Need help with communicating allergies in Japan
- MouseChow Nov 17, 2013 01:59 PM
We're traveling to Japan in April for a family vacation, and couldn't be more excited. But my daughter is allergic to peanuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pecans. I'm thinking the best way to keep her safe would be to carry a laminated card written in Japanese to communicate with restaurant staff. Any advice on how to get such a card written? Anyone have experience with food allergies in Japan?
My advice would be to bring an epi pen or a lot of antihistamines, depending on how allergic she is.
You won't have to worry so much about the walnuts, hazelnuts or pecans as long as you avoid sweets, but peanuts would be a little more worrisome, especially if something like peanut oil might cause a reaction.
Don't expect Japanese people to cater to her allergies, even if you flash a fancy laminated card at them. Dine at western restaurants as much as possible (like hotel restaurants).
Peanuts and maybe walnuts will likely be the greatest hazard, unless you eat western style food, in which case there might be pecans or hazelnuts. I agree that you should have a laminated card. I don't know where you live, but check and see if there are Japanese translators or a school that includes Japanese language classes. Lacking those, check online or at a large university nearest to you. You might have to pay a fee, but it will be worth it to keep your daughter safe. I remember going on a bus tour many years ago in Japan. One of our tour group had an allergy to something very common in Japanese food--maybe sesame, I don't remember. He carried a card with his allergy written in kanji and it seemed to do the trick. That said, I agree that she should also carry an epipen or whatever her doctor recommends. Peanut oil may be an especial problem.
I agree that some places might not cater to allergies, but it depends on how easy it is to remove the ingredients AND how well you communicate the danger to them. With my shellfish allergy, I can usually get a sushi shop to only give me fish and substitute something else if they have shrimp, etc. included in their omakase. On the other hand, if they only have one kind of soup that contains shellfish, they won't be able to substitute anything.
I've never seen peanut oil for sale in regular Japanese stores (the cheapest and most prevalent seems to be canola oil, which I imagine is what most restaurants use to fry things). But I can't guarantee that so watch out!
I've lived in Japan for 5 years and have a severe shellfish allergy. The good part about that is most recipes in Japan don't have any hidden shellfish, it's usually prominently displayed (although occasionally can be found in ramen or miso soup broth, or in kimchee). If I ever suspect that there could be shellfish coming, I say:
I have a shellfish allergy -->
"KO-kaku-rui no AH-lay-lu-geee gah AH-ri-mahs."
"KO-kaku-rui" is a very technical term but the correct one, and if you say it slowly and clearly, native Japanese speakers should understand. Because this isn't a common allergy in Japan, (and as Silverjay noted, shellfish definitions are slightly different) just to be safe I often literally list off what's bad, with a very simple sentence:
"Shrimp, crab, oysters, Japanese clams, sea urchin and hard shelled fish are bad!"
"Eh-bee, kah-nee, kah-kee, ah-SAH-ree, she-jee-mi, u-nee, kai mo DAH-MAY dess."
For your peanut allergy, I would recommend the same style:
I have a nut allergy -->
NUH--tsu no AH-lay-lu-geee gah AH-ri-mahs."
Peanuts, walnuts, etc are bad.
"PEE-nuh-tsu , ku-ru-mee, nahdoh wa DAH-MAY dess."
It's not the most elegant way to say it, but I've used that phrase hundreds of times in Japan and have luckily avoided shellfish so far. I'm not sure about buying a card on the internet, feel free to print out my translation ;-)
As a side note, I don't think I've ever seen a hazelnut or pecan in Japan! And I can't think of any Japanese restaurant that would serve nuts unless it was a dessert, so don't be too shy about trying out Japanese food!
Carry a card if you want, but the chances of a busy waiter actually taking it into the kitchen to make sure that the chef isn't using peanut oil are rather slim. Restaurants in international hotels might take your request a bit more seriously, but as prasantrin recommended, carry an epipen as a backup plan.
Although my previous reply seemed rather negative, I should add that I think things have improved regarding sensitivities to allergies since my first stay in Japan (1993-1995). Back then, you could pretty much expect absolutely no catering to allergies and there was very little understanding of serious allergies.
During my last stay (2004-2010), I noticed at least a few (very few, but a few is better than none) restaurants that had common allergens listed on their menus. These tended to be very small restaurants (in one case, a small counter attached to a meat shop) so it was not such a hardship for them to make the additional effort to provide that information (none of those restaurants catered to foreigners).
Personally, if a life-threatening allergy were involved, I would never travel to a country where I or someone I were traveling with did not speak the language. It would be too great a risk.