An outsider might be surprised to learn that Japan is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world, but stroll through the streets of Tokyo for even a few minutes and you quickly begin to see why that is.
Coffee shops abound in seemingly limitless permutations – from the big-name chains that ring every major train station, to the distinctly Japanese bubble-era dives where chain-smoking elderly men slave over ancient percolators.
You might also notice the grimy neon Key Coffee signs affixed to towering Tokyo buildings – aging testament to the Japanese importing giant’s wonder years – or the plethora of bottled, canned, and instant coffees available in vending machines and convenience stores nationwide.
With coffee products and purveyors in arm’s reach anywhere in Japan, it’s perhaps only mildly surprising that sales of the bitter drink have long outpaced the country’s traditional leisure beverage, green tea (source: Euromonitor International).
Despite the drink’s popularity, however, coffee is a relative newcomer to the Japanese market. Like many other foreign imports, the drink first came to Japan hundreds of years ago, but only hit its stride starting in the 1970s, with the introduction of one of Japan’s first indigenous chain retailers, Doutor.
In the meantime, many European countries and much of the Arab world have enjoyed hundreds of years of serious coffee culture. The origins of coffee as we know it are murky, and the various stories of its discovery are probably apocryphal, but the general consensus is that coffee-as-a-drink originated in Ethiopia, spread to the rest of the Arab world and was then introduced to Europe through trade routes.
Relatively speaking, that puts Japanese coffee culture in its infancy. So, how does it compare to the “authentic” coffee cultures of traditional consumer nations like Turkey, Yemen, and Italy and the institution of the coffeehouse popular throughout the Western world?
Since the popularity of coffee in Japan is rooted in the economic gilded age of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, it’s unsurprising that the coffee shops of Japan often serve as impromptu meeting rooms for businessmen to talk shop and swoon potential clients.
What you’re not likely to find in a Japanese coffee shop are heated debates over religion, politics and creative endeavors, or people matching wits in games of chess, checkers, or dominoes. This is the domain of coffeehouses of the West and the Arab world. Coffeehouses in these regions have been havens for unrestrained political speech and intellectual pursuits for hundreds of years – in places ranging from Damascus and Cairo to the colonial United States (although the coffeehouses frequented by the likes of Ben Franklin also served beer and spirits).
The comparatively quiet atmosphere of the Japanese coffee shop may also tie in to another obvious difference from the coffee culture of the rest of the world: the briefness of the typical Japanese coffee shop visit.
As Japan Inc magazine’s Leo Lewis writes, “In 1971, Japan was on the brink of a major economic boom and [Doutor CEO Hiromichi] Toriba had a vision of what his country's workforce would want in the morning. In a flash, he imagined thousands of workers rushing from their houses, giving themselves no time to eat a proper breakfast at home. After a long commute, he thought, these workers would want coffee to pick them up and cheap food to stave off the pangs of hunger until lunch. If they had time to sit, there would be space for them to do it, but otherwise the plan was to set up shops that could handle an ultra-rapid flow of customers, some of whom would prefer to remain upright to dash out the door.”
“As it turned out,” Lewis concludes, “Toriba's predictions were exactly right.”
The grab-and-go Doutor coffeehouse model persisted in Japan until the inevitable entry of coffee goliath Starbucks, which put the flagging drink back in the spotlight and made the sit-and-have-a-chat American style of coffee consumption trendy.
But, as Lewis notes, Doutor still operates far more numerous locations in Japan than Starbucks does, and even the American chain’s entry on the scene hasn’t completely supplanted the general Japanese attitude that coffee is a witches’ brew good for a pick-me-up, but not so much an artisan beverage to be savored alongside good company.
That attitude is reflected in the subtle changes Starbucks makes to its business model for Japanese tastes. Decaf options are rare, flavors are limited, and there are far fewer varieties of coffee bean on offer.
In the U.S., Starbucks strives to offer what it calls the “third place.” That is, a space for relaxation and social interaction that customers will return to day after day; the “third place” after home, and work. To facilitate the “third place” environment, Starbucks baristas are encouraged to engage guests in conversation, remember customers’ drink preferences, and refer to regulars by their first names.
Japanese Starbucks baristas are comparatively muted – although cheerful and friendly, they’re not likely to call you by name and will probably refrain from asking how your family is doing.
Like so many things in Japan, the coffee culture here is rapidly changing, as coffee businesses take cues from what’s hot in foreign countries and blend those elements to suit Japanese tastes. Coffee shop dates and weekend meetups with friends over a brew are becoming commonplace.
But are you likely to find yourself sipping from a hot mug, sandwiched between an intense chess match and a debate over nuclear energy?
My guess is not anytime soon.© Japan Today