SOAS University of London

SOAS Language Centre

Hagio Prize 15th Year Winner: Giles Villeneuve

I attended the SOAS Diploma in Modern Japanese course from January 2014 to July 2014. This course was as challenging as it was rewarding, enabling me to reach JLPT’s N2 level in such a short amount of time. The course and the insistence of Okajima-sensei, to whom I’m deeply grateful, allowed me the opportunity to enter the Hagio prize, win, and finally experience Japan for 5 weeks.
My time in Japan, which was actually a first (but definitely won’t be the last), was certainly an amazing experience, and a test to my will and ethical beliefs.

My project was to spend 5 weeks in Japan, and to try and survive as a vegan there (see my blog here: aveganinjapan.wordpress.com). I expected it would be difficult. Unfortunately, I was right. Kyoto, Tokyo, and to some extent Osaka were relatively vegan friendly; at least there were a few vegetarian restaurants with vegan options there. The real challenges were Hiroshima and Fukuoka, with just one place in each of these cities to eat vegetarian/vegan, and Nara, which had a couple of vegetarian places, but due to various bank holidays I wasn’t able to try any of them, except one. Supermarkets were highly un-vegan friendly as well and I often ended up sitting on a bench in a park, eating just plain soba with soy sauce, some nuts and bananas. After 4 years in London and all its vegan options everywhere (including a vegan Japanese restaurant opposite SOAS! I couldn’t try its branch in Tokyo due to a typhoon – another great Japanese experience, a typhoon coming a few hours before leaving the country…), it was a bit difficult to adjust to. But being vegan in Japan is doable. I managed to find vegan options in regular restaurants and in supermarkets; a chef spontaneously baked delicious vegan pancakes just for me in a vegetarian-friendly restaurant in Hiroshima. I also chatted with vegetarian and vegan Japanese and Europeans who gave me tips and shared their experiences with me, and above all, I had the opportunity to meet two wonderful people, Mr. Mitsuru Kakimoto, President of the Japanese Vegetarian Society (JPVS) and Ms. Akiko Miwa, one of the directors of the JPVS, to discuss the state of vegetarianism and veganism in Japan (and in Europe) over a meal in a lovely Indian restaurant in Osaka. This discussion actually ended up with me being interviewed and published in Food Journal, a monthly Japanese magazine for Soy bean producers in which the JPVS has a column!

This experience was amazing on so many levels. I was able to practise my Japanese skills every time I got lost, which happened way too many times, as well as when my laptop died 3 days after I arrived in Japan and I had to go to a computer shop and explain the problem in Japanese. I also got the chance to meet amazingly friendly people in the various cities I visited, to spend a couple of nights in a Buddhist temple on Mt Koya to taste the fabulous shojinryori, and to have dinner with Mr. Mitsuru Kakimoto and Ms. Akiko Miwa, which was one of the highlights of my trip. My will to remain vegan was really put to the test, when so many times it would have been easier to make an exception. Being able to discover the country I had been eager to visit for quite some time was truly a unique experience. Since then, my interest in Japan has only been growing and I’ve found myself on more than one occasion wandering through the aisles of Daiso reminiscing about Japan!

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to meet Mrs. Hagio and thank her in person for her generosity in setting up this prize which allows every year one student to experience Japan at a deeper level than what a short holiday would permit, and get a true sense of this unique country.