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I have seen vegetarian translated as both bejitarian and Saishokushugi.

bejitarian is obviously an adaptation of vegetarian.

Saishokushugi can be loosely translated as faith to vegetables.

But what's the difference between the two terms and when would you use one over the other?

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    I wouldn't translate it as 'faith in vegetables', 主義 has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with philosophy. 菜食主義 is something like 'the principle of eating vegetables'. – Sjiveru Oct 27 '16 at 20:47
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菜食主義 (saishoku-shugi) is vegetarianism, and 菜食主義者 (saishoku-shugi-sha) is a vegetarian, a person who practice vegetarianism. To break down:

  • sai: vegetable
  • shoku: eat
  • 主義 shugi: belief, ism
  • sha: person

To me, ベジタリアン and 菜食主義 are almost identical as far as meaning goes. I believe you can safely use whichever you prefer in most cases. In casual settings, I feel many people prefer ベジタリアン, presumably because it sounds less stiff and is a lot easier to pronounce.

The number of vegetarians in Japan is probably small, and I feel few people in Japan practice vegetarianism for religious or ethical reasons. Most vegetarians in Japan refuse to eat meat for health-related reasons, so 菜食主義者 and ベジタリアン usually refer to such people. I'm vaguely aware that there are many sub-types of vegetarianism in western countries (including veganism), but they are scarcely recognized here in Japan.

  • I don't eat meat because I just don't like it. Am I one of them?(笑) – user4092 Oct 29 '16 at 14:06
  • @user4092 Personally I know no one who doesn't eat meat because they don't like it, but it's probably a ベジタリアン, too. – naruto Nov 2 '16 at 14:48
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I took a look at the Japanese wikipedia article for Vegetarianism. I'm basing my answer on that, because I have little personal experience although I've been asked this a few times.

ベジタリアン is, as you said, an imported word. It has the same meaning as in english. There are different sub-types of vegetarian, etc. It also does not indicate the reason you are vegetarian. It could be for political beliefs, religious beliefs or even because you saw an animal getting killed once and just can't eat meat anymore.

菜食主義{さいしょくしゅぎ} denotes specifically a kind of vegetarianism guided by buddhist practices and beliefs. According to the Wiki article, it (sometimes) has an extra restriction on eating certain kinds of roots. Guided by the Wikipedia article in English on Buddhist Vegetarianism it seems some variations of Buddhism also disencourage consuming vegetables if this kills the plant, thus things like garlic and onion are also forbidden (this is called 禁葷食{きんくんしょく}). But not all buddhists follow this principle; some encourage it, others reinforce it only for monks, some not even for monks. There's a lot of variation apparently.

So when you talk about 菜食主義者{さいしょくしゅぎ}, you talk specifically about the reason one has a dietary restriction. It is because one follows buddhist faith and principles.

The short answer if you're looking for how to talk about your own dietary restrictions is motivation: unless it is this specific Buddhist set of beliefs that guides your vegetarianism, use ベジタリアン (ヴィーガン if that suits you better).

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    It says "Vegetarianism translates into 菜食主義 in Japanese" in the wikipedia article. – user4092 Oct 28 '16 at 23:02
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    It does, but straight after it expands this explanation, though I do think it's a bit difficult to understand (for my level of japanese) and would accept some help ( I would paste it here but it lengthens the answer too much). The part that I do understand well, is that lately the lifestyle of avoiding meat based on the Western point of view of pro-animal organizations has spread, and there is an inclination to use the word that appeared in katana - ベジタリアン. The first part speaks about the connection of the word 菜食主義 with religious practice, but I don't get it 100% to translate properly. – chadias Oct 28 '16 at 23:22
  • They are used synonymously in the article. You can find 菜食主義 used where it has nothing to do with Indian religions in the page. – user4092 Oct 29 '16 at 14:03
  • @chadias You seem to have missed the part where it says "日本で実行するものの間では" indicating that that particular usage of "ベジタリアン" is adopted only among those who practice vegetarianism on such a basis as described, and is therefore far from being universal. – goldbrick Oct 29 '16 at 16:55

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