Coffee Life in Japan

July 26, 2012

Focusing on the café as a social space as well as on coffee as an object of production and consumption, this excellent book combines academic rigour with lively descriptions and compelling prose. Merry White's analysis relies on several different methodological approaches. The first is a cultural history of the café in Japan from the 19th-century Meiji period to the present, followed by an ethnographic analysis of contemporary café culture in Japan (with a somewhat arbitrary preference for Kyoto in its selection of case studies). These are supplemented by an in-depth historical study of the evolution of coffee as a product, its international diffusion and its adaptation to Japanese tastes.

This multidisciplinary approach allows White to dispel a number of stereotypes about Japanese culture. The first is the notion that green tea is the country's beverage of choice. Instead, we learn not only that modern Japan is the third largest coffee-consuming country in the world but also that the global expansion of the coffee industry was originally triggered by the rise of coffee-drinking in Japan in the early 20th century. Thanks to the establishment in Brazil in the 1910s of the Paulista chain of coffee houses by Mizuno Ryu, founder of the Imperial Colonial Company of Japan, the country became a leading importer of Brazilian coffee beans, and the resulting increased demand was a key factor in promoting the development of coffee production and export in South America.

White also undermines the myth that coffee culture in Japan is derived from Europe or North America, and associated with a broader fascination with all things Western. Instead, she shows how both coffee and the café are paradigmatic examples of what I would call the "Japanization of modernity". Introduced to Venice and Vienna in the 17th century as an exotic beverage imported from the Ottoman empire, coffee had already reached Japan by the Tokugawa period of the 17th and early 18th century, although at the time its consumption was limited to the community of traders and interpreters that dealt with the Dutch on the island of Dejima, in the port of Nagasaki. The beverage became popular on a vast scale in the Meiji period, when it was seen as a symbol of Westernisation and modernisation. In the space of a few decades, however, it became localised, and by the early 20th century, coffee consumption had developed into a distinct tradition that retained no foreign association. Today, Japanese-style coffee culture is even becoming a hot-selling cultural export, with the rise of cafés such as Barismo and Jaho in Massachusetts, which offer Japanese-style hand-poured siphon coffee. Such cafés are becoming known worldwide for the high quality of their product and service embodied by the Japanese notion of kodawari, or "disciplined dedication".

Finally, White examines the café as a unique kind of social space in contemporary Japan, a place that allows customers to be "private in public", alone without being lonely. Unlike visiting parks, temple grounds, bathing houses or bars, White argues, going to a café does not entail any predetermined form of socialisation. It therefore provides precious respite from the pressures of family and work life, and offers a retreat from the "masking and engagements" of other leisure spaces and their "requirements of performance". Coffee Life in Japan ends with a short list of cafés in the Tokyo and Kyoto areas, with descriptions and contact details, in a useful addition to a fascinating book.

Coffee Life in Japan

By Merry White. University of California Press. 240pp, £41.95 and £16.95. ISBN 9780520259331 and 01159. Published 1 June 2012

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