Placing Coffee on Japan's Culinary Map

In Japan, quite a few substances have been providing the grounds for national discourses that can be framed by the term ‘gastronationalism’ - that is, the use of food to demarcate and sustain the emotive power of national attachment.[1] This type of nation-making is usually based on a more or less fixed set of substances adopted as markers of national heritage and is exploited to market both the food and the culture it signifies. A signboard welcoming the tourist at Narita airport features a picture of Hiyoko confectionary (see pic. 1) - a baby chicken-shaped sweet bun, with a line reading ‘Nihon no oishii katachi’ (Japan’s tasty shape). The line gives culinary embodiment to Japanese culture: it is delicious (Fig. 3).

The image of green tea could have done a similar job, but not of a cup of coffee - this, despite the fact that in contemporary Japan, making and drinking coffee is no less common than making and drinking green tea.

'Nihon no oishii katachi' (Japan's tasty shape)

Fig. 3 'Nihon no oishii katachi' (Japan's tasty shape)

Green tea is perceived as ‘unavoidably Japanese’[2]; Japan’s infatuation with coffee more often than not comes as a surprise to a visitor.

Japanese tea is a complex substance, however. It can be the ‘ordinary’ tea, ocha - the one to serve after a meal, to quench thirst with, to be consumed either hot or cold, from a chawan or a pet bottle; and the special tea, macha - performed as a national ritual, a quintessence of tradition. Coffee in Japan represents a continuum almost as broad, stretching from a skilfully crafted cup prepared by a coffee master to the cold or hot caffeinated substance in a can bought from a vending machine. Nevertheless, tea has been adopted as a nationally unifying image and practice, while coffee occupies a niche much less defined, but certainly no less interesting.

Tea defines Japan in terms of long-standing tradition; this definition often involves a measure of nostalgia for a fading cultural heritage.[3] How does coffee define the nation? Is national identity defined by the banal or the exclusive? Can nationhood be claimed through a commodity that is not among the customary markers of local tradition? In other words, how is the Japanese nation performed through substances that do not assert Japanese culture? The following exploration will address these and several other questions, focusing on one of the most mundane yet powerful customs - coffee drinking. I will use tea as a point of reference, as it represents one of the most established metaphors of Japan’s cultural identity.

Having infiltrated Japan in the Meiji era, coffee can be paralleled with other substances incorporated as part of Japan’s culinary transformations, such as meat and wheat. There is something about beverages, however, that distinguishes their nation-work from that of foods. Less nutritional and therefore less critical for matters of physical sustenance that often become politicized in national projects (as discussed by others in this volume), beverages seem to occupy a more subtle ground in the process of identity-building. Meat became internalized through the Meiji period’s (1868-1912) agenda of national health and nourishment, reinforced by the revered figure of the Emperor consuming the previously banned substance. Bread was adopted in the context of humanitarian aid aimed at physically sustaining the undernourished Japanese population in the post-war years.[4] The recent national campaign of Shokuiku (education for nutrition and correct eating), despite its broadly defined scope and references to national identity, hardly relates to beverages. Performing the nation through beverages may therefore be viewed as a more subtle, culture-bound, and symbolic process than that revolving around food.

In her recent work on tea making as nation-making in Japan, Surak points at two types of nation-work that forge the sense of collective experience she refers to as ‘nationness’: that of definition and that of embodiment/cultivation. The former type designates characteristics that identify the nation and usually rely on implicit or explicit comparison with external Others. The latter type enacts and sensually performs, often through the body, the defined characteristics.[5] These two modes will serve us in the exploration of coffee as an axis of Japan’s juxtaposition with its cultural ‘Other’ and as a ritualized performance with connotations for taste, knowledge, and identity. I add to these another mode of forging nationness — that of incorporating coffee into ordinary spaces of shared national being. But let us first discuss the place of coffee in Japan’s collective memory and imagination.

  • [1] DeSoucey, ‘Gastronationalism’.
  • [2] Surak, Making Tea, 17.
  • [3] Ivy, Discourses of the Vanishing.
  • [4] Cwiertka, Modern Japanese Cuisine.
  • [5] Surak, Making Tea, 4.
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