The Banal Ritual: Exploring Coffee's 'Otherness'

In modern Japanese consumption there has been a prevalent practice of incorporating foreign products as a means to infuse enchantment into everyday life. Moreover, there has been a tendency to contrast foreign entities with Japanese ones, thus reproducing the symbolic distinction between wa (Japan) and yo (the West), the Self and the Other, and reinforcing the air of authenticity around both. Consumption of foreign commodities can therefore be regarded as a twofold process through which the imaginary West is constantly reconstructed and, simultaneously, the notion of ‘Japaneseness’ crystallized through juxtaposition with the cultural ‘Other’.[1]

Modern Japanese cuisine has been accommodating the distinction between Japanese and non-Japanese as one of the main principles of delineating national culinary identity - a principle reinforced recently by the recognition of washoku by the UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage. The culture-bound construction of meanings around various components of washoku - we may include green tea in this category, despite its being a beverage rather than a ‘shoku (a meal) - turns them into metaphors of Japan’s nationhood. This construction’s most visible manifestations are in the material culture created around these substances. The material world constructed around tea and its ceremonial order - the physical space of the tea room, the utensils (bowls, whisks, scoops, kettles, containers, cloths), the clothing of the participants, are all designed to assert tea’s embedment in Japanese tradition. Various components of the decor refer the viewer to the physical and aesthetical world outside the tea room (cherry blossoms, bamboo, maple leaves, and foggy landscapes), comprising a lexicon of traditional images employed as markers of Japan’s cultural distinctiveness. Seasonality plays a central part in this culturally appropriated natural landscape.


The material culture of coffee, on the other hand, is comprised of an entirely different lexicon. Coffee utensils, related vocabulary, and the design of the coffee spaces - the cafe - usually carry a distinct foreign stamp. Rarely does one come across coffee served in a Japanese traditional vessel - although fusion forms exist, they are to be found mainly at the more sophisticated among the coffee establishments. The coffee served at the highly elegant cafe of Adachi Art Museum comes in a chic porcelain cup with a charcoal stick instead of a spoon; cafe Mo-an, one of the most refined coffee houses in Kyoto, uses Japanese-style ceramic cups, with a bamboo stick spoon placed on a stylish hashioki (see pic. 2).[2] In most cases, however, the dishes are suited to the non-Japanese profile of coffee, garmenting the beverage with porcelain cups, mugs, saucers, silver teaspoons, milk jugs, sugar bowls, and other attributes of a Western table. There is a vast use of foreign terms and slogans in the coffee business, written either in English or katakana. While a Chinese character compound (kanji) exists for the word ‘coffee’, the use of its katakana version predominates. For coffee-related vocabulary (terms such as ‘roast’, ‘blend’, ‘shot’, and ‘aroma’ as well as more specialized terminology referring to types of roasts, blends, and coffee equipment), foreign terms are commonly used (Fig. 4).

TheJapanese coffee shop (a kissaten or kissa) represents today a distinctive genre whose most common style has come to include a set of features, such as an emphasis on manually brewed coffee, a small pool of regular clients, and a relatively small store space. More often than not, however, the decor and general atmosphere of the kissa incorporate cultural images referring to ‘Other’, mainly Western cultural contexts. The musical background, decorative patterns featuring non-Japanese visual motifs, European tableware, the formal outfit of the coffee master, and the waiters create a microcosm somewhat remote from the actual location. Over the course of the decades, the kissa developed a special food menu perceived to be appropriate for coffee, most of which is firmly associated with Western cuisine. Japanese cafes rarely serve Japanese dishes; although local tastes and cooking techniques are incorporated into various cafe foods, their foreignness is

Coffee served in cafe Mo-an in Kyoto (picture taken by the author)

Fig. 4 Coffee served in cafe Mo-an in Kyoto (picture taken by the author)

nevertheless clearly marked — for example, by referring to rice as ‘ raisu in order to distinguish it from the same rice (gohan) served at local eateries.[3]

The factor behind this seemingly contradictory place of coffee as both banal and enchanting, nationalized and foreign, is to be seen in the ritualization of coffee. Coffee is no longer exotic and can be as banal as a coffee can; however, it may also constitute a refined experience in which expertise, sophistication, and high attention to detail are involved.

Ritual is defined as a complex of objects, performances, and meanings that create a symbolic space contrasting with everyday life. The microcosm of the kissa accommodates not only references to ‘ Other’ cultural contexts but also an emphasis on coffee preparation, often translated into an elaborate ‘taste regime’ centred on the performance of the coffee master. Merry White (2012) insightfully describes how the coffee masters exercise authority and affectionate obligation to the customer through acting, both as performers and teachers. Many of the kissa are characterized by intense kodawari (attention to detail) in everything that has to do with coffee making. The coffee experience is designed by the coffee shop master according to his (rarely, her) individual vision. But, perhaps more importantly, it is framed by an attitude to coffee as a complex of ritual, expertise, and taste.

The coffee ritual comprises several dimensions, all aimed at crafting a perfect cup of coffee. The material dimension of the ritual implies specialization in particular coffee blends (often created by the coffee master), the choice of utensils appropriate for various types of coffee, and the use of manual brewing and roasting equipment, often put on display when not in use. The immaterial dimension is constituted by the scripted performance by the coffee master of a complicated set of tasks and the maintenance of a silent contract between the master and the customer. The performance is often carried out in front of the customer, not only enabling him or her to appreciate the master’s skill but also turning coffee preparation into a somewhat theatrical aesthetical experience. The silent contract implies a high level of mutual trust, reaffirming that the master will do his best to produce the most satisfactory result possible, and that the customer will do his or her best to adequately appreciate it.

Finally, the space of the coffee shop, designed in accordance with the owner’s vision, often implies a certain theme translated into elements of decor and atmosphere. Shinshindo student cafe in Kyoto features long wooden tables designed for studying and discussion (the tables were built by a craftsman who also made the Meiji Emperor’s throne)[4]; Honyarado cafe (also in Kyoto) is adorned with photographs of its owner, a passionate photographer; Bookends Coffee Service (Tokyo) is decorated with record covers, old American posters and cartoons. All these create a physical setting for the coffee ritual and contrast everyday life by inserting the customer, even if only temporarily, into the particular ‘small culture’ envisioned by the owner.

Secular rituals are often discussed as mechanisms of performing the nation.[5] This brings us back to the analogy with tea, for in Japan the tea ceremony represents an embodied practice engendering national identity and ‘moulding the private body as a national body’.[6] [7] This ‘national body’, by virtue of tea’s associations, is also a traditional body and a static body. By reinforcing the framework of tea tradition as static tradition, tea ceremony creates the imagined reality of shared memories and collective history. The notion of tea ceremony (chanoyu) as a static construct is indeed in the realm of the imaginary. In reality, chanoyu s representation has undergone some dramatic changes since its development in the sixteenth century: having suffered from neglect during intense Westernization, further redefined as an expression of Japan’s moral universe and recruited to foster the spirit of patriotism during pre-war military mobilization. It finally became what it is today only during the post-war era - a powerful symbol of national heritage emphasizing the tranquil nature of Japanese aesthetics. Tea ceremony can be seen as a ‘mythscape’ - the temporally and spatially extended discursive realm in which the myths of the nation are forged, transmitted, negotiated, and reconstructed constantly.

A question that should be raised in this context is what kind of mythscape is constructed around coffee? Rituals connect the present and the past through enacting linkages with either real or imagined events or people; collective memory plays a central role here. As we have observed, the national myths in which coffee was a part encompass Westernization, modernization, civil activism, urban communality, along with smaller myths revolving around specific niches such as music. To these, more recent myths are added, rooted in Japan's transformation into an affluent consumerist society - the myths of individual self-cultivation, self-expression, and indulgence. This growing engagement in consumption-based identity projects underlines the role of institutions that are capable of forging new myths and enabling their enactment through everyday practices and banal rituals.

This statement brings me to the last issue of our exploration - the role of global coffee chains in the realities of Japan’s coffee culture. It is rather easy to dismiss coffee chains as a post-modern phenomenon not quite related to the authentic world of coffee culture. Seen mainly as agents of hegemonic economic expansion, the chains have been criticized for their lack of cultural sensibilities. As the next section will demonstrate, however, the chains have a key role to play in the contemporary coffee landscape and the creation of new coffee myths. I will discuss how the chains fit into the contemporary discourse on coffee, identity, and self-cultivation through their ‘coffee education’.

  • [1] Goldstein-Gidoni, Packaged Japaneseness; Iwabuchi, ‘Complicit exoticism’.
  • [2] Hashioki is a chopstick rest used to keep chopstick tips off the table.
  • [3] White, Coffee Life in Japan, 123.
  • [4] Kyoto University website:
  • [5] See Reed, Dance and the Nation; Siskind, ‘The Invention of Thanksgiving’ and Tsang andWoods, The Cultural Politics of Nationalism and Nation-Building, among others.
  • [6] Surak, Making Tea, 13.
  • [7] Anderson, ‘Japanese Tea Ritual’, 2.
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