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Gluten-free in Japan is a Tough Road to Walk

In a country where rice is the grain of choice, who would have thought that living gluten-free would be so tough?

I had never really given this any thought until a couple of weeks ago, when our new, sweet, adventurous, gluten-intolerant ALT arrived. We stopped at a Japanese restaurant for lunch on the way back and all ordered teishoku, naively assuming that Japanese = no wheat. So it was kind of eye-opening for me when the meal was served and I looked at each dish – not only was there breaded fish, but what Japanese food doesn’t contain soy sauce? Our new girl had done her research, and was neither surprised nor bitter, but I guess I was sort of shocked.

Anyway, it’s been kind of an interesting for me to look at food in Japan through a new lense. Fortunately, rice is delicious and readily available here, and rice flour for baking is recently experiencing a boom. But what to do about soy sauce? Most soy sauce is brewed with wheat, and while I remember seeing gluten-free kikkoman at almost every grocery store at home, a survey of our local supermarkets produced no wheat-free alternatives.

I was just about ready to give up when I visited our local AEON supermarket, located in Kahoku. Guess what was mixed in among the soy sauce bottles?

Gluten-free soy sauce from Ichibiki - available at Kahoku AEON

In great, big, easy to read letters “Whole Soybean Soy Sauce That Doesn’t Use Wheat” (komugi wo tsukawanai marudaizu shouyu). Closer inspection of the label reveals that this soy sauce is brewed using only soybeans and salt, so it may be safe for some people who suffer gluten intolerance. At around 300 yen per 500 ml bottle, it’s more expensive than normal soy sauce, but not unaffordable. I haven’t bought any yet, so I’m not qualified to make a flavor comparison, but I’ll be sure to let you know later.

Please note that while this product is wheat-free, it is not processed in a wheat free environment, and may contain small amounts of wheat/gluten that could cause reactions in those who are highly sensitive or are sufferers of celiac disease.

For folks living in Japan who would like to cook Japanese food, this is a great option, but it still doesn’t solve the restaurant dilemma. I’m on the lookout for ideas.

Anyone out there have experience with traveling/living in Japan gluten-free? I’d love to hear your stories.

Updated August 15 – Thank you for your comments!


9 thoughts on “Gluten-free in Japan is a Tough Road to Walk

  1. Be sure to ask the JET community. There are a few restaurants in KZ that previous gluten-free-ers have sworn by. In fact, I should put you in touch with those former JETs. :)

    Posted by Alli Berry | August 11, 2011, 10:19 pm
  2. I have some muffin recipes that use 米粉 and 餅粉 if she’d like them translated.

    Posted by odorunara | August 14, 2011, 12:42 pm
  3. Hi,
    I have been living in Tokyo for two years already, i was diagnosed celiac one year ago. I tried the soy sauce you talk about. i contacted the company and they told me that wheat was used in their factory. Consequently, i recommend you to be careful if your relative is highly sensitive to gluten. Moreover, most celiac people also react to soy. Sorry for those bad news, i hope things will be fine for your gluten intolerant relative.


    Posted by thomas | August 15, 2011, 6:22 am
    • Hi Thomas,
      I’m really greatful for your comment. Fortunately for my friend, her gluten intolerance is not so severe that it makes her sick, and she seems to be able to ingest trace amounts without much trouble. Even so, I will pass on the information, as well as update this post, in case others are out there looking for similar information.
      I can only imagine that life in Japan must be a real challege for you and others with celiac disease. Have you had any success finding products here that fit your dietary needs?

      Posted by cheruko | August 15, 2011, 1:14 pm
  4. Hello! I”m someone with celiac who has spent a lot of time in Japan. Cocos curry now has a low allergen menu (低アレルゲン) (including rice bread). as does Dennys. It is geared towards children, but they will usually accommodate. For more specific items has all kinds of gluten free products, from gyouza to cake to quinoa soy sauce. She’s lucky cross contamination isn’t an issue!

    Posted by Lauren | January 23, 2012, 5:14 pm
  5. Thank you for this information I am re-considering moving to Japan. I spent two great weeks there and survived by self-catering, spending ages in the shops checking every packet for the Kanji for wheat and using a printout in Japanese saying what I couldn’t eat. I also frequented McDonalds but have since gone vegetarian. I found Tokyo Disneyland extremely helpful but we can’t all eat there everyday! I am getting better and better at creating gluten free Japanese meals at home but I was worried about getting the ingredients like the soy sauce and gluten free flour so thank you for the website.

    Posted by Elizabeth | March 6, 2012, 6:57 am

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