Two of the first kanji Conner Lowe learned were the ones that make up the word daizu, meaning soybeans.
For him, knowing those two characters, 大豆, is a matter of life and death because he has a serious allergy to legumes.
After the native of Santa Cruz, California, took his first bite of curry rice at a restaurant in Tokyo two years ago, his throat swelled and became itchy. He took some allergy medicine and decided not to go to a hospital out of concern for his lack of Japanese skills. He later came to realize that the curry must have contained peanuts.
“I immediately knew I had a problem,” Lowe, now a recruiting consultant, recalled.
Both the government and food industry have launched various initiatives to notify consumers about potential allergens in food, such as making easy-to-read labels. But experts say the country is not doing enough to accommodate foreign nationals with food allergies — which are the result of a person’s immune system excessively rejecting a certain food or ingredient, mistaking them as toxic substances — even though the number of overseas visitors is projected to keep increasing.
Unlike the situation at restaurants, regulations for food labels are strict in Japan. The Food Labeling Act mandates that the seven most common allergens — eggs, wheat, milk, buckwheat, peanuts, shrimp and crab — be labeled in processed food. The act recommends 20 additional foodstuffs, from soybeans to apples, be labeled as well.
Dr. Motohiro Ebisawa, the vice director of clinical research center for allergy and rheumatology at Sagamihara National Hospital in Kanagawa Prefecture, pushed for the labeling requirement in the early 2000s. He said at that time Japan was a pioneer in disseminating ingredient information.
Ebisawa says making such information available in English at restaurants is “absolutely necessary” considering the continuing influx of tourists and migrants from overseas.
The government announced this month that the number of foreign visitors topped a record-breaking 30 million in 2018. And starting in April, Japan is slated to accept workers from overseas under new visa categories as a result of a major overhaul in the country’s immigration control law.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Summer Games are expected to add to the tourism boom.
But both government and restaurant industry officials have admitted that at this point, there are no concrete measures in place to give ingredient information to people who don’t read Japanese.
Kiyotoshi Tamura, director of the Japan Food Service Association, stressed that the restaurant industry is well aware of the importance of allergen labeling, but said that unlike the laws governing the processed food industry, restaurants are cautious about putting out information, even in Japanese, over fear of potential accidents stemming from the spread of misinformation.
Realistically, he added, it is “incredibly difficult” for some restaurants to thoroughly separate ingredients in a small kitchen and prevent potential allergens from getting mixed into other foods.
Ebisawa said communication between food providers and customers is crucial, adding that, at the very least, whoever is in charge of an individual outlet should have proper knowledge about food allergies.
“It would be great if a big franchise trains its employees about food allergies, but it is not happening yet in Japan,” Ebisawa said.
Lowe said he no longer has trouble reading labels because his Japanese has reached an intermediate level.
He admitted that, ultimately, the responsibility falls on the individuals themselves, but recommended government and food providers be proactive so as to prevent potential tragedies.
Ryoko Hasegawa, a spokesperson for the government-backed Japan National Tourism Organization, said the group has brought up the issue of food allergies during seminars with tourism officials in local governments and tourism industry leaders.
Those seminars also discussed broader food issues, like dietary restrictions due to religious beliefs, she said.
Some restaurants have voluntarily introduced systems to alert both Japanese and non-Japanese consumers. McDonald’s, for instance, enables customers to scan a QR code to see whether their products contain allergens.
Curry restaurant operator Ichibanya Co. provides its menu in nine different languages and a Japanese and English chart that details which foods may contain allergens.
The change was made after the restaurant started to receive more inquiries from customers about allergens in the ingredients, said Kae Asai, the restaurant chain’s spokesperson.
There is a grassroots initiative underway as well. Ai Murata, a leader of Child Allergy Trip, a nonprofit group supporting families with children who have food allergies, created an eye-catching red and yellow food allergy card.
Written in English and Japanese, an individual with an allergy can check boxes to indicate which ingredients they are allergic to, such as dairy, peanuts, gluten, MSG and even sulphites, and show it to the staff at restaurants.
The back of the card lists several warnings, such as the fact that soy sauce not only contains soy, but also wheat.
The card can be downloaded at foodallergycardjapan.com.
Murata cited an incident in September in which a foreign tourist went into anaphylactic shock after he had eaten gohei mochi (rice cake), a local specialty of Gifu Prefecture. The tourist was apparently unaware it contained nuts, she said.
“I have traveled to different places with my family — the United States, Europe and Australia — and felt Japan is not progressive when it comes to awareness over allergens,” said Murata, whose 6-year-old son is severely allergic to eggs. “Even when I said my son is allergic to eggs, I came across some cases in restaurants in Japan which I felt it was not taken so seriously.”
“I felt such a card needed to be created because I thought the situation needed to be improved.”