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Tokyo, Food Allergies, & the 2020 Olympics – An Open Letter

Dear Tokyo,

I am in love with you. Your history, your culture, your people, your cuisine; all of it is unique and beautiful. I love your deep traditional roots and your hopeful, almost frantic press towards the future. I love your language. I love so many things about you. But that is not what this letter is about.

You see,  I have a problem. I have a food allergy. Food allergies seem far less common among Japanese people than Westerners, and are not well understood here. But it's even worse than that for me; I have an uncommon food allergy, even for the West. You see, I have Celiac Disease, an auto-immune disorder that causes me intense intestinal distress when I ingest even the smallest amount of a certain food protein, called gluten, found in wheat (小麦), rye (ライ麦), barley (大麦), and malt (麦芽). It would eventually cause serious complications if ignored, including diabetes and cancer.

This specific disease and its associated food intolerance is still being researched, and there is a lot to learn. However, the particulars are unimportant; I only share them this much in the interests of transparency and understanding. The thing I am more concerned about in this letter is how the United States and Japan differ in terms of food allergy education and legislation.

I have lived in Japan for over two years, and in that time, I have found it nearly impossible to enjoy any of your legendary cuisine, or even to shop for most things at your grocery stores.

I will begin with a discussion of prepackaged food. Even putting the language barriers aside, allergen labeling is almost useless to someone with a serious food allergy. This labeling is, as I understand it, not compulsory, but rather something done as a courtesy to the customers at the discretion of the manufacturers. Therefore, which allergens are declared, and at what threshold (how many parts-per-million), is completely inconsistent.

This leaves the burden entirely on the customer.

It isn't too difficult to determine whether something like a bread contains wheat. However, if potato chips or nuts, for example, were processed on the same equipment that processes a wheat product, there is a high risk of contamination even if wheat is not an ingredient. Taken a step farther, there are a number of less obvious ingredients that contain wheat, such as many sushi vinegars, most soy sauces, and anything with malt (often added to chocolate). Even more difficult are more obscure ingredients often found in processed foods, such as starch syrup (mizuame; 水飴) and hydrolized vegetable protein ( タンパク加水分解物), both of which may be made with or without wheat.

Because declaring allergens is not required, customers must scan labels for a large variety of ingredients, even more difficult for anyone not fluent in Kanji. Even then, we still cannot be sure whether wheat was used, as in the case of mizuame which could be made with our without it, nor can we be confident that the food has not been cross-contaminated during the manufacturing process.

With the above-mentioned labeling issues, it should come as no surprise that I have found most food professionals in restaurants to be shockingly ignorant of what allergens their dishes may contain. I have been told by a cook that a dish was "vegetables in a brown beef sauce" and asked whether it was safe for me. I had no way to answer that question unless he wanted to take me into his kitchen and show me the labels on every ingredient in that sauce. Not only that, but during that multi-course meal, I was asked a similar question for each item; in a culture that places such high emphasis on not being a bother to others, I felt utterly humiliated, even while receiving very little information actually useful to me.

At another restaurant, I was assured that tempura was battered in rice flour only to learn after further questioning that the oil it was fried in had previously been used to fry their usual wheat-based foods. And not a single cook or server I have come across has known that sushi vinegar and soy sauce usually contain wheat, until I told them and they checked the label for themselves. Nearly every server or cook I've tried to talk to about my allergy has responded with a look of utter fear, followed by arduous minutes of explanation which inevitably leave me feeling like a horrible nuisance at best. Most frustrating of all is when I am simply told or discover for myself that, after all the trouble I unintentionally caused, nothing on any menu in any restaurant in an entire mall restaurant floor is safe for me.

I've taken to bringing a homemade bento with me if I intend to be away from home for more than a few hours. Anything else is just too stressful. Even so, being perpetually surrounded by the sights and smells of a culture which rightfully loves its food, while being unable to participate in any way, is nothing short of maddening.

Last week, I took a one week trip back to the U.S. -- the first since my move to Japan -- and I was shocked at the contrast. Allergens are clearly, mandatorily labeled on all foods in grocery stores, so I can be confident in the safety of everything I buy. Restaurant staff and cooks are generally knowledgeable about which allergens their dishes contain, and they handle requests for clarification with ease and professionalism. Many restaurants make an effort to have at least one dish safe for all diners, and it's easy to find which restaurants are safe for certain allergies through a quick Web search.

After living in a place where nearly every attempt to eat out has ended in disaster, humiliation, or both, I was able to eat out every day of my vacation without a single incident. The contrast was simply striking.

In light of the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I've seen legislators, tourism bureaus, newspapers, and magazines asking, "What can Tokyo do to make itself more welcoming to foreigners?" This is my answer: Improve labeling and education surrounding food allergies, and preferably increase allergen safe options.

Food allergies come in a wide variety; people may break out in a rash, or experience stomach cramps, or go into anaphylactic shock. Their symptoms may be immediate or delayed, uncomfortable and long-term or immediate and life-threatening. The one thing that is certain, however, is that all of them can be avoided by proper labeling and education of food service professionals.tokyo-2020-olympics

Japan will be well-served by catching up to the U.S. in this regard if it intends to host thousands of non-Japanese -- many of whom will have varying dietary needs on which their physical health and safety depends -- for over two weeks over the course of the 2020 Olympics.

P.S. A big "Thank you!" to the following restaurants who are bastions of safety for me in an otherwise dangerous culinary landscape.

Coco Ichibanya who include a full allergen list and an allergen-free curry in all their stores.

Sushi Chu, whose quickly learned the details of wheat allergies and always prepare my food separately.

Cafe Littlebird / Japan Crepe in Harajuku, whose entire menu -- including curries, sandwiches, and crepes -- is Celiac safe.

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