Shoyu: 醤油

醤油, or しょうゆ in hiragana, is shoyu (soy sauce for you non-Hawaiians). In Hawai’i, we use the Japanese word shoyu instead of the English word soy sauce, due to the large number of ethnic Japanese. In Hawai’i there are local brands of shoyu, like Aloha Shoyu.

Kikkoman is obviously  prevalent brand, but there are many others as well. Yamasa brand is also fairly popular (which is a brand I typically prefer, personally). Not only that, but there are many types of shoyu, and other sauces that are shoyu-based (and therefore many foreigners confuse them with shoyu, only to get home home and wonder what it is they bought… so always read the label carefully and look for the key kanji or kana!).

I find it is important to read the ingredients, to see exactly what type of shoyu you are getting, and if there any additives (like HFCS to the “sweet” shoyu). Another thing to remember, as with many things, you get what you pay for; higher quality tends to be pricier. I typically buy mid-range for everyday use, and occasionally get a pricier one for “special dinners.” There are some specialty food stores around that carry some of the high-quality stuff.

Here are some of the main types you see in the store:

  • koikuchi shoyu 濃口, こいくち: common shoyu. This is the type you see most often. Typically I buy a large bottle of this, since it is the one is most used. This will be the type of shoyu on probably 90% of the shelf in your average grocery store such as SanA.
  • usukuchi shoyu 淡口, うすくち: it means “light” taste shoyu, but actually has more salt/sodium. Popular in Kansai and has a lighter color. You can usually find a few bottles on the shelf in SanA or Aeon.
  • tamari 溜まり, たまり: somewhat thicker, stronger shoyu. Often used for sashimi, or teriyaki. Most people in the west think of this as a non-wheat shoyu, but this is often not the case, especially if it is made traditionally. Another reason why reading the ingredients is so important!
  • sashimi shoyu さしみ: some brands advertise specifically for sashimi, they are a bit smoother. Again, there are usually a few bottles easy to find in the average grocery store.
  • amakuchi shoyu 甘口, あまくち: “sweet” shoyu. Be careful, this often has added sugars of some type. It is difficult to find any in the store without artificial sugars or HFCS.
  • genen 減塩 /teien 低塩: reduced salt shoyu. This is just koikuchi but with less sodium content.


Things that look like shoyu but are different:

  • ponzu ポン酢 (also sometimes ぽんず): citrus flavored sauce with shoyu base. The citrus flavor often varies; here in Okinawa shikwasa (small lime) is popular, but other areas yuzu is more common.
  • tsuyu つゆ (also, hon tsuyu 本つゆ): this usually has either fish or konbu (seaweed) stock added to it, as well as other ingredients, such as mirin. Often used for mainland soba, but it is multipurpose and can be used for many things, such as oden, udon, and nabe.
  • dashi-shoyu だし醤油: similar to tsuyu, just a mix of dashi and shoyu. Often used for soup base, or simmered dishes. Dashi shoyu is usually seen as 昆布 konbu (seaweed) or かつお katsuo (bonito) types.

I could probably add more (I mean, seriously I have seen people buy straight up dashi, fish sauce and others with completely different coloring, thinking it was shoyu… ), but I feel like the ones I listed above are the not so obvious ones if you cannot read much Japanese, and they are often situated right next to the shoyu so it could be easily mistaken.

Other words to look for on shoyu or similar sauce bottles: this is just a small sample of some ingredients you may see, not a comprehensive list.

  • 有機 organic
  • 大豆 soy bean
  • 丸大豆 whole soy bean
  • 小麦 wheat
  • 塩 salt
  • みりん mirin
  • 酒 sake
  • アルコール alcohol
  • 砂糖 sugar
  • 甘味料 sweeter (usually in parenthesis it will tell what type is used: stevia, HFCS, etc)
  • キャラメル色素: caramel coloring… avoid this. Real shoyu does not need this coloring, usually if this is added, you are just buying colored salt water, not shoyu. Gross.
  • 無添加 additive-free
  • グルテンフリー gluten-free, though I have never seen any in person… gluten-free is not a trend in Japan.


Hopefully some of these tips help if you are shopping for shoyu in Okinawa or Japan.

I got this koikuchi shoyu posted below for free from a lucky drawing at an electronics store.


**Note: If you wanna get serious about your grade of shoyu, there is the official government regulated labels from JAS (Japan Agricultural Standards):

特級 tokkyuu: special grade

1級 ikkyuu: 1st grade

標準 hyoujun: standard grade

Grading is based on measuring the chemical composition for amino acids and alcohol content. The Japanese Shoyu Association adds two more grades higher than “special grade”: extra select 特選 tokusen and ultra-extra select 超特選 choutokusen.