Our near impossible gluten-free life in Japan

A food allergy was never a big problem for me until I met an Australian man 8 years ago, who later became my husband. Until then, I never paid much attention to what was in the food, and never heard about coeliac disease or let alone gluten-free.

My husband and I met when he was on a business trip to Japan. It was customary for the local team to take oversea visitors out in the evening, and that’s when things got complicated. “I can’t eat gluten,” he said, who then got a lot of puzzled looks from his Japanese colleagues. He explained examples of foods that contain gluten, what sort of reactions he might have if he has gluten (“No, I don’t die instantly”). In the end, the team admin, who must have been very confused, booked an okonomiyaki restaurant. In case you are not aware, okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake, whose main ingredient is, well, flour. Totally glutenous and perhaps one of the least coeliac friendly places. I cannot remember if he managed to eat anything there.

Photo of okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki is a savoury Japanese pancake, full of flour. Photo by fat worm from Pexels

When he moved to Japan, it was impossible to go completely gluten-free outside of our house. People are often surprised by it and say “But Japanese people eat a lot of rice! Isn’t rice gluten-free?” Yes. Rice is gluten-free. But think about popular Japanese food apart from sushi. Ramen, tempura, takoyaki, udon… many dishes use flour. Miso soup can be a gamble as some miso pastes are made from wheat.

Ramen. Photo by me

And the remaining dishes? They are very likely to contain soy sauce, most of which contain a small amount of wheat. I didn’t know that until my husband pointed out, and it wouldn’t occur to most Japanese people. So when we asked at a restaurant if a dish contained wheat, most places would answer “no”, even if it used soy sauce.

Soy sauce is such a staple condiment in Japan that it is ubiquitous. Even some savoury snacks like crisps would have soy sauce in them. My husband decided to eat dishes that had a little bit of soy sauce because otherwise he really couldn’t find anything to eat at the office cafeteria or socialise with other friends.

Our dinner dates in Japan often happened in Thai or Indian restaurants where we had better chances of getting something free of gluten. Our friend took us to a soba noodle restaurant once. “This place has towari-soba, which means 100% buckwheat,” he said. But after coming home that night, my husband was quite ill, probably due to some cross-contamination.

Finding staples like bread and pasta was challenging then. Unlike the supermarkets in the UK or Australia, I have never seen “free-from section” in Japanese supermarkets. In order to get gluten-free pasta, for example, we had to go to a pricy international supermarket that handled imported grocery from Europe and the States.

Food allergies finally started to be discussed widely around 2013 when an elementary school student with dairy allergy died after eating school lunch. As the public was getting aware of various food allergies, it became slightly easier overtime to explain my husband’s symptoms and needs. At least people didn’t look at us like crazy for asking if the dish contained wheat or not.

We moved to London in 2015. His health has been much better since. It was after we left that the gluten-free diet became known among health-conscious Japanese people, thanks to the rising popularity of the tennis player Novak Djokovic and his book.

However, Japan is still far from an ideal place for coeliac. When we visited there in 2018, the same challenges remained. The only improvement was that my mum was able to find some stodgy rice-flour bread and gluten-free curry roux online. We ate out at our usual gluten-free ethnic restaurants, rather than at delicious Japanese restaurants to my disappointment.

People often ask me if we would move back to Japan in the future. The answer is, sadly, very unlikely. After living there together for 2 years, it was obvious to us that we had to leave the country for his health. Going back to Japan now is like knowingly giving a small dose of poison every day to someone you love. If we were to return, we would need Japan to seriously up the game on the free-from food industry, or someone to find the cure for coeliac disease!

30-something Japanese living in London. Used to work in tech. Now a stay at home mum.

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