An independent “vegan director,” Azumi Yamanaka, 42, consults with organizations on how to operate in accordance with vegan choices. Having lived as a vegan for 15 years, she recognizes the challenges veganism faces in Japan and is working to promote a fairer and more sustainable animal-friendly nation.
1. Why did you become vegan? The primary reason is that I really love animals, and I don’t want to harm them. Personally, I don’t understand the difference between human life and animal life — even bugs.
2. How long have you been a vegan? I’ve been vegan for 15 years, but even before that I was brought up as a vegetarian by my mother. Choosing to become fully vegan just really allowed me to close the gap between my values and actions.
3. Is it difficult to live as a vegan in Tokyo? It can be, yes. Although Tokyo is the most vegan-friendly city in Japan, it can still be challenging because of mindsets. Many people in Japan don’t want to embrace change, so the vegan community remains a minority.
4. So it would be even harder to live this way in other areas in Japan? I think so. There are even fewer options in supermarkets and restaurants. Travel can be difficult in local areas, too. In fact, during the pandemic I tried to travel Japan, but a lot of traditional Japanese inns said they couldn’t cater to me as a vegan.
5. Why do you think this is? A lot of the problem here is a lack of flexibility and willingness to adapt. People in rural areas are generally a bit more conservative, too. However, I have vegan friends living in rural areas, and I know that they are able to live this way because of access to vegan products online.
6. As a vegan activist, what achievements are you most proud of? I’m most proud of a Change.org campaign I worked on to abolish the use of fur at the retailer Shimamura. It took three years and a lot of hard work, but I’m so pleased that it was eventually a success, they’ve now stopped using fur. I’m also currently campaigning for vegan options to be introduced at Universal Studios Japan and Tokyo Disney Resort.
7. How might someone take the first steps to becoming vegan? The first step is to research nutritional balance as a vegan. Some people think that being vegan means you can only eat salad, but of course that’s not a balanced diet. It’s important to think about how you will get protein and other nutrients. Of course, you need to know where to buy vegan products, too. Doing some research around supermarkets, online marketplaces and restaurants with plant-based foods is a good place to start.
8. Are there any films that have helped you learn about veganism or sustainability? Documentaries like “Cowspiracy,” “Seaspiracy” and “The Game Changers” have helped me learn a lot, but I know that some people can find these documentaries quite overwhelming. In that case, I recommend “Before the Flood” with Leonardo DiCaprio.
9. Do you make sustainable choices in other areas of your life? Yes, I choose to follow veganism as a lifestyle, not only as a dietary choice. People are always surprised that I do this and still present myself in a colorful, fashion-conscious way. I think Japanese people especially often associate veganism with natural styles and colors, but I want to show people that you can have bright and fun nails, make-up, hair color and clothes all while being vegan. All of the beauty products I use are vegan.
10. Have you had to make any sacrifices? Actually, I don’t feel that I’ve had to sacrifice much because I love animals, so that is my main driver. Although, one thing is that I love cheese, and it’s hard to find good vegan cheese in Japan.
I know that for some people a big challenge is the social aspect. If you’re with friends or a partner who isn’t vegan or vegetarian, it can be hard to find a good restaurant in Japan — especially if those friends or partners aren’t very flexible.
11. What is your favorite vegan food? I really like Indian food, especially biryani. I like to cook it a lot, too. In fact, if you love cooking, that’s the best way to survive as a vegan in Japan!
12. Where is your favorite place in Japan? If I had to choose purely on the place, I would probably choose Okinawa because I love the ocean. But really (I like) anywhere that I have friends or where I’ve made memories.
13. Your Instagram photos are so stylish. Where do you draw inspiration from? My SNS isn’t inspired by anyone, but as an activist I’m careful not to create a bad image of myself. Also, in Japan, there is an image that volunteers are plain and uncool, so I try to look as stylish as possible, taking advantage of the fact that my main work is in fashion and design. I think more people are interested in you if you look fashionable.
14. Do you work with sustainable fashion brands? Not fully, but the fact that I’m in that world means I can be a bridge between sustainability and fashion. I do try to encourage companies to use things like recycled fabrics as much as possible. But it’s also my dream to develop sustainable infrastructures for companies — not just in fashion but also in food, cosmetics and tourism, for example.
15. If you could magically get people in Japan to do one sustainable thing this summer, what would it be? Recently, I’ve been thinking about how good it would be if Japan had charity shops. They’re really common in European countries and the U.S., but we don’t have the same system here. There are some secondhand shops, but they’re usually not as affordable as charity shops or there isn’t a charity attached to them.
16. What do you enjoy doing in your free time? I enjoy hanging out with my friends and going for picnics or hiking together. I also enjoy traveling both in Japan and to other countries.
17. Been anywhere fun lately? Actually, I recently came back from a trip across Europe. It was my first time going there since before the pandemic, and I was so impressed with all the vegan options I found.
18. If I asked your best friend to describe you in three words, what words would they use? Energetic, kind and funny. My nickname is actually “Carrey,” because my friends at school used to say that I’m funny, and I also look a bit like Jim Carrey.
19. Do you have any big plans for the summer? I think I’ll spend a lot of time working on my current projects, but if I travel it will probably be to Okinawa or Zushi — somewhere where I can enjoy the ocean.
20. Finally, what is the best thing about living a vegan lifestyle? For me, the best thing is that I know I’m living in line with my values. If I say I love animals but then I eat them, there’s clearly a gap in my values and behavior. The bonus effects are that vegan choices can also be good for beauty, health and the planet.
You can find Azumi Yamanaka on Instagram at @azuartev.