I am in love with you. Your history, your culture, your people — all of it is unique and beautiful. I love your deep traditional roots and your hopeful, almost frantic press towards the future. But that is not what this letter is about.
You see, I have a problem. I have a food allergy. Food allergies appear to be far less common among Japanese people than Westerners, and are not well understood here.
But it’s even worse than that for me; I have an uncommon food allergy, even for the West. I have celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder that causes me intense intestinal distress when I ingest even the smallest amount of a certain food protein, called gluten, found in wheat (komugi), rye (raimugi), barley (ōmugi) and malt (bakuga). It would eventually cause serious complications if ignored, including diabetes and cancer.
I have lived in Tokyo for over two years, and in that time I have found it nearly impossible to enjoy the country’s legendary cuisine, or even to shop at supermarkets for most packaged goods.
Even putting language barriers aside, allergen labeling here is almost useless to someone with a serious food allergy. Although seven common allergens are required to be labeled on prepackaged goods, anything beyond this appears to be down to the discretion of manufacturers. Therefore, which allergens are declared, and at what threshold (how many parts per million), is completely inconsistent.
This leaves the burden entirely on the customer, and we must scan labels for a large variety of ingredients — an ordeal made even more difficult for anyone not fluent in kanji. For a wheat allergy, for example, I must scan for vinegars, malt, soy sauce and hydrolized vegetable oil, among many other things. Even then, we still cannot be sure whether the allergen was used, as in the case of mizuame (starch syrup), which could be made with our without wheat. Nor can we be confident that the food has not been cross-contaminated during the manufacturing process.
With the aforementioned labeling issues, it’s no surprise that I have found most food professionals in restaurants to be shockingly ignorant of what allergens their dishes may contain. I have been told by a cook that a dish was “vegetables in a brown beef sauce,” and then asked whether this was safe for me. I had no way to answer that question unless he wanted to take me into his kitchen and show me the labels on every single ingredient in that sauce. Not only that, but during that multi-course meal, I was asked a similar question for each item. In a culture that places such high emphasis on not being a bother to others, I felt utterly humiliated, while at the same time receiving very little information that was of any use to me.
Nearly every server or cook I’ve tried to talk to about my allergy has responded with a look of utter fear, followed by arduous minutes of explanation that inevitably leave me feeling like a horrible nuisance at best. Most frustrating of all is when I am told or discover for myself that, after all the trouble I unintentionally caused, nothing in any restaurant in an entire mall is safe for me.
I’ve taken to bringing a homemade bento with me if I intend to be away from home for more than a few hours. Anything else is just too stressful. Even so, being perpetually surrounded by the sights and smells of a culture that rightfully loves its food, while being unable to participate in any way, is nothing short of maddening.
Recently I took a weeklong trip back to the U.S. — the first since my move to Japan — and I was shocked at the contrast. Allergens are clearly, mandatorily labeled on all foods in grocery stores, so I can be confident in the safety of everything I buy. Restaurant staff and cooks are generally knowledgeable about which allergens their dishes contain, and they handle requests for clarification with ease and professionalism. Many restaurants make an effort to have at least one dish safe for all diners, and it’s easy to find which restaurants are safe for certain allergies through a quick Web search. After living in a place where nearly every attempt to eat out has ended in disaster, humiliation or both, I was able to eat out every day of my vacation without a single incident.
In light of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I’ve seen legislators, tourism bureaus, newspapers and magazines asking, “What can Tokyo do to make itself more welcoming to foreigners?” This is my answer: Improve labeling and education surrounding food allergies, and increase allergen-safe options.
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