6. Don’t rely on vegetarian/vegan options.

For someone allergic to seafood, milk, or eggs, eating vegan seems like a fail-safe option. However, in Japan, pure veganism is not that common (unless you’re a monk), and your words will be comprehended by the populous as that you just don’t eat beef. Foodstaff may still serve you food that contains seafood products and animal by-products, unaware of your medical needs. Don’t blindly rely on these terms to keep yourself safe.

Brownie: This would actually kill me: fresh cream, egg whites,
butter, and walnuts! What a nightmare! It also may contain
traces of soy.

7. Learn to Read Food Labels

If you’re traveling to Japan, I’ve got your cheat sheet. Half of this list should also work for China and Taiwan, as they share similar ideographs called kanji and known as hanzi in China.

Although it would helpful if you can read hiragana and katakana (two finite Japanese lexicons), you don’t actually need to be able to read any Japanese for use the guide. Instead, think of the words as pictures and match them to labels. Photographs are included to help you practice.

Check out 10 Essential Tips for Studying Japanese if you want to get a solid grasp on the basics of hiragana and katakana by studying during your flight.

Note on pronunciation and grammar: If you’re traveling Japan, it will be highly beneficial to have a pronunciation guide in a phrasebook or dictionary. Most letters in Japanese are pronounced one way.

One of the more important things to remember when speaking Japanese is that double vowels are held for two counts. For example, chiizu (three syllables) is “cheese”, but chizu (two syllables) is “map”. The double vowel “oo” is often romanized as “ou”, so my examples will be written in such a fashion. It is not “oo” as in “cool”. The second important thing to know is that Japanese does not have plurals. If you say tamago, it means both “egg” and “eggs”.

Useful Phrases

The blank spaces are for your allergens.

I have an allergy to ____.
Watashi wa ____ arerugii ga arimasu.
私 は___アレルギーがあります。

I have an allergy to ____ and ____.
Watashi wa ____ to ____ arerugii ga arimasu.
私 は____と____ アレルギーがあります。

I have an allergy to things like ____, ____, and ____.
Watashi wa ____ ya ____ ya ____ ni arerugii ga arimasu.
私 は____や____や____にアレルギーがあります。

Note 1: “to” indicates a finite amount; “ya” indicates a continuing list.
Note 2: You can actually drop the “watashi wa” to sound more natural. Japanese does not require pronouns for complete sentences.

Is there ____ in this/that?
Kore/Sore ni _____ ga haitteimasu ka?
これ/それ に___が入っていますか?

Is there ___ in this/that [food item]?
Kono / sono [tabemono] ni ___ ga haitteimasu ka?
この / その [食べ物] に____が入っていますか?

If I eat this, I’ll become ill.
Tabetara, byouki ni narimasu.
食べたら、病気になります。

If I eat this, I’ll die.
Tabetara, nakunarimasu.
食べたら、亡くなります。

I am unable to eat this.
Taberukoto ga dekimasen.
食べることができません。

I cannot eat this.
Tabe deha ikemasen.
食べてはいけません。

(Please) help me!
Tasukete (kudasai)!
助けて(下さい)!

(Please) use the Epi-pen!
Epi-pen wo tsukutte (kudasai)!
Epi-pen を作って(下さい)!

Common Responses

If you can’t catch the Japanese, listen for an “iie”, “nai”, or “imasen” to indicate a negative statement, and a “hai” or a “masu” to indicate a positive.

何のアレルギーがありますか? / Nan no arerugii ga arimasu ka? / What are your allergies?

残念ですね! / Zannen desu ne! / That’s such a shame!

へえ?そうですか? / Hee? Sou desu ka? / Oh?, is that so?

本当ですか?/ Hontou desu ka? / Is that true?

本当(に)? / Hontou (ni)? / Really?

嘘! / Uso! / You’re kidding! (Literally: A lie!)

Note: You can answer all of these questions with the following confirmation はい、そうです。Hai, sou desu.

可哀想ですね。/ Kawaisou desu ne. / You poor thing!

Note: “Kawaii” means “cute” and “kowai” means “scary”, so pronunciation is really key here. Answer this looking embarrassed, fanning your hand side to side (not up and down) in front of your mouth in a dismissive manner, while stating: そうではありません … Sou de wa arimasen… It’s not like that…

はい、入っています。/ Hai, haitteimasu. / Yes, it does have ___ in it.

いいえ、入っていません。/ Iie, haitteimasen. / No, it doesn’t have ___ in it.

入っていると思います。/ Haitteiru to omoimasu. / I think it has [ingredient] in it.

そうではないと思います。。。/ Sou dewanai to omoimasu… / I don’t think it does….

入っていないと思います。/ Haitteinai to omoimasu. / I don’t think it has [ingredient] in it.

少々お待ちください。/ Shoushou omachi kudasai. / Please wait (while I check).

Common Allergens and How to Identify Them

Milk beverage: How many times can you count
the kanji for milk, 乳? If you said four, you’re
correct.

乳 – Milk

Milk shows up in many of the same places that it does in Western cuisine, such as bread and desserts. In Japan, it also shows up in things like bottled tea and in mysterious products like “peanut cream”. A list of Japanese dairy products on their Japanese Wikipedia page here. The kanji for milk, 乳, by itself is read as “chichi”, however, it’s recommended to avoid using that because it’s slang for “breasts”. Usually, you’ll see it paired with other kanji like in the below examples:

乳製品 / nyuuseirin – dairy products
牛乳 / gyuunyuu – cow’s milk- Use this one when asking if your food has milk in it.
生乳 / namagyuu – raw milk
豆乳 / tounyuu – soymilk
乳カゼイン / nyuu kasein – lactic casein – This is often written just as カゼイン / kasein.
チーズ / chiizu – cheese
乳化剤 / nyuukazai – emulsifier

Note: Some emulsifiers do not have milk in them, but this is just how it’s written. Nyuukazai shows up in onigiri/musubi (riceballs) sometimes, but I have eaten them without getting sick. Eat at your own risk.

クリーム / kuriimu – cream
生クリーム / nama kuriimu – fresh cream
ミルク / miruku – milk (flavored things)
Note: You may see miruku written as みるく but it is uncommon.
バター / bataa – butter

Note: Do not confuse with this with margarine, which is マーガリン / margarin. I have seen margarine with milk in it, so again, eat at your own risk. This is how you’d write margarine with a 100% canola oil in it: コーン油100%のマーガリン / counyu hyaku pasento no ma-garin.

ヨーグルト – Yogurt

Yogurt and probiotic drinks are as popular in Japan as it is in Western countries. You’ve probably even seen a Japanese yogurt called Yakult in your grocery store. You can buy it as-is, in drinks, in candy, or health products containing acidophilus bacteria.

ヨーグルト / youguruto – yogurt
豆乳ヨーグルト / tounyuu yogurt- soy milk yogurt
アシドフィルス / ashidofirusu – acidophilus

卵 – Egg

Eggs and omelets are ubiquitous in Japan. It’s usually easy to identify due to its neon-yellow color, an ideal hue for a warning sign. As in Western cuisine, eggs can be found in bread, pastries, and breaded/battered products as a binding agent. Tempura (batter-fried foods) almost always contain egg. I was once informed that the proper way to make tempura is without egg, but egg greatly simplifies the frying process so there it lurks.

卵 / tamago or 玉子/ tamago – egg
オムレツ / omuretsu or 卵焼き / tamagoyaki – omelette
卵白 / ranpaku – egg white
お好み焼き / okonomiyaki – a Japanese pancake made with flour, veggies, liquid, and egg.
Note: It’s basically the Japanese version of the matzah brei.

Bread with strawberry jam (a dessert item): This is an allergy
bomb, a perfect specimen for practice. The list starts off with
wheat flour, egg, and then proceeds to delve into
strawberry jam and the ingredients within it. You can spot the
“milk” kanji there, and the kanji next to it essentially means
that other dairy ingredients could be present.

大豆 – Soy

Soybeans are common in Asian cuisine, and they pop up in many different forms. 豆 / mame is the kanji for beans or legumes, but only means “soy” when combined with that first kanji (大), which means “large”. You may have noticed in the milk section above that soymilk is written without the “大”. This is because soymilk is the only bean “milk” sold. Tofu also falls in the soybean category. Japanese has its own special words for the grades of firmness that aren’t in your dictionaries, so I included them below to save you an hour in the tofu section poking the packaging, trying to gauge the squishiness by touch.

大豆 / daizu – soy[a] bean
枝豆 / edamame – immature soybeans in pods (often served as appetizers)
とうふ / toufu or 豆腐 / toufu – tofu/bean curd
Note: English speakers just say “tofu”, but in Japanese, the “o” is an elongated sound. .
絹漉し豆腐 or きぬ/ kinugoshi doufu or just kinu – silken tofu
木綿豆腐 or もめん / momen doufu or just momen – firm tofu
卵豆腐 / tamago doufu – tofu made with egg
油揚げ / aburaage – thin strips or pockets of tofu fried in oil (usually corn).
Note: The two most common dishes that contain aburaage don’t have that word in the name – 稲荷寿司 / inari-zushi and きつね / kitsune udon (うどん) or somen (そめん).
醤油 or しょうゆ / shoyu – soy sauce
黄粉 or きなこ / kinako – soybean flour
Note: You won’t see the kanji for “soybean” here because “kina” means “yellow”.

ナツ – Nuts

You can’t hide from these either. Peanuts are in fact legumes and do not share most of the scientific classifications with tree nuts. As someone with severe nut allergies myself, I was shocked to discover that chestnuts did not cause an allergic reaction. Chestnuts are popular in the cooler months, especially steamed or roasted. Try cautiously.

落花生 / rakkasei or ピーナッツ / piinatsu – peanuts
ピーナツバター / piinatsu bataa – peanut butter
杏仁 / kyounin or アーモンド / aamondo – almond
Note: The reading for 杏仁 also means “apricot pit”.
胡桃 or くるみ or クルミ / kurumi or ウォールナット / waarunatsu – walnut
ピスタチオ / pisutachio – pistachio
カシューア / cashuua – cashew
ペカン / pekan – pecan
栗 or くり / kuri – chestnut
豆板 / mameita – nut brittle (dessert)

小麦 – Wheat (and Grains)

If you have a gluten allergy, all hope is not exactly lost in Japan. Yes, most bread, noodles, and pastry products do contain flour. However, rice flour and rice products have a large presence as well. If you are allergic to rice, it will be more difficult to avoid it than a gluten allergy. You also may want to do research on grains used to produce Japanese alcohol. Grains also appear in some teas, such as mugicha and genmaicha. Oats are not common food products in Japan.

小麦 / komugi – wheat
麩質 / fushitsu or グルテン / guruten – gluten
オートムギ / outomugi or エンバク / enbaku or オーツ / outsu – oats
麦 or むぎ / mugi – barley
蕎麦 / sobamugi – buckwheat
そば / soba – buckwheat noodles
うどん / udon – thick wheat noodles
そめん / somen – thin wheat noodles
ラーメン / ramen – thin, Chinese style wheat noodles
Note: Ramen is also written as らめん, but the above term is more commonly used.

米 / kome – rice
玄米 / げんまい / genmai – brown or unpolished rice
お握り or 御握り or おにぎり/ onigiri or お結び or おむすび / omusubi – riceball
餅 or もち / mochi – pounded rice cake
大福餅 / daifukumochi – pounded rice cake with a sweet filling
味醂 or みりん / mirin – rice wine (for cooking)
米酢 / komesu – rice vinegar
Note: White and apple cider vinegar are so uncommon in Japan that rice vinegar is often written just as vinegar, 酢 / su.

海産食品 – Seafood

If you are allergic to seafood, you will struggle in Japan. There are easily a hundred words for the varieties of fish (think of sushi menus alone!). I’ve only included the basic vocabulary for seafood products, but if you have a severe seafood allergy, please do research before going on culinary adventures in Japan.

海産食品 / kaisanshokuhin or シーフード / shiifuudo – seafood
貝 / kai – shellfish
魚 / sakana – fish
鮭 or さけ or しゃけ / sake or shake – salmon
Note: “Sake” is also the word for alcohol, so you may want to stick with “shake”.
鰹 or かつお / katsuo – bonito
鮪 or まぐろ / maguro – tuna
鯖 or さば / saba – mackerel
蝦 or えび / ebi – shrimp
海胆 or 海栗 or ウニ / uni – sea urchin
ロブスタ / robusuta – lobster
蟹 or カニ / kani – crab
蛸 or たこ/ tako – octopus

Milk tea. This is an Asian twist on the British
way of enjoying black teas. Young adults love it.

Other Useful Words

アレルギー / arerugii – allergy
アレルゲン / arugen – allergen

材料 / zairyou – ingredients
原材料名 / genzairyoumei – list of ingredients
原材料の一部に___を含む / genzairyou no ichibu ni ___ wo fukumu – this product may contain traces of ___
由来 or ゆらい / yurai – sourced from ___ (suffix)

飲料 / inryou – beverage
Note: You’ll see this as a suffix, like milk beverage or yogurt beverage.
飲物 / nomimono – drink
果汁 / kajuu or ジュース /juusu – fruit juice
食べ物 / tabemono or 食料 / shokuryou – food

油 / abura – oil (usually as a prefix; for a suffix it’s mostly but not always yu)
味 / aji – flavor[ed] (a suffix)
チョコレット or チョコレート / chokoretto – chocolate
ココア / kokoa – cocoa
ごま / goma – sesame
ごま油 / goma abura – sesame seed oil
粉 / ko – flour (a suffix)
生 / nama – raw/uncooked or fresh (a prefix)
種 / tane – seed
果物 / kudamono – fruit
苺 or いちご / ichigo – strawberry
野菜 / yasai – vegetable
焼 / yaki – grilled

花粉 / kafun – pollen
埃 / hokori – dust
猫 / neko – cat
犬 / inu – dog
花粉症 / kafunshou – hay fever
喘息 or ぜんそく/ zensoku – asthma
ヒスタミン / hisutamin – histamine
抗ヒスタミン錠剤 / kouhisutamin jouzai- anti-histamine pill
薬 / kusuri – medicine

How to Find Additional Vocabulary

1) Go here: alc.co.jp/
2) Type the English word into the box and hit the 英和・和英 button.
3) Copy the Japanese that’s not in parenthesis or brackets.
4) Go here: nihongo.j-talk.com/kanji/
5) Paste your Japanese into the search box and hit your Enter key. The romanized word will appear below the box.

If you want to double-check that you have the correct Japanese, plug it into here and click “Begin Translation.”

Community Connection

For more on life and travel in Japan, check out Matador’s Focus Guide to Japan.

Do you have any tips to share about dealing with food allergies in Japan?