written by Jayne Dinh and Olivia Flavors
Part 1: Living with Allergies in Japan
This article will be our guide about allergies in Japan mostly from our experiences from living in Japan. We made a neat chart here for those who want a quick reference for finding allergens in Japanese, but this page just has information and anecdotes for you before coming to Japan. If you can, try to find a translation of your allergies or get a doctor’s note that you can carry with you. Awareness is always an important first step. If you go to a doctor in Japan you can ask for a card explaining that you have certain allergies that you can show to staff at restaurants and cafes.
As the seasons change please be aware of any sudden changes to your health. Cedar trees in Japan dump all their pollen in large quantities in spring. Rice fields are cultivated and burned at the end of summer. Things like mould and fungi grow rapidly in the summer as well. The change of the seasons usually come with allergy symptoms so keep note!
If you’re like me and didn’t know if you had any allergies prior to coming to Japan and you’re staying long term you might have a health check-up through work where you can pay extra to have blood tests done to find out what you’re allergic to. Most short-term ALTs who stay for only one year will not have the health check done.
Part 2: Communication
Helpful Words and Phrases
In Japanese, allergy is 食物アレルギー (arerugi).
Dining out in a foreign country might seem a little daunting at first but never fear! Most places are very understanding if you have a food allergy. Don’t be afraid to ask if something has an allergen in it! Your health is priority. Most Japanese restaurants do not list out their ingredients on the menu so asking about a certain ingredient isn’t considered rude if you’re trying to protect yourself. Sometimes allergy conscious restaurants will list out allergens on the side but don’t rely on this to be the case every time!
Places with ticket systems usually don’t list out their ingredients but often show pictures of their products. There is usually someone close by if you need to ask questions. Sometimes the allergen is in plain sight like in the dish’s name or notated with a symbol of which allergen is present.
Most staff are very understanding and they’re happy to remove the allergen upon request.
Olivia's Tip: If you and your friends will be going to a big chain like Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Joyfull, you can easily find their allergen lists online. Usually they’re only in Japanese, but the guides are easy enough to work out with a little kanji know-how. Generally speaking, the menus will denote an allergen’s presence with shapes. A circle means that item is present, an X means that it’s not, and a triangle △ means that the allergen is not present, however there is a high chance of cross-contamination due to the item being manufactured on the same line as the allergen.
Places with allergen lists that I know of:
Before coming to Japan try to bring medicine from home that you are comfortable with. You can bring in two months worth of medication without having to fill out paperwork. This includes medicine for seasonal allergies and topical allergies. Most of the OTC allergy medicine that you find in your country may not be available in Japan or will be a weaker variant. For things like epipens or blood medication you can find them in Japan for relatively cheap. Two epipens are around 7500 yen which is significantly cheaper than in the US. The process is very simple as you can go to a local clinic or allergist for a prescription.
WARNING: Most allergy medicines that we are familiar with like Actifed or Sudafed are ILLEGAL to have in Japan even if it is prescribed or legal in your home country. But do not worry, familiar meds like Allegra and Claritin are available over the counter in Japan with the same deisgn and color packaging. if
Medication in Japan is heavily regulated. It is highly recommended to bring your own medication as long as it is legal in Japan. If you're worried about medical ingredients, most big brands of medication will have an English label ONLINE to read, for example, EVE and Bufferin. If you’re unsure or don’t want to take a long time at the store you can ask an employee. At most drug stores the employees will know the common ingredient of most brand names but beware that most pain killers often have added caffeine. If you have an allergy to certain medications PLEASE let your school know. If there’s ever an emergency, having a medical card with your allergies listed might be the thing that saves you a lot of pain. Bigger hospitals will have English support staff that will be able to help you with interpreting if you have worries about certain medications being used.
Part 3: Enjoy life!
Hopefully our experiences will better prepare you for life in Japan life with allergies! If you haven’t checked it yet, here is our chart we made listing out common food allergies that we translated to Japanese. Please check out our other articles about keeping up with your health in Japan! If there are any specific questions feel free to ask us or our PAs!