that the ingredients are listed in kanji, katakana, or hiragana, so it is important to be able to recognize these items and their Japanese translations. The pronunciation of the kanji and kana are in parenthesis.

Allergen Kanji Kana
Buckwheat (Soba) 蕎麦 そば、ソバ
Crab (Kani) かに、カニ
Egg (Tamago) たまご、タマゴ
Milk (Nyu) にゅう、ニュウ
Peanut (Rakkasei) 落花生 らっかせい、ラッカセイ
Shrimp (Ebi) 海老 えび、エビ
Wheat (Komugi) 小麦 こむぎ、コムギ

Below you will find the common spelling for the other twenty recommended foods.

Allergen Common Spelling Allergen Common Spelling
Abalone (Awabi) あわび Orange (Orenji) オレンジ
Apple (Ringo) りんご Peach (Momo) もも
Banana (Banana) バナナ Pork (Butaniku) 豚肉
Beef (Gyuniku) 牛肉 Salmon (Sake) さけ
Cashew Nut (Kashuu nattsu) カシューナッツ Salmon Roe (Ikura) いくら
Chicken (Toriniku) 鶏肉 Sesame (Goma) ゴマ
Gelatin (Zerachin) ゼラチン Soybean (Daizu) 大豆
Kiwi (Kiui Furutsu) キウイワルーツ Squid (Ika) いか
Mackerel (Saba) さば Walnut (Kurumi) くるみ
Matsutake Mushroom (Matsutake) まつたけ Yam (Yamaimo) やまいも

For those of you who like to make the best out of technology, there is a free application available on most smart phones called Waygo Translator and Dictionary. Using this application is simple, you just line up the kanji in question as if you were taking a photo and the translation and definition show up instantly on your phone. Take that Captain James T. Kirk!

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This label has the popular allergic reaction ingredients highlighted in yellow.

In Case of Allergic Accidents or Emergencies

 In the event of immediate attention or an emergency, call 119 for assistance. Ask the operator to send an ambulance as soon as possible. Be ready to provide the operator with the following information, in Japanese, if possible: name, gender, age, address, description of location using landmarks, and the reason for immediate assistance.

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For this baby food product the popular allergic reaction ingredients are contained in the table. The dash means the ingredient is not included.

In addition, the AMDA International Medical Information Center is available to provide assistance and answer any medical questions you may have. They have two sites, both on Honshu island: Tokyo (03-5285-8088) and Kansai (06-4395-0555). Their goal is to provide any person living in Japan the appropriate medical care as a basic human right. The AMDA International Medical Information Center has an extensive list of medical facilities and doctors throughout Japan who can speak the patient’s language. They can also explain how Japan’s health care system works and its requirements. The center and its operators are multi-lingual and even offer telephone interpretation services at no cost.

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This box of Oreos has its allergic reaction ingredients highlighted in yellow. It contains wheat (小麦), dairy (乳成分), and soybeans (大豆).
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