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What’s a visitor with a food allergy to do in Japan?

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Special To The Japan Times

Reader C.O. is coming to Japan on vacation and contacted Lifelines for information about coping with food allergies here. She had read an opinion piece by another foreign national published by The Japan Times in 2015.

C.O. writes: “Have you noticed any shift, even if it’s small, since this article was written, to help allergy sufferers know what they can eat in Japan, either in grocery stores or at restaurants? What would you recommend to someone who will be visiting Japan and doesn’t have a kitchen to go home to?”

As a vegetarian myself, I feel the reader’s pain. Even though I speak and read Japanese, appearances can be deceiving, and many products that might seem vegetarian-friendly contain meat or fish. However, when eating the wrong food could seriously affect your health — or even cost you your life — it takes things to a whole new level.

While some restaurants recently have made an effort to cater to those with common food allergies by informing patrons of what is in the dishes, this trend is far from universal. Some simply display signs saying, “Sorry, but if you have allergies we can’t guarantee that our dishes will be free of allergy-causing ingredients.”

I was unable to confirm with the reader exactly what her allergies are, but with the number of foreign tourists increasing and the government hoping to attract even more in the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the topic is a timely one. I canvassed a selection of foreign nationals coping with food allergies here, and they came up with the following tips for people in C.O.’s position:

• In the case of severe food allergies, many people strongly recommend self-catering. With the rise of Airbnb, finding accommodation with a kitchen is easier than it used to be, although this may not be a practical option for all travelers.

• Carry around a card with your allergy information printed on it in Japanese. Your hotel may be able to help with this if the allergies are not too complicated.

• Research Japanese cuisine and seasonings before coming so you are familiar with what they contain.

• Always carry round some snacks that you know you can eat, so you have something as a backup.

• If you rely on an EpiPen for emergencies, be sure to bring extra ones to Japan just in case. (EpiPens are pen-shaped devices containing a drug that can prevent patients with severe allergies from going into anaphylaxis.)

• Those with celiac disease or wheat allergies should note that just about every brand of soy sauce sold in Japanese supermarkets contains wheat.

• Use Google Translate or a similar app to scan food labels or menu terms.

• Food labels can be deceiving: “Sometimes milk, for example, is listed as an ingredient when it’s not, (because) there’s a chance of cross-contamination. I guess this is helpful for people with severe allergies, but it makes it seem like there are less options available for others. The only way to tell the difference is to contact the manufacturer,” said one person. Another commented, “Peanuts are difficult because they may be listed in katakana ( ピーナッツ, piinatsu) or kanji (落花生, rakkasei).”

• Kirsten Adachi, who blogs at CookinginJapan.com, produced this helpful guide to allergy-friendly food and understanding Japanese terms:

bit.ly/jpnallergyfood.

• Finally, halal restaurants were also suggested as an option for those with allergies, as they pay strict attention to ingredients. See www.halalinjapan.com for more information.

One Kanagawa-based NPO group is taking steps to improve life for allergy suffers and their families in Japan. The Alsign Project’s broad goals are to help protect children with food allergies from eating the wrong food, and to promote awareness and understanding of allergies in the community.

Alsign has now started working on gathering information on food allergies in English.

“Children with allergies have more occasions to go overseas, for instance, on school trips or for relatives’ weddings,” says volunteer Kanae Hattori. “We thought about how we could make things a little easier for allergy suffers and decided to put together common English expressions related to food allergies. As a result, we released the ‘Food Allergy Travel Book’ in 2016.”

The group then considered that the information could also be used to help foreign nationals traveling in Japan, and have begun work on an English guide. While it is still in the early stages, Alsign hopes to have the guide available in time for the Tokyo Olympics.

Hattori says that more efforts are needed to increase understanding of food allergies. “While is true that some restaurants do address the situation on a voluntary basis, that alone isn’t enough to secure the safety of those with allergies,” she says, noting that a unified approach to accurate information, coupled with a thorough understanding of allergies, is required in the food industry.

Hattori highly recommends that visitors with food allergies carry some kind of written documentation of their issues in Japanese, as the vast majority of people here don’t speak enough English to be able to discuss and understand food issues with confidence.

Do you have any tips or information about food allergies in Japan? Send queries and comments to lifelines@japantimes.co.jp