From Exotic to Banal: Coffee in Japan's Collective Memory

Coffee’s path into Japan’s national scene and national consciousness can be conceived along the continuum between the exotic and the banal. Coffee was first brought to Japan by Dutch traders in the seventeenth century, but did not become a familiar commodity until the end of the nineteenth century, when, after more than 200 years of seclusion, Japan was forcibly opened to Western trade. In contrast to Europe, where the Orient provided material for exotic fantasies, in Japan, it was the Occident that possessed appeal. In 1888, the first Japanese coffee house, named Kahiichakan, opened in Tokyo. The man who founded it was Tei Ei Kei (1859-1895), an adopted son of a Taiwanese secretary in Japan’s foreign ministry. Tei Ei Kei developed a taste for coffee in America, whose people took up coffee as a way to renounce the tea of the Empire,[1] and picked up the love for coffee shops in London, where coffee had already lost its foothold to tea.[2] He envisioned Kahiichakan to become a place of cultural exchange where knowledge would be absorbed along with coffee, and invested heavily in equipping it with

Western facilities and refined paraphernalia.[3] Having aspired to more than it could accomplish without a solid financial foundation, the coffee house went bankrupt five years after its opening. Tei Ei Kei moved to the United States and died, rather ironically, in Seattle, the cradle of contemporary global coffee culture. His grave is visited by Japanese coffee aficionados; a monument, erected in his memory at a spot where his coffee house once stood, demonstrates the power of coffee in Japan more than it does the success of the coffee house.[4] [5]

Although Tei Ei Kei’s endeavour had failed, his vision proved long-lasting. During the Meiji era, coffee shops gained popularity and became a symbol and a major site of Japan’s modernity. The earliest forms of these establishments were modelled on the English coffee house or French salon. The coffee shops served as entry points for foreign products, and shaped new local fashions and trends that resonated with the wider international context. They offered customers coffee along with Western architecture and decor, Western seating, and Western food, served by waitresses dressed in Western clothing. Most were concentrated in Tokyo’s Ginza - a district that was designated by the Meiji government as a model of modernization, and carried European-sounding names, such as Cafe Printemps, Cafe Lion, Cafe Paulista, and Ginza Palace, among others.

Rapid urbanization and modernization produced the need for public spaces where newly urbanized and modernized people could practice being urban and modern. Modernity was a powerful national narrative in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japan. The early Japanese coffee shops provided a space for both gathering and displaying new identities. To some Japanese commentators of the era, in their promotion of an air of liberalism and internationalism, the cafes ranked in significance with the establishment of the National Diet.11 The first decades of the twentieth century further strengthened the association between coffee and modernity. The already established link between modernity and material culture - along with a consensus that the West was a desirable model - set the scene for the appeal of coffee shops.

In the 1920s and 1930s, coffee shops represented an increasingly visible segment of urban life, and offered an accessible space to accommodate various public expressions of modan seikatsu (modern life). The coffee shops provided one of the few public settings for moga and mobo (modern girls and boys) to meet and mingle socially. The ‘modern girl’ in particular is to be seen as one of the most predominant, even if contested, protagonists of those years. A debated equivalent of the Western flapper, moga was made an emblem of female eroticism by the media[6]: the moga was modern, independent, provocative, and appealing - and she was to be found, along with other sites of new consumerist sociability, in a cafe.

The fact that the era’s coffee shops became one of the most commonly mentioned sites of Japan’s modernity should be linked to the controversial figure of the jokyu - the cafe waitress. The young lower-class women hired as jokyu had come to the big city to find work, and as such they were part of the broader shift of urbanization that shaped the identity of modernizing Japan. Due to their active presence in the public space of the cafe, their independence, and their often provocative behaviour, jokyu became the working-class embodiment of the moga and a powerful image around which the discourse on gender and modernity was revolving.[7]

The cafes’ role diversified along with their proliferation: a growing number no longer catered just to the elite, but served a wider clientele. Coffee was no longer revolutionary modern but ordinarily modern, entering the mindset of Japan’s gradually expanding new middle class. Its persisting association with Westernization, however, was one justification for increasing restrictions in the late 1930s, when the attractiveness of the cafe was criticized as a demoralizing aspect of modernity. Some of these places indeed had a subversive agenda, providing a place for intelligentsia, students, artists, and labour activists to rail against Japan’s building militarism.

The import of coffee stopped towards the 1940s - during the war, few coffee shops were able to offer their clients anything other than a coffee surrogate made from substitute ingredients. However, the post-war era witnessed a proliferation of coffee shops. Japanese society as a whole had undergone numerous social, political, and economic transformations, in which the United States served as a frame of reference. One manifestation of the American cultural influence was jazz, which was introduced in the pre-war era, but did not gain widespread popularity until the 1950s. This trend facilitated a propagation of so-called ‘jazz cafes’ (jazu kissa), which became highly popular among the younger generation and aspiring intelligentsia. The jazu kissa were part of Japan’s music scene, urban scene, and cultural scene, fulfilling different functions in the course of the following decades. The jazu kissa of the 1950s were educational institutions, with the cafe master functioning as the music teacher; in the 1960s, they came to resemble temples, as jazz culture came to resemble a cult; the 1970s witnessed the kissa’s struggle for survival, pushing them into expansion of services and making them more similar to supermarkets; the 1980s’ technological developments - such as the invention of portable music players and CDs - turned them into jazz museums.[8] And the coffee? A recent guide to jazz cafes, published online by the Jazz Association (JAZU Kyodo Kumiai), advises first-timers not to make facial expressions if the served coffee is disgusting. The same, however, is also advised where the coffee is unexpectedly good.[9] Although the jazz cafes were never a mainstream phenomenon, they clearly were cultural centres addressing the various needs emerging throughout Japan's modern evolutions.[10]

The coffee shops of the 1960s and 1970s hosted expressions of trends as diverse as artistic avant-garde, protests against the US-Japan security treaty, feminism, and sexual revolution. Many of them became sites of political activism where Japan’s civil society was being moulded. The cafes continued to evolve in response to changes in urban life, offering their patrons a variety of spaces as diverse as their clientele. Coffee became commonplace and part of national lifestyle. One key development behind the transformation of coffee into an accessible and banal drink was the invention of canned coffee.

The man behind the can was Miura Yoshitake (1901-1980). Almost a century after Tei Ei Kei opened his Kahiichakan, Miura brought Japan’s coffee to a major turning point that changed the face (and the taste) of Japanese coffee culture - the invention of a coffee can. Miura graduated from Waseda University and managed a green tea store while pursuing his studies of coffee. He dreamt of getting people everywhere to enjoy his coffee, even in Europe. Miura partnered with a canning factory and spent several years developing Mira Coffee, a can of sweetened coffee that went on to the market in 1965. An advertising pamphlet from the time read: ‘In painting we take pride in Tessai Tomioka and in ceramics [Sakaida] Kakiemon.[11] In coffee we can boast of [Miura] to the world.’[12] Due to financial difficulties, Mira Coffee went off the market three years later; in 1969, Ueshima Coffee Corporation released canned coffee with milk, which has been a staple ever since. To commemorate the world’s first canned coffee’s 50th anniversary, Miura’s hometown erected a memorial in 2015 and created a certification system for making ‘Yoshitake coffee’, to be sold at local cafes and restaurants. Through these and other measures, the town is trying to revive Yoshitake’s brand and to promote itself on the regional map.

The 1980s witnessed a coffee shop boom, as coffee shops competed among themselves, offering not only different styles of coffee but also various gimmicks, atmospheres, and styles of decor - from mom-and-pop cafes, where coffee was served along with home-made curry, to no-pantsu kissa (no-pants cafes), where waitresses served the customers, while walking on a mirrored floor, without underwear beneath their skirts.[13] Cafes became intertwined with local history; many of them have accumulated memories of several decades, lending coffee its localized flavour. The 1990s brought new forms, new styles, and interpretations drawing from new circumstances of Japanese life. Behind the abundance of the coffee shops, however, there are still stories that link coffee with individual visions and collective memory.

One of these is the story of a tiny coffee shop in Tokyo’s trendy neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa. Although the cafe’s history does not go back any further than several years, its owner sees himself continuing the legacy of the early coffee shops that introduced culture through music. In the cafe, named after his favourite rock band’s album ‘Bookends’, he displays vinyl records from the 1970s and sells good coffee at surprisingly reasonable prices. Since the cafe is physically small (a counter with a couple of extra seats cramped along the wall), customers often start talking to each other, creating exactly what the owner had envisioned - a place where people gather, talk, and listen to good music. Born in the late 1950s, he himself grew up into coffee culture watching his parents drink coffee - not green tea - and learning that coffee was important for communication. He remembers how in his youth the cafes were the hubs of town, like small communities, many of which played music and were a place to hang out and talk. And for that, one needs good coffee. Today, when everything is digitalized, people no longer have access to real music and real places to listen to it. That is why Bookends is open until late and hosts live music events despite the lack of space. Places like his, its owner believes, are small but important sites where culture really takes shape.[14]

Places like this are also a legion in Japan. They have become a stage for the making of culture (or, rather, cultures) envisioned by their owners - the culture of rock music or jazz, art deco, or local crafts, all framed by the culture of coffee. Coffee and cafes were part of Japan’s national agenda in its formative years, helping to claim the identity of a modern, urban, and civilized nation. Having become part of people’s lived experiences throughout the following decades, coffee became embedded in Japan’s collective memory. The controversial figure of the coffee waitress located the cafe in the realm of national imagination. The commemoration of people whose endeavours had an effect on Japanese coffee culture bears witness to their place in national consciousness. The exploitation of coffee as a means to revitalize local culture and economy points at its appropriation as a local asset. Nation is often enacted in commonplace routines of ordinary lives[15]; coffee’s integration into Japan’s changing commonplaces made it an embodied medium for enacting national sentiments, from the drive of modernization to serene nostalgia for the lost community.

In fact, it could be claimed that coffee has become more integrated into the banal spaces of Japan’s everyday life than the ‘unavoidably Japanese’ matcha. Along its path, however, coffee has not lost its cultural odour by becoming ‘mukokuseki (having no nationality, or culturally odourless),[16] neither has it been naturalized as Japanese. At the turn of the century, coffee, along with other imported products and fads, served as a venue for emulating the West. Despite its acquired ordinariness and its integration in Japan’s national consciousness, coffee has retained this association with foreign culture. The connotations behind this association evolved in the course of 150 years, making the coffee’s ‘Otherness’ a matter of cultural branding rather than cultural emulation. The following section will discuss this seemingly paradoxical positioning of coffee in Japan’s relationship with its cultural ‘Other’.

  • [1] Britain’s attempt to push the limits of economic domination through the Tea Act of 1773turned tea into the flashpoint of rebellion; coffee was promoted by the Revolution’s leaders as asign of anti-colonial patriotism, eventually taking over as America’s national drink (‘Boston TeaParty — Why Was Tea So Important?’, The Historic Present) online resource: https://thehistoricpresent. wordpress .com/2011/11/17/the -boston-te a-party-why-was-te a- so-important/.
  • [2] White, Coffee Life in Japan, 9.
  • [3] Takai, Nihon Kafe Koboki, 93.
  • [4] White, Coffee Life in Japan, 8.
  • [5] Tipton, ‘The Cafe’, 119.
  • [6] Silverberg, Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, 51.
  • [7] Ibid., 73-74.
  • [8] Derschmidt, ‘The Disappearance of the Jazu-Kissa’.
  • [9] Jazu Kyodo Kumiai website, ‘Jazz Cafe Manners’:
  • [10] Molasky, Sengo Nihon no Jazu Bunka, 202.
  • [11] Tomioka Tessai (1837-1924) was the pseudonym of a painter and calligrapher in imperialJapan. He is regarded as the last major artist in the Bunjinga tradition and one of the first majorartists of the Nihonga style. Sakaida Kakiemon (1596-1666) was a Japanese potter who inventedthe style known after him as Kakiemon.
  • [12] Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan News, October 2015: 0002501174.
  • [13] White, Coffee Life in Japan, 65.
  • [14] 0 Based on a private interview and an interview for Flamingo website:
  • [15] Surak, Making Tea Making Japan, 2.
  • [16] Iwabuchi, ‘Marketing “Japan”’.
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