It's easy to think of Japan as a coeliac's dream because of the natural everyday foods and healthy diet of the Japanese people.
However the reality is that a lot of the food is covered in soy sauce, processed with wheat and the knowledge of gluten allergies/cross contamination is relatively low. However, don't let this ever deter you from visiting this amazing and welcoming country.
I'll start off by saying that the reason that it can be difficult to find suitable food is because gluten intolerance/coeliac disease is incredibly uncommon in Japan, this could be due to genetics or environment, and therefore, it just hasn't had the need to be catered for.
In recent years, down to tourism booming, main cities have realized that there is a market for gluten free/vegan/vegetarian restaurants and it's resulted in some absolutely wonder traditional Japanese food being made accessible to those of us with special food requirements.
Click below on the cities I've been to for restaurant and cafe reviews, and scroll further down to see what type of convenience store food you can eat, and which characters to look out for when reading labels.
Convenience Store (Con-bi-ni)
In Japan, every corner has a conbini, or convenience store, such as 7/11, Family Mart, and Lawsons. These are immaculately presented and always stocked with fresh and cheap food, used a lot for work lunches or quick dinners.
For a Coeliac, you have to develop a keen eye for the kanji (Japanese characters) that represent wheat, barley, and malt. That can seem like a big task at first, especially if you don't speak a lick of Japanese, but trust me, you get used to it pretty quickly. I would also strongly recommend downloading the google translate app and using the photo feature for the ingredients lists.
Below is a quick guide of the characters to look out for, please feel free to screen shot.
Barley - 大麦
Malt - 麦芽
Wholewheat - 全粒小麦
Wheat Starch - 小麦澱粉
Soy Sauce - 醤油
Processed Starch - 加工澱粉
Gluten - グルテン
Here are some examples of gluten free food available at the conbini
Here are some examples of labels on food packaging
This is an example of allergy warnings on packaged food. Unfortunately not all foods have this helpful blue box yet, but it's much quicker than looking through the ingredients list.
The top of the blue box say's 27 allergens (Japan has 27 standard allergens instead of 14), and inside the blue box it states the allergens are milk, soy, chicken, pork, and pork gelatin. At a glance you might think it's gluten free.
However, in the blue writing at the bottom it says that it is made in a factory that handles wheat, egg, and shrimp.
Don't be discouraged, once you get the hang of using the google translate map it's a relatively quick process to find out what you are able to eat!
This is an example of fresh food labeling on an onigiri, or rice ball.
Unfortunately, many rice balls are not gluten free as the flavours often contain soy. Your best bet is to look for salted, plain salmon, or even pickled plum flavoured onigiri.
As you may notice, it's a little bit more difficult to pick up on the ingredients to the untrained eye. Sometimes you will find that all the allergens are listed in the last bracket of the ingredients. In this one it states that wheat and soy are present!