My Own Japan: Animal Activism in Tokyo

November 9th, 2017 By Helen Marvell
My Own Japan
animals2I had already been a vegetarian for 15 years when I moved to Japan 6 years ago from the UK. Back then, vegetarianism was relatively unheard of, and bacon was considered a plant...

My life in Japan started in Wakayama, the prefecture made infamous by the documentary film, The Cove. A bit of background if you don’t know what I’m talking about; Every year between September and April, dolphins are hunted along the coast, and driven into “The Cove”, where they are then brutally killed for meat, or callously captured and sold into a life of captivity in an aquarium.
The issue is one that fascinates and angers overseas activists, so once I was living close by people began asking my thoughts on the issue, and it become an issue I couldn’t ignore That’s when I really started to think seriously about what we as humans do to animals.

However, it wasn’t really until I moved to Tokyo three years later that I really had the opportunity to get more involved in animal activism. Then, Tokyo had a small but thriving animal activism scene, and a few times a month there would be related marches and events run by local groups. Joining these events gave me the chance to expand my community of like-minded people, and motivated me to educate myself further on animal issues. It wasn’t long after that I became a self-certified “Ethical Vegan”, when I realised that this lifestyle was not only better for animals, but also for the environment, and my health.

animals3From then on, animal activism became my air. It was all I wanted to do and it was the only thing I could think about. However, the more I learned, the more I realised that there were so many animals that needed help, and sadly, I couldn’t personally save every one of them. I started to focus my efforts on a few issues, namely companion animals, animals farmed for food, aquariums, and the fur trade, and looked into ways that I could help local groups with these issues by offering my day job expertise (public relations) as pro-bono services.

One of the first volunteer groups I joined was Animal Walk Tokyo, a group that shares resources, raises awareness, and organizes fundraising events to encourage people to adopt pets instead of buying from pet shops and breeders (because around 60,000 unwanted pets are killed every year in Japan!). Through Animal Walk Tokyo, I also met my fur baby, Matilda, a now 6-year old blue merle chihuahua, who I adopted from the Tokyo branch of animal shelter, Animal Refuge Kansai.

The more I brainstormed with other Western activists in Tokyo, the more we realised that it was difficult to get information on animal issues in Japan, mainly because of the language barrier, but also because of the culture. That’s when Animal Advocacy Japan came into fruition. Animal Advocacy Japan is an information portal on all things related to animal issues – petitions, events, marches, news, etc. – within Japan, but in English. This way, Western activists can become more involved and support the Japanese activists.
The most recent group I became involved with is The Humane League. The Humane League is a very effective US NPO that works towards reducing the suffering of farmed animals. Over 95% of egg-laying hens in Japan are currently in cages no bigger than the size of an iPad. With animal welfare not yet a consideration for corporations, there was great hope for these animals when The Humane League decided to start working in Japan earlier this year, encouraging Japanese businesses to live up to the expanding global animal welfare standards – something that Japanese businesses really need to take notice of if they want to protect their bottom line!

Over the last few years since I moved to Tokyo, I have really seen the movement grow, and it is just starting to get exciting!
Just last week, a mother and daughter came up to me at an unrelated event because they heard I was vegan, and they themselves were giving it a try after learning about animal agriculture. And a few days ago, in a shared office space, somebody complimented my vegan water bottle and went on to tell me that they were vegan too!

animals4The vegan food scene has also grown dramatically in Tokyo, and there is so much traditional and non-traditional Japanese food to try. Happy Cow now lists over 250 restaurants and shops as veg friendly! Some favourites of mine include T’s Tan Tan which offers a range of vegan ramen, and Ripple, an expat favourite, for vegan junk food. “Ladies that lunch” on their husbands’ credit cards are also in for a treat with more luxury vegan restaurants opening, like Eightablish.  On the other end of the scale, several popular chain restaurants like Coco Curry, Afuri, and Chabuton Tonkutsu Ramen now offer completely (delicious) vegan options.

It is also becoming more common to find a vegan bento in some of the bigger shinkansen stations, and in my local supermarket, I’ve recently come across vegan shredded cheese, tofu mozzarella, and soy meat.
The government are even getting involved and earlier this year, the Cabinet Secretary Office started offering a “Meat Free Monday” option (on Fridays)! More universities and schools are starting to provide vegan choices too, thanks to initiatives like Vege Project, and Tokyo Vegan MeetUp now has over 5,000 members, making veganism more mainstream than ever.

animals5Global activist movements such as Anonymous for the Voiceless and the Save Movement have finally reached Japanese shores too. Not just in Tokyo, but also in nearby cities like Yokohama, and further a-field in Okinawa.
In addition, zoos are receiving lessons on enrichments from groups like Wild Welfare, and cruelty-free cosmetic options are becoming widely available (such as Lush and Can Make).
There are now thriving vegan FB groups, vegan documentaries on Netflix, and several YouTube channels in Japanese. Even the media is also starting to take notice, especially with the 2020 Olympics coming up, and the word “vegan” has recently been uttered a few times on mainstream TV.
It is also great to see that Millennials are starting to speak up and are no longer nails being hammered down. I think it is only a matter of time until an idol comes out of the vegan closet. 

Of course, all of this change has been slow and has not been without challenges. As with the rest of the world, Japan has strong traditions and big powerful industries that rely on the exploitation of animals.
For me, it has been easy to get caught up in a vegan bubble, but in reality, I know that there is still a long way to go and a lot to be done. This becomes no more apparent than when I’m sandwiched between fur coats and trinkets on the rush hour train during winter, or when I walk past a petrified owl in the streets of Roppongi advertising an owl café.
But, with so much scope for change, I feel like Japan is the place I’m meant to be for the foreseeable future and I need to see it through for the animals!