Coffee Life in Japan

Coffee Life in Japan

by Merry White

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This fascinating book—part ethnography, part memoir—traces Japan’s vibrant café society over one hundred and thirty years. Merry White traces Japan’s coffee craze from the turn of the twentieth century, when Japan helped to launch the Brazilian coffee industry, to the present day, as uniquely Japanese ways with coffee surface in Europe and America. White’s book takes up themes as diverse as gender, privacy, perfectionism, and urbanism. She shows how coffee and coffee spaces have been central to the formation of Japanese notions about the uses of public space, social change, modernity, and pleasure. White describes how the café in Japan, from its start in 1888, has been a place to encounter new ideas and experiments in thought, behavior, sexuality , dress, and taste. It is where a person can be socially, artistically, or philosophically engaged or politically vocal. It is also, importantly, an urban oasis, where one can be private in public.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520259331
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/01/2012
Series: California Studies in Food and Culture , #36
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Merry White is Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and is the author of many books, including Perfectly Japanese: Making Families in an Era of Upheaval (UC Press) and The Japanese Overseas.

Read an Excerpt

Coffee Life in Japan

By Merry White


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95248-5


Coffee in Public

Cafés in Urban Japan

It is 6:30 in the morning on a Tokyo Saturday in a café near a subway entrance in a commercial and entertainment district. The visitor is up early, having flown across too many time zones the day before, and has been out for a walk. People emerging from the subway for a day of work are in the café too, sleepily drinking their first cup of coffee. In the same coffeehouse there are disheveled young people in club gear, blearily having a coffee for the road before they creep down the stairs into the subway to go home. The café is a meeting point between the night people and the day people for this brief moment, a spot in time that illustrates some of the diverse uses of coffee places as staples of urban life in Japan. In the café, among other illuminations of life in the city, you see night move to day.

The handover of the city from night people to day people is visible evidence of at least one need for the café. The subway does not run all night, nor do buses, allowing taxis to raise their rates significantly after about 11:00 p.m. Those out for the evening may easily find themselves out for the night. Clubs accommodate by staying open until 5:00 a.m. or later, with often the headliner music group coming onstage after 3:00 in the morning. The dedicated fans stay on too and encounter their opposite numbers—the morning workers—in a gentle culture clash in the early coffeehouses.


The coffeehouse helps manage lives: it supports the various schedules of city dwellers, provides respite and social safety in its space, and offers refreshment and the demonstration of taste, in several senses. In its history and in its persistence, the space has shown such uses as the Japanese city welcomes or demands, and has introduced some of its own. The coffeehouse, by its very name, is about coffee, but that is the only universally defining quality—cafés are as diverse as neighborhoods, clienteles, and social changes have made them.

In a modernist café on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto, two students let their coffee grow cold as they struggle to prepare an assignment. They demonstrate another use of the ubiquitous café in Japan today, and only one experience of the coffee that scents the space. In a mahogany-dark semibasement in Shinbashi, Tokyo, a man in his mid nineties commands silence as a guest lifts a religiously crafted brew made from aged beans, Yemen Mokka harvested in 1992. Opposite a prestigious private women's university in a posh Tokyo neighborhood, in an ivy-covered coffee shop, two well-bred ladies share alumnae memories over coffee served in translucent German porcelain cups. At an outdoor table of a Starbucks in Kyoto, a young woman sips a decaf caramel macchiato carefully, not to disturb her lipstick as she waits for her date, an American student. And three retired construction workers in Nagoya sit at a table in a sepia-toned 1960s café, sharing space as they have shared their long work lives.

In cafés there is space where performances of personal and social modernities—in the forms of choice and expression—may be seen. There the lines between "individual" and "community" are drawn lightly, and the freedom to be anonymous can be indulged.

The café provides a site for ordinary as well as extraordinary interactions, as it has since its arrival in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Coffee is foreign in origin, but by the early twentieth century it had become culturally naturalized as Japanese and epitomizes the café, as surprising as this may be to those who assume that green tea predominates. The surprises do not end there. Another is that Japan is now the third largest coffee-consuming country in the world, evidence not only of its popularity but also of the structural efficacy of the Japanese coffee industry. The linked history and ethnographic complexities of coffee and coffeehouse in Japan treated in this book will provide context and a time line for social and cultural change. From the beginning, the Japanese café was more than a cup of coffee and a coffee maker. It has always been something more than the drink on offer.

The clubby paneled rooms of the Kahiichakan, Japan's famous first café, gave way to today's homey kissaten, but their history is not a straight-line story. Changing tastes and social trends have created branches and offshoots from the root spaces of the café. The places we call cafés persist as their malleable forms continue to reflect the multiple personal, social, and spatial requirements of their times, and do so as thoroughly Japanese spaces but ones with no expectations of thoroughly "Japanese" behavior. Among many reflections they offer is that "Western" and "modern," concepts conflated in the late nineteenth century, began to diverge as "modern" began to take on a Japanese identity. The café began as Western and modern and became Japanese-modern very quickly.

There would be no cafés without coffee and no coffee without the cafés in Japan. The two have inseparably merged together. Coffee now appears elsewhere, of course, in offices and homes and in the ubiquitous vending machines, but the relation between the beverage and the place is foundational: coffee built the café and did not arrive in teahouses.

Cafés in Japan have been the locus of community, of continuity in relationships and the creation of new ones. They have witnessed innovation, subversion, and transgression in old and new urban cultures, politics, and individual lives. Cafés are where the foreign and the domestic in art, literature, and ideas have found seats, starting when European influences arrived in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Back to cafés also came expatriate Japanese political activists, artists, writers, and musicians who had sojourned in cosmopolitan Shanghai and European capitals. Soon after their introduction, cafés in Japan became local, and though they hosted foreign ideas and arts, they lost any Western cultural odor they might have had. The café is itself fluid and protean and can become what people want and need it to be. It is paradoxically both a space for the performance of cultural givens—service, for example, is as significant, though perhaps not as meticulous, as service in a traditional inn—and it is a place for respite from the demands of cultural performances. It is a place where such givens might be ignored—or contested. It is also the place where, for the price of a cup of coffee, anyone can go.

In this study of the Japanese café its functions as an urban public space are central, as is that cup of coffee. Cafés and coffeehouses exist even in the smallest Japanese town, but it is the urban experience that demonstrates the café's diversity and transformation over time. The cafés here described are various: neither are they all "urban villages" or communities providing society in response to anomic mass culture, nor are they always escapes from the tight constraints of villagelike communities. Rather, cafés are a vital and generative force in the creation and display of new paradigms of civility, aesthetics, and to some degree self-transformation among their clienteles. Since the late nineteenth century, new ideas and new public performances of style and culture have emerged from the café—not always in manifestations welcome to official society. As novel spaces, cafés might breed unorthodox behavior. As one commentator said, if the police records refer frequently to a café, you can be sure something interesting is happening there.

The drink that characterized these new spaces quickly became a "normal" beverage: like the café itself, coffee subtly lost its foreignness. Providing what one café historian in Japan calls "dry inebriation," it was also seen as the drink of thoughtfulness, of solace, and it became associated more than any other drink with being "private in public." Unlike alcoholic drinks in Japan, coffee can accompany a pleasurable solitude.

Tea had been a drink for social engagement, and the chaya (teahouse) was a gathering place, usually for people already acquainted with one another. Chaya first appeared as roadside refreshment stands. Cafés were created in Japan about the time that modern transport created nodes and hubs of commerce and entertainment and had similar functions for travelers, but they did not simply take over the functions of the chaya. They introduced coffee as well as novel cultural and social forms and, as Donald Richie notes, represented a "window on the world." They introduced a place where identities were not confined by older social codes—it has been said that they introduced democracy itself.

Some commodities and trends arriving in Japan from Western sources have held on to their foreign identity, their "scent," even as they became part of ordinary life. The dining room table, the man's dress suit were "Western" until the postwar years. Coffee, however, became Japanese quickly. Coffee, I suggest, represents Japan's connection to the outside world in its complexity and contradictions, in its production, importation, and consumption. The coffee industry itself promoted assimilation as first Japanese farmers in Brazil, then entrepreneurs and commercial enterprises brought coffee to urban consumers in a concerted campaign to make it a part of their daily lives. At the end of the nineteenth century Brazilian agricultural policy-makers, developing coffee as a colonial crop with beans brought by the Portuguese, chose Japan as their first targeted overseas market. From the early 1900s coffee, a drink for every day, became a commonplace and Japanese beverage. The expansion of the world's coffee industries, I will argue, was in its early days closely related to the rise of coffee drinking in Japan. Japanese coffee workers in Brazil, in concert with the aspirations of the Brazilian coffee industries, made Japan a world-beating destination for beans and taste.

This book treats the history of coffee in Japan from its earliest days to its contemporary functions: from its use as a medicine among Japanese near foreign settlements and as a stimulant by the seventeenth-century prostitutes of Nagasaki to its ordinary—and extraordinary—consumption today. What sets Japanese coffee apart, at its highest levels, is the high degree of seriousness among specialty coffee importers and processors, surpassing that of most Western counterparts."Japanese coffee"—meaning the selection, technologies, processes, and especially care taken by the roaster and maker—have begun to travel, along with Japanese-style cafés now popular in mainland Asia, in Europe, and on the east and west coasts of the United States.

Coffee shops in Japan run the gamut from inexpensive chain stores such as Doutor to the height of seriousness in cafés where the owner-master guides the making of each cup of coffee. Sa-chan, whom we will see in her café in Kyoto, makes every cup of coffee herself, taking the time it takes from choosing the beans and grinding them to the slow pour of a fine stream of hot water over the cloth filter holding the grounds. Between these poles there are neighborhood coffee shops where almost everyone knows your name, gallery cafés where the work of local artists is on show, and manga coffee shops where the coffee is secondary to access to comic books. There are outliers too, quirky places such as one where you can sip coffee while your bare feet, submerged in water, are "pedicured" by tiny flesh-eating fish.

The first coffeehouse chain in the world, the Paulista group, was created in Tokyo and Osaka in 1907, appealing to young West-leaning customers, with its Brazilian decor and French-style service. Today, however, the Japanese coffee-lover prefers local independent shops to the chain stores, whether Seattle-based or local. As one habitué of independent cafés said, "There is no character in a Tully's café." The Japanese café frequenter overseas misses his coffeehouse when he sits in the disorienting anonymity of a chain shop in Chicago or Rome and wonders where he is.

Local spaces now attract younger customers who might have sought out Seattle stores in the recent past. By 2003, the decline of such shops reflected a change in consumer choices, away from slick and repetitious locales toward places where the owner may express his own sensibility. Seiichiro Samejima, a consumption analyst in Tokyo, said, "The Starbucks boom is over in Japan," noting that Starbucks was then cutting its new store openings by one-third. Young women now find one-off smart or cozy cafés in fashion and style magazines that offer a curriculum in street cool; young men might follow the women or, from word of mouth or a hobbyist inclination, seek out places that might enhance or reflect their own identity. One man in his late twenties said that as a student he had one café for study and another for dating; now he has fifteen or twenty—for various things, including several, he says, for the taste of their coffee, which had not interested him when he was younger. And rising numbers of older people find regular seats in niches of their own—seldom in the anonymity of the chain stores but in independent cafés, determined by taste, social needs, and their budget.

As urban and social changes have broken through the polite fiction of Japan as a homogeneous, harmonious, and consensus-driven society, the importance of the café in allowing or filling gaps—social, temporal, institutional, and personal—increases. The elderly, now forming just under one-quarter of the population, enjoyed coffee as a small indulgence when they were young in postwar reconstruction and now reside in cafés where their coevals congregate. The furiitaa, part-time, freelance young workers, rely on cafés as workspaces and offices very different from those of their salaryman fathers. The unemployed can spend hours there, sometimes filling out job applications and sometimes simply sitting. The café is, as we shall see, a safe place to be private in public when privacy itself can be socially problematic and when there are few times and spaces for being alone. And of course men and women can meet in public spaces like these with impunity—flaunting social mores safely—as they have since the time of the first cafés of the early 1900s.

Cafés are educational spaces where innovations in technology, body, and mind are displayed. The Japanese version of the flapper, the moga (modern girl), in the late 1910s and early 1920s was a fashion plate educating the café public in her novel style of clothing—and leg-crossing. More recent objects for learning might include the latest recorded music, organic foods, or works of art. The uses of social media are not immediately obvious in Japanese cafés, but that is because they are usually miniaturized. One rarely sees laptops in independent cafés, and wi-fi spaces are limited, but there are many people with smartphones, MP3s, and iPods, making the "community" extend beyond the walls of the café. There may be music, but it will rarely blare: most café dwellers seem to prefer quiet.

This book's treatment of coffee and the café in Japan will engage four approaches: the social history of cafés; the ethnographic treatment of cafés as urban spaces; the development of coffee as a commercial industry; and the culture of coffee itself, including coffee as object of work, connoisseurship, and artisanal practice. Together these four approaches trace a narrative line, beginning with the first tastings of coffee brought by missionaries and traders in the sixteenth century, and the first coffeehouse's appearance in the 1880s. The stories are intensely personal, the author's own and those of her respondents and colleagues, but the story has global reach and scholarly import, as it merges experience, observation, memory, and historical data. The story of the first coffeehouse in Japan illuminates the later paths coffee and the café have taken in Japan. In every era since, coffeehouses have reflected the concerns and needs of urban life, just as this one did in the Meiji era.


A brick monument surmounted by a large white coffee cup sits in a small garden to the right side of the Tokyo head office of the Sanyo Electric Company in Ueno. This monument was erected April 13, 2008, exactly 120 years after the founding of Japan's first coffeehouse of record in 1888. Tei Ei-kei, known in Japanese as Nishimura Tsurukichi, was the creator and "master" of the Kahiichakan (sometimes transliterated as Kahiisakan), which has acquired an almost legendary status as the first café in Japan. Coffee itself had arrived in Japan much earlier, but the story of Tei Ei-kei's bastion of taste and culture established the association of coffee with a particular kind of modern urban style and place. This monument demonstrates the power of coffee in Japan today more than it does the eminence, or success, of the original coffeehouse.


Excerpted from Coffee Life in Japan by Merry White. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Coffee in Public: Cafés in Urban Japan
2. Japan’s Cafés: Coffee and the Counterintuitive
3. Modernity and the Passion Factory
4. Masters of Their Universes: Performing Perfection
5. Japan’s Liquid Power
6. Making Coffee Japanese: Taste in the Contemporary Café
7. Urban Public Culture: Webs, Grids, and Third Places in Japanese Cities
8. Knowing Your Place
Appendix: Visits to Cafés, an Unreliable Guide

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Required reading for coffee's true believers and industry insiders."—T: the New York Times Style Magazine

"You'll find your eyes opened beyond the new and storied cafes you've heard of and into regional corners and paradoxical tastes."—Serious Eats

"A fascinating 130-year illumination of Japan's deeply rooted sipping culture."—La Weekly

"This excellent book combines academic rigour with lively descriptions and compelling prose."—Times Higher Education

"Provides an engaging and often personal account of Japanese coffeehouses. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

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