Autumn Widdoes landed a pretty good posting when the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme placed her on a remote island in southern Okinawa in 2013 to work there as an English instructor at a school.
Part of the job means going out with coworkers to welcome parties at which they will try to get you to try new food. This posed a problem for Widdoes, as she has a severe gluten intolerance. She didn’t have the ability to explain her condition in Japanese but, even if she did, the local staff assigned to help her get settled didn’t really understand what “gluten-free” even meant.
“I was often at teacher events where everyone was eating amazing dishes and I was sitting there with a plate of rice, a salad without dressing and nothing else,” she recalls.
Widdoes is not alone. According to statistics compiled by the Japanese government in 2019, between 3.7% to 8% of Americans and 1.3% to 15% of Europeans need to avoid gluten, the common name for a set of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and triticale. Although rice is the staple grain in the Japanese diet, traditional ingredients such as fu (麩) and seitan (セイタン) are actually concentrated gluten. Wheat is used frequently in noodles, the coatings of tempura and other fried foods, and as a component of dashi and soy sauce. Additionally, popular yōshoku (Western foods) such as bread, pasta and cake are also primarily wheat-centric. This makes Japan a minefield for those trying to adhere to a gluten-free diet.
Such diets are prescribed for a variety of medical reasons, including for those with celiac disease, a painful inflammation of the intestines caused by gluten. They’re also necessary for those who suffer from gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity or a wheat allergy. Medical experts also recommend people avoid gluten if they suffer from colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, polycystic ovary syndrome or certain autoimmune disorders.
Considering an estimated 2% to 6% of Americans and 3.2% of Europeans identify as vegan, which is increasingly seen as a dietary preference requiring accommodation in Japan, it stands to reason that those requiring gluten-free options should also be considered when restaurants create their menus.
Culinary culture clash
For those who must avoid gluten for medical reasons, accidentally ingesting even a small amount can lead to severe and painful reactions; in some cases these can even be life-threatening. Such individuals are constantly on alert to ensure there is no trace of gluten in their food or cross-contamination with other foods prepared nearby.
This need for full knowledge of exactly what ingredients and preparation methods are used in a meal is at odds with Japanese food culture, where being a picky eater can be considered selfish. Diners leave things to the chef’s discretion (there’s even a term for it, omakase) and set menus with little flexibility for substitutions are common. Communicating about such topics across a language barrier can be tricky for both the customer and the restaurant staff, who aren’t guaranteed to know or be familiar with the problems gluten can cause. After all, celiac disease is rare in Japan, with a recent study showing 0.19% incidence in the general population.
Restaurants here vary widely in their willingness to accommodate the needs of diners avoiding gluten. Anne Kohtz, an American who has lived in Japan for 22 years and is sensitive to gluten, notes that the attitude to customers requesting a gluten-free meal is a good indication of the quality of a restaurant.
“Those who really care about what they are doing will make something for the celiac to eat, if only an omelette on rice,” she says. “Those who don’t will just blow you off.”
Japan has excellent labeling requirements for food allergens, and restaurant chains make lists of which items on the menu may pose a problem. However, although wheat is required to be included on these lists, barley — which also contains gluten — is not. This is problematic given the prominence of barley in Japanese foods, including as an ingredient in miso and vinegar, an addition to rice dishes, and mugicha (barley tea), which is popular in the summer.
“Barley is the worst criminal here,” says Shannon Cothrane, who has lived in Japan for two years and has a 12-year-old daughter with celiac disease. “The possibility of it lurks everywhere.”
Another risk is mizuame, a sweet, starchy syrup that can be made from barley, potatoes or corn — labels don’t always specify with which ingredient it is made. It is ubiquitous in packaged foods in Japan, similar to high-fructose corn syrup in the West.
Not a trend
Where awareness of gluten-free diets has gained ground, however, is within the food-trends culture. Due to coverage of it as a “healthy option” for dieting, and reports of it being adopted by celebrities, going gluten-free has become fashionable with some in Japan.
As someone with celiac disease, Kjeld Duits says viewing gluten-free as a lifestyle, rather than a medical need, results in a lack of awareness of the dangers gluten can pose to some. This often leads to cross-contamination scenarios in which gluten-free dishes are prepared in the same working area, or with the same utensils, as dishes containing the ingredient. Harmless for someone just trying out a fad; not so for someone who medically cannot tolerate gluten.
Duits, a journalist from the Netherlands who has lived in Japan since 1982, says he discovered the hard way the need to be vigilant when it comes to his diet.
“So-called gluten-free pizza or bread is often baked in the same oven as products containing gluten,” he says. “Or potatoes, which are supposedly gluten-free, are fried in the same oil as products dipped in batter and bread crumbs.”
In addition to cross-contamination situations, some restaurants believe being gluten-free simply means avoiding wheat, ignoring the threat barley can pose. Or they may serve gluten-free noodles in a broth that itself contains gluten, or add soy sauce containing wheat to their gluten-free options.
“This type of misunderstanding happens too often and it means we always have to be on our guard when eating out,” explains Alexandra Hansen, co-creator of the Gluten-Free Guide Japan blog and restaurant map. “Even when I was going out more I would often plan my day trips around a gluten-free restaurant and see some sights or shop and stop at the restaurant before heading home. It definitely takes some spontaneity out of life, but it’s much better than being ill or having a bad trip because you got glutened.”
Faced with this situation, many gluten-free eaters in Japan avoid eating out as much as possible. Kohtz, who describes her experience following a gluten-free diet in Japan as “a long, lonely saga of eating at home,” is not an unusual case.
However, resources are increasingly becoming available to support gluten-free eaters in enjoying the food options that Japan has to offer. In addition to Hansen’s blog and restaurant map, the Gluten-Free Expats Japan! Facebook group is a font of information, where members share tips on places to eat and products to buy.
“Having a group of people you can reach out to, share advice and get tips from, and feel like you’re not dealing with this by yourself is so critical toward making a happier life in Japan,” says Widdoes, who co-founded the Facebook group.
Some enterprising members of the international community who count themselves as adhering to the diet have even started businesses supplying gluten-free goodies through the mail. Kohtz started Mikage Gluten Free Bakery, which specializes in pies, muffins and cookies, while Mira Sakamoto opened Keto Life, a bakery that offers a variety of gluten- and sugar-free cakes and chocolates.
Legitimately gluten-free dining establishments — ones that do not allow wheat or barley into their kitchens whatsoever — are also beginning to pop up. Gluten Free T’s Kitchen, in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood, is the first restaurant in Asia to be certified by the Gluten-Free Certification Organization. Owner Takako Iino first learned about gluten-free diets through a friend with celiac she met while living in Los Angeles. Since then, she has made it her mission to bring the culinary delights of Japan to those who must avoid gluten. Using recipes she developed herself, her restaurant serves gluten-free versions of such Japanese classics as ramen, tempura, karaage (fried chicken), Japanese-style curry and savory okonomiyaki pancakes.
“When people come to my restaurant and are delighted with the food, it’s a big motivation for me to keep creating recipes,” Iino says. Grateful customers have led to Gluten Free T’s Kitchen being ranked No. 15 out of all restaurants in Japan by overseas tourists on the TripAdvisor travel website.
Iino has also developed a gluten-free version of rāyu (a kind of chili oil) that was named Gluten Free Canada’s Product of the Year for 2020, and has other products in the works including a gluten-free tempura batter mix.
Yukiko Nakajima, proprietor of Comeconoco Gluten Free Laboratory & Cafe in Osaka, was originally interested in making good use of Japanese rice in her cooking when she learned about the gluten-free lifestyle. Her cafe now sells a variety of gluten-free sweets and breads.
She counts many non-Japanese among her customers, although their numbers have decreased due to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on tourism.
“I get lots of people telling me they’re so glad to finally find a place like this,” she says. “Especially because Osaka has a lot of wheat-centric dishes in its cuisine, and not many gluten-free options.”
Pizza Firenze in Tokyo’s Omotesando neighborhood is affiliated with a chain in Italy known for its gluten-free pizza crust, which the Omotesando store imports. When the restaurant opened in 2019, it had a separate gluten-free kitchen. This year, though, it decided to make the switch completely to gluten-free.
“Even with the separate kitchens, customers were worried about cross-contamination,” says manager Ryo Nishida. The restaurant has many Japanese customers who, according to Nishida, are split between those who have an allergy to gluten or wheat, and those who believe that going gluten-free is generally healthier.
The fact that Pizza Firenze was willing to take the plunge and go completely gluten-free may be a sign that there is enough local demand to support such restaurants.
A 2020 report by Ryota Hokari and Masaaki Higashiyama of the National Defense Medical College said that Japan shouldn’t take solace in the scarcity of celiac disease here, especially with rising wheat consumption. They posited that now could be “the calm before the storm” before the incidence of celiac disease rises in the Japanese population.
With growing numbers of non-Japanese living in Japan, and potentially more Japanese who will need to observe dietary restrictions, we may see a time when the majority of Japanese restaurants can no longer afford to view gluten-free as some kind of fad.
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