Dipping into the Marmot's Mailbag we have this plaintive missive: Dear Marmot, I'm looking forward to my trip to Japan but am starting to worry. My problem... I'm allergic to shellfish. I guess I'll live on rice and noodles. But how to explain my problem? (signed) s-p-
Here at the Marmot International home office, we've placed our Asian Affairs staff on the problem... and we get results!
Dear s-p-, Write this stock phrase on an index card: "Sumimasen. Watashi wa koukakurui to kai no arerugi ga arimasu. Osusume wa nan desu ka?" If bold enough, you could memorize it and try to say it. "Sue-me-mah-sen. Wah-tah-shi wah koh-ooh-kah-kuh-roo-eeh toh kai no ah-ree-rooh-gi gah ah-ri-mas. Oh-sue-sue-meh wah nahn des kah?" Try to say each syllable with equal emphasis.
The first sentence explains the problem. "Sumimasen" is "Excuse me," a good all purpose word to know in any case. "Koukakurui" is "lobster, crab, etc." and "kai" is "mollusk, clam, oyster, etc." If one is a problem but the other isn't, eliminate "to" (it means "and") and the appropriate shellfish word. Believe it or not, "arerugi" means, well, allergy - say it out loud and it almost makes sense, sorta. "Osusume" is "recommendation," so the second sentence means "What do you recommend?" As a rule the Japanese try to be very accomodating to foreign visitors and hopefully you will be steered toward a safe dish.
If there is something mysterious on your plate you could say "Sumimasen. Kore ni koukakurui ka kai ga haite imasu ka?" It means, "Excuse me, is there shellfish in this?" Follow it up with: "Watashi wa koukakurui to kai no arerugi ga arimasu" to explain why you are asking. Again, you'll probably be happier having this on an index card rather than trying to remember it at the exact moment of crisis.
Noodle dishes like soba, ramen and udon should be safe, although they're sometimes topped with a funny pink wedge of imitation crab, which I'm told is miscellaneous sea creatures, so be aware. Of course, sushi and sashimi should be safe, since as long as you know what you're ordering, there's no surprise. You can't go wrong with vegetable tempura. "Katsu," like "tonkatsu" (fried pork) and other fried food should be fine. "Oyakodon" is a seafood-free chicken and eggs on rice number. Stay clear of "okonomiyaki," often translated as "Japanese pizza," but which is really more like a cabbage pancake. "Okonomi" basically means "things you like" - just about anything could be in there. Real Japanese pizza should be fine, just be prepared for lots of corn on top. The biggest problems would be various side dishes whose origins are hard to discern, in which case the phrase for "Excuse me, is there shellfish in this?" would be best.
Another good phrase: "Sumimasen. Beeru o kudasai" will get you a beer.
If all else fails, shellfish-free zones called Starbucks, Mister Donut, Wendy's, McDonalds and the Kentucky Fried Colonel can be found without too much trouble!
From Marmot Central - good luck - gambatte kudasai!