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Japan's coffee culture

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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

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

52 Comments
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I'm a major coffee drinker. There are plenty of good coffee places with "Coffee Masters" if you look for them. I have never been inside a Starbucks in my life. Even in small places good ones can be found.

In Kansai, I even see many new coffee shops opening and being run by young people who want to make real and tasty coffee.

I never buy coffee from a vending machine, I don't like sugar and never use it.

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Iced coffee wasn't invented until ice could be produced and stored in the beginning of the 20th century. The Japanese started drinking iced coffee in the 1920s, and the Greeks developed the idea of the coffee frappe in the 1950s.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I stick to Starbucks not because of the coffee but because it is no smoking and I can get proper milk in my coffee if I want it and service with a smile, instead of being fixed with an incredulous look and a "whadd`ya mean you want real milk when we have perfectly good little pots of fake cream stacked up over there?! You want proper milk, youll have to buy a glass. And no, we dont do low fat."

I would be more inclined to frequent the smaller more individual coffee shops if the service was better and the room wasn`t being smoked out like a mackerel.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

They not only don't serve it, they have never heard of it.

@ combinibento:

Starbucks; the always stuffy, with too many people, sitting way too long, coffee shop, has de-caf beans, available, to take out.

"Komodo Dragon", which they will grind, any coarseness you choose, is a mocha-blended decaf...

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I dunno, I think it depends on where you go--there were many coffee shops in Kyoto in the 70s and 80s where you could enjoy a great deal of vibrant conversation on politics, culture, etc., probably fueled by Kyoto's equally vibrant university scene (at least one of them, Honyara-do, next to Doshisha University, is still in business). Many of Tokyo's newer independent cafes are lively hives for artists and art-lovers, or act as storefronts for independent craftspeople, book lovers, designers, bakers, jazz fans, and plain old coffee aficionados.

Sure, the chains are a little stifling, and the old mom-and-pop coffee shops, with their kindergarten-sized furniture and stacks of tattered manga, have seen better days, and their coffee was never that great--older people who grew up in post-war Japan like their coffee on the sour side, a remnant of the days when good beans and the know-how to roast them properly were in short supply--but in any big city, and even some smaller ones, there are plenty of off-beat places that welcome and encourage both interaction and introspection.

Something for everyone, like coffee culture most anywhere in the world!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I like the Nishimura Coffee Shops. Good coffee, good cakes and fair prices.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Did Japan start the whole Iced Coffee thing? I remember returning to Okinawa a long time ago and was surprised to see iced coffee on a few kissaten shops in the early 80's. I didn't remember seeing that in the U.S.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

The sourness is a characteristic of the growing region. Japan imports most of its beans from Jamaica, if I'm not mistaken.

That's may be true of the beans procured now, but post-war, most of the beans were of inferior quality, poorly roasted, and served in a weak formulation--and surprisingly, many older (i.e. 60+) people still like their coffee this way!

And actually, Brazil, Indonesia, and Colombia (not Jamaica) together provide about 60% of the coffee beans imported to Japan. Vietnam is also a major source these days, but Japan imports (generally unroasted) beans from over 40 countries.

In Tokyo, Meguro, the back streets of Harajuku (surprisingly), Kagurazaka, and Yanaka are all great places to discover interesting, independently-owned, quality coffee shops with a real focus on the coffee and a lively clientele. Some of them are even non-smoking, or have well-delineated non-smoking sections/floors.

Someone mentioned Miyakoshiya. They make really good coffee (and I seem to remember their Shinbashi branch has a separate cafe for smokers...).

1 ( +2 / -1 )

"American coffee" refers to espresso and water and the name was invented by Italians, not the Japanese.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Like Nicky, I head to Starbucks. Only because it is smoke free. It Doutour were smoke free, I would be there. However, they are usually covered in a haze of blue smoke and sleeping salarymen. No thanks. Great to take out but if I can't find a seat and get cancer when I do, I'll head elsewhere.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

When I was in Japan, I would have killed for a Tim Hortons!!! Starbucks kept me satisfied however. I didn't really like the coffee houses there, such as Kohikan.. overpriced for a small cup of coffee. At least Starbucks was smoke free

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Strangely no mention of Australia in the article. As any Aussie - or visitor knows - Australia takes it's coffee deadly serious and is the second biggest consumer per capita after Brazil. We are famous for coffee culture and pretty knowledgeable if I may add!

I've been largely unimpressed by the Japanese coffee chains and find the coffee very bland. If you appreciate coffee, go to a small local business - some of them here have dozens of world blends on offer. Keep away from the chains and avoid ANY canned coffee like the plague! And yeah - smoking, coffee and the Japanese go hand in hand - if you don't like smoke - buy yourself an espresso machine like me!

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I have to add one more thing. Yes!! Australia rates right up there too. Some nice cafes in Sydney.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Coming from France, a country with a very strong coffee culture (like Italy and the Middle-East), coffee in Japan is pretty much americanized to me. I like going to Starbuck (non-smoking, relaxing, "fun" and seasonal drinks) but I wouldn't compare it to a French or Italian coffee shop serving espressos (and not the diluted coffee-flavored tea American and Japanese call coffee).

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Shirokuma,

The sourness is a characteristic of the growing region. Japan imports most of its beans from Jamaica, if I'm not mistaken.

I think the Japanese have a unique "coffee culture" and it goes back a long way, but here in Tokyo I have never come across any kind of artisan coffee shops or small privately run places other than the old bubble era ones the author talks about.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

The author's introduction of Japan's coffee culture is completely off stating,

"the drink first came to Japan hundreds of years ago, but only hit its stride starting in the 1970s"

There were thousands of mom and pop cafes from the start of the century in Tokyo alone.It can be seen in various movies and there are still many cafes that had been in business for three generations.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

Thanks, Foxie!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

shirokuma,

Good to know. I didn't see any statistics, but recalled a travel show mentioning Jamaica's coffee trade relationship to Japan.

I was very interested in coffee when I lived in the US, but it's just far too expensive to maintain that lifestyle in Japan. I even brought my grinder and french press in my luggage but gave up on it after seeing whole bean prices.

I will have to give Miyakoshiya a try.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I think Doutor's name was misspelled in the article. It's "Doutor", not "Dotour". Correct me if I'm wrong, but I noticed that many coffee shops here in Tokyo don't offer decaffeinated coffee. I want this option when it's already past 7pm, otherwise I can't sleep. I end up buying juice or a snack instead.

Moderator: The typo has been corrected.

0 ( +1 / -0 )

I think Doutor's name was misspelled in the article. It's "Doutor", not "Dotour".

You're correct, and the Doutor site has some excellent stats on coffee drinking in Japan.

http://www.doutor.co.jp/ir/en/financial/market.html

I remember reading somewhere that the president named company after a street or district in Portugal.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

You want proper milk, youll have to buy a glass.

Heh. I asked about the milk in one place, they said it was miruku. I said "miruku milk, or gyu-nyu milk"? They looked confused.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

@Nicky Washida

I stick to Starbucks not because of the coffee but because it is no smoking and I can get proper milk in my coffee if I want it and service with a smile, instead of being fixed with an incredulous look and a "whadd`ya mean you want real milk when we have perfectly good little pots of fake cream stacked up over there?! You want proper milk, youll have to buy a glass. And no, we dont do low fat."

I would be more inclined to frequent the smaller more individual coffee shops if the service was better and the room wasn`t being smoked out like a mackerel.

My sentiments exactly... I've never had any trouble ordering something and the service is alright. No smoking environments is what really got me to keep going there. I'll stay with Starbucks (Drive-Thru).. Oh yeah, I'm not very fond of ordering inside the store and just hang out in there for hours...

Husband and I always order the same: Tall Caramel Macchiato lol Not quite ready for black coffee yet though -_- ;

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Can't believe that all coffee houses haven't noticed Starbucks incredible crowds at all times!!! A total ban on smoking is not hurting their sales, it totally helps! You won't find me inhaling someone else's thoughtless clouds of rancid cancer. No siree. The Dotour's inside Shibuya station on the tracks is nonsmoking. Still waiting for that to be extended. Some Dotours and others have the dreaded fishtank for smokers with NO doors between. Oh, just get over it Japan and ban smoking totally!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

I agree Ranger. I have been voicing this to managers a lot more as clearly many people are fed up with the smoke.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I have started to notice lately small coffee shops opening up (with no smoking stickers proudly displayed on the front door!) that look modern and catering to locals. Going to start checking them out. Starbucks led the way to a smokeless environment, and I wish a lot of success to them and greater coffee choices for me. :-)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Consuming coffee and having a "coffee culture" are two different things. I know I am from Seattle the place that defines coffee culture in ways that are sometimes way beyond belief.

First of all, the availability of coffee does not mean that there is a culture associated with it. Culture requires that people interact and that there is interaction between individuals who share a cultural thread. The isolated, unfriendly nature of cafes in Japan hardly warrants consideration as interaction.

Second, a coffee culture must have far greater flexibility than the presence of a few Starbucks, Tullys and Dotour. Where are the corner espresso stands that are the core of coffee culture in cities like NYC, Seattle, SF and much of the rest of the planet? And where is the exhaustive variety of coffees?

Let`s face it, without some 2000 plus blends, brands, varietals etc... to select from, can we really call it coffee culture? A one block area of Capital Hill in Seattle has 9 coffee shops and or stands each serving different brands, blends and options. Each with a signature finish and with options ranging from Soy and Rice Milk, to decaff (that actually tastes good). The shock and fear I see in barista faces in Japan when one mentions decaff, underscores the absence of any real depth to the facade of coffee culture here. And what decaff that does exist here, would meld iron it is so bitter and acidic.

So if you really want to experience "Coffee Culture" then forget Japan, get on a plane and stop off is Seattle, Washington, Portland Oregon, San Francisco or New York and I promise you will never consider anything you get in Japan to measure up in variety, quality, availability and flexibility. Not to mention quirkiness of baristas which is a big part of the fun.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Back on topic please. The subject is Japan's coffee culture.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

gaijinfo

According to Wiki they do not have a list of countries by coffee consumption per capita so were did you get your figures? In other words your link doesn't work.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I googled "coffee consumption by country" and clicked the first link that came up, which happened to be wiki.

try taking the above link, and putting in an underscore in between the words. Somehow it erases them when I post them here.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I found it, thank you.

So it seems as if the Northern European States consumes the most with Finland (12.0 kg), Norway ( 9.9 kg), Iceland(9.0 kg), Denmark (8.7 kg), Netherlands (8.4 kg) and Sweden (8.2 kg) consisting the top six. Interesting, the coffee bean producing nations are not in the the top 10 with Brazil (5.8 kg) at 17th, Colombia (1.8 kg) at 58th, Ethiopia (1.3 kg) at 69th, Indonesia (0.5 kg) at 104th, Jamaica (0.2 kg) at 125th and Kenya (0.1 kg) at 136th.

As for United States (4.2 kg) at 27th and Australia (3.0 kg) at 45th right above Britain at 47th.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

how cultural development copies in Japan from 1854 until now?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I am not a big coffee fan, but I do go to coffee shops or cafes quite frequently with freinds. I have heard other people having a variety of opinionated conversations and have seen people playing chess and study for hours on end. Also, the ones I frequent, the staff remember me as well as other guests. When I lived in Tokyo, they even remembered my beverage of choice and always asked me how my studies were going. It really depends where you go. However, most of the time, people seem to want to take it easy when they go and don't rush in and out like the author was implying. Perhaps he was thinking of coffee shops in stations that have only a limited number of tables....however if one leaves the station, the scene is a bit different (or at least in my experience)

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Human Target, Miyakoshiya Coffee Shops are the best, great coffee, nice Jazz music, great interiors and plenty of magazines to flip through - just how I imagine a good coffee house. They really make me feel relaxed. There is one in Shibuya although I haven't been to that one.

I love the Arabic coffee houses where you can chat with anybody and play backgammon with anybody. The social gathering in coffee houses lacks here.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Coffee at premium coffe shops here seems sour to me. I like a bitter cup, but sour? Not so much.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Gurukun, here are other theories:

Supposedly it goes back to the 17th century (1600s), when the Viennese (Austria) found themselves with a surplus of coffee beans after a failed seige by the Turks. Somebody got the bright idea of drinking the coffee cold.

Coffee has been a popular drink in Europe since the mid 1500s.

Other sources credit 17th-18th century France, where it was custom to drink coffee, and seltzer water mixed together and call it mazagran (this was the original name of iced coffee in the 18th century American colonies, too).

Iced coffee is still served as "mazagran" in France today

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

tkoind2

You are only looking at a small fraction what should be defined as "Coffee Culture". I for one really do not care for show aspect or quirkiness of a barista. That is like Flair Bartending which I have no interest of. I do have interest in where the beans came from how they were stored and how they were roasted including when. I have interest in when they were ground the coarseness of the grind. I have interest in how the coffee is brewed is it nell drip, siphoned, dutch drip, or pressure extracted. As for how I enjoy it black thank you, never wanted any sweeteners that masks the taste you took time and effort to extract.

You can find all the tools for brewing the perfect cup at any large hardware stores anywhere in Japan and not just an isolated location within a certain city like Seattle or New York.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

My favorite are those brown cafes in Amsterdam, alongside the canals, they are so Dutch with strong coffee.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

Gajininfo and Samuraiblue,

That's per capita, you need to look at total imports - the statistic I found is pretty old, granted, but it puts Japan at 7.74% of all world importation of coffee beans; ie, number three behind the US and Germany.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I guess my personal troll don't like Nishimura coffee?

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

sorry but any place that creates the name 'American Coffee' doesnt seem like a place that knows much about coffee.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

"coffee culture" is really being bombarded by coffee advertising 24/7.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I noticed that many coffee shops here in Tokyo don't offer decaffeinated coffee.

They not only don't serve it, they have never heard of it. My wife requested decaf when she was pregnant and got blank stares. They had no idea it even existed.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Iced coffee wasn't invented until ice could be produced and stored in the beginning of the 20th century.

I thought the Inuit were drinking it well before then. I could be wrong.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Great article!

I get annoyed when people assume that because I'm a foreigner I want coffee not tea.

Overall, in Japan, you get what you pay for, and you WILL pay for it if you're a connoisseur (as compared to McDonald's in the morning lover.)

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

"What you’re not likely to find in a Japanese coffee shop are heated debates over religion, politics and creative endeavors (...)"

Great! That's describes exactly what I despise about the west and what makes me respect Asian countries more than any western country. You won't find many unemployed hipsters spending lazy weekdays in coffee shops talking bad about "normal people" while sipping the overpriced coffee their parent's trust fund money bought them. Europe's and the US's bigger cities are infested with the hipsters. Sign of the (end) times for the west, methinks.

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Japan is one of the largest consumers of coffee in the world

According to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_coffee_consumption_per_capita) Japan comes in at number 41.

But I like coffee. Black, ice, no sugar, no milk. I hate those cans of sugary stuff.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

"Comparatively quiet"??? He's either deaf or just never going to the places I seem to end up in. If it's not the "mood" music being played as loud as at a disco, you'll inevitably be surrounded by Japanese girls, ladies, whatever, who speak or shout at each other in a volume that reminds one of the drill sergeant in a typical army movie. I could understand it if they were a distance from each other across a big table but the loudest ones always seem to be right next to each other. No sense of volume.

alpachinco: They know exactly what they're doing by calling it 'American Coffee' since it's the weakest coffee you'll be served in most of those places, often not very good and very reminiscent of coffee you used to get everywhere in America, especially diners and family restaurants. I do agree with whoever said they heat the milk too hot though. You should never scald your tongue when drinking a milk drink and the stupid, wasteful coffee cup sleeves would be far less necessary if they didn't heat them so high.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

Starbucku

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

I like cold canned coffee, but I think they are getting smaller and smaller. One is even named One Shot! It is actually equivalent to about two shots, so I am sure the cans will continue to shrink.

My boy friend when in High School got drunk and stupid one time. He put ¥500 in one of those Dydo machines that spins numbers. He kept thinking he only put ¥120 in and kept pushing buttons. Really dumb. Lost him fast.

-6 ( +1 / -7 )

Unfortunately, most of the coffee consumed in Japan is that crap that is sold in vending machines. Can coffee is either too sweet, too bitter, and one little can is way to expensive. I really wish that Japan had a decent coffee shop selling reasonably priced coffee, something like a Tim Hortons.

-7 ( +4 / -11 )

I really do not like coffee in Japan, it is way, way too strong! Prefer my so called American Coffee any day over black nasty bitter crap they enjoy here on the islands. IMHO.

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

Japanese coffee "culture" = People buying the cheapest coffee on the menu just in order to have somewhere to sit down and smoke for 1/2 an hour.

Western influenced Japanese coffee culture = Going to Starbucks with its weak as p**s coffee (I think the milk is shown the espresso), ordering either the sweetest drink, or an iced coffee (even in the midst of winter) - and the smallest size at that, and then nursing it for the next hour or two whilst some kind of homework/general reading is done.

I never go to one of the chain shops; places like Doutor have automated Barista machines that just don't cut it, and Starbucks/Tully's, etc are full of P/T staff, who are doing it merely as a job and not because they love coffee; which manifests itself in an inferior cup as there's no real love there. One more thing, in the case of such drinks as Latte/Cappuccino, the Japanese make the milk far, far too hot. These drinks should be "ready to drink". It's a common mistake made in traditional tea drinking countries.

Unfortunately for me, the best coffee house in my city has no segregated smoking area, so I've stopped going.

-8 ( +1 / -9 )

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