The Drink of the Nation? Coffee in Japan's Culinary Culture
In the opening to his The Essence of Japanese Cuisine, Michael Ashkenazi recreates a refined Japanese meal, concluded with a chic dessert and [... ] a cup of coffee, which, he notes, ‘by now has become one of the national drinks of Japan’.1 Coffee - Japan’s national drink? This statement may evoke bewilderment among appreciators of Japanese culture and perhaps even undermine the fundamental cultural equation between Japan and green tea. The ordinariness of coffee in contemporary Japan and its peculiar historical trajectory make this statement worthy of further exploration.
The history of coffee stretches across continents and civilizations. For centuries, coffee was grown by Ethiopian tribes. By the end of the 
fifteenth century, it was widely consumed in Mecca, first taken as a medicinal substance, but soon becoming a drink popular at social encounters. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, coffee drinking as a communal ritual gained a foothold in Turkey, where it was discovered by the Europeans. Associated with the exotic culture of the Orient, coffee soon came to be perceived as a fashionable new product. By the end of the seventeenth century, coffee houses became an integral part of the urban landscape in Venice, London, Vienna, and Paris.
Like the commodity itself, the coffee house began its journey across Europe as an exotic transplant into Western civilization. The coffee houses offered their customers a mediated experience of exotic cultures, wherein the coffee ritual became a setting to enact the fantasy of the Orient. The proliferation of coffee houses in Europe of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provided a locus of interaction based on a new kind of bourgeois sociability, making them the new social centres of the era. The coffee’s path into the everyday routine can be traced through European colonial expansion to the Americas, the New World’s anti-colonial sentiment, the incorporation of coffee into the mass culture of the United States, and its further dissemination throughout the rapidly globalizing world. Over the course of centuries, coffee’s taste evolved from a muddy substance to a carefully brewed drink, with European, mainly Italian coffee formats serving as a major inspiration.
By the time it infiltrated Japan in the latter half of the nineteenth century, coffee had become one of the most recognizable icons of European culture. Ever since, coffee and coffee shops have been linked to economic, political, and socio-cultural transformations undergone by the Japanese nation. Coffee was adopted as an artefact of Western civilization along with Western food, dress, technologies, and other innovations that took root on the everyday level, nevertheless reaching far into the national consciousness. The successful implementation of these novelties was not only about cultural borrowing and adaptation (for which Japan is famed), but also about a process through which mundane substances are charged with meaning - mainly those substances related to various readings of modernization and national transformation. Drinking coffee was, therefore, a matter of national decision with implications for the building of national identity. In this sense, coffee’s path into Japanese culinary practice resembles that of meat and wheat, both bearing far-reaching connotations not only for nutrition but also national imagination. Today, Japan is among the largest importers of coffee in the world. Coffee occupies a massive niche in Japanese consumption and has been integrated into the daily routine. Despite its ubiquity and accessibility, however, coffee in Japan still leaves a place for a dialogue on cultural appropriation, identity, and imagination.
This essay is organized along the following lines: first, I will briefly outline the place of coffee in Japanese culinary culture and raise a number of questions that will be addressed through this investigation. I will then explore the place coffee has come to occupy in Japan’s national agenda and collective memory. Next, coffee’s cultural ‘Otherness’ and ritualiza- tion will be discussed as modes of its appropriation. Finally, I will examine the process of acquisition of taste in coffee by focusing on coffee education enacted by global coffee chains in Japan.