Conclusion: Coffee's Complexities

Is coffee Japan’s national drink? As we have seen, Japan became familiarized with coffee in the first half of the twentieth century; the appropriation of coffee was closely linked to issues of national choice and national imagination. In the second half of that century, coffee became part of the national lifestyle. Today’s older generation - those born in the post-war baby boom - grew up into coffee drinking together with the rapidly internationalizing nation. Coffee shops played a part in the development of the Japanese city, the making of the urban middle class, and the shaping of taste in music, food, and general lifestyle. It is therefore of no surprise that coffee and coffee shops became integrated into Japan’s personal and collective memory. Japanese coffee-related expertise, coffee preparation techniques, and coffee ‘taste regimes’ have become elaborate and sophisticated enough to comprise an entirety defined as ‘coffee culture’.

Coffee could have been ‘unavoidably foreign’ (in contrast with the ‘unavoidably Japanese’ green tea), if it were not for its incorporation into Japan’s changing realities. Representing a substance that cannot be indigenized due to its stable association with Japan’s cultural ‘Other’, coffee has nevertheless been appropriated and integrated into the shared spaces of Japanese nationness, resonating with major transformations of modern Japanese society. As such, coffee can be regarded as a site of Japan’s ‘banal nationhood’.[1]

There is a prevailing perception that the power of Japanese culture lies in its ability to ‘Japanize’ non-native substances by refining them ‘the Japanese way’. Although it may explain some of the strategies of cultural appropriation, this perception does not sufficiently address the complexity of this process. The ritualization of coffee may be regarded as borrowing from the cultural realm of tea, with its refined aesthetics and subtle nostalgia for the bygone past. Coffee served in Japanese utensils lends coffee some of the refinement and prestige associated with Japan’s traditional crafts, creating a somewhat playful synergy between wa and yo. As kissaten become distinguished as sites of Japanese coffee culture, the media praise the power of tradition in Japan’s cultivation of a refined coffee experience. Discover Japan magazine of 2013, for example, is dedicated to green tea and coffee and points to the symbolic connection between the two as a means to rediscover the magic of Japan. The references to tea - the acquired taste, the ceremonial nature of tea practice, and its long-standing cultural heritage - define coffee in terms of a novelty anchored in a long tradition, and fit into the nostalgic narrative of returning to the roots of the nation.

Intriguingly, the word kissaten, which today exclusively denotes a coffee shop, translates from the Japanese as ‘tea house’. Coined in pre-modern Japan, the term ‘kissa’ was used to refer to tea-drinking facilities; in the late nineteenth century, however, its meaning was stretched to include coffee, soft drinks, and other modern beverages. Kissaten recreate the air of a tea ceremony through the ceremony of coffee, substituting one civilized stimulant with another and shifting the emphasis from Japan’s ‘Own’ culture to an ‘Other’ culture skilfully appropriated by Japan. Coffee is therefore not Japanized, but inserted into a framework of cultural linkages that interact with each other in various, often unpredictable ways. Appropriated via its inclusion into Japan’s collective memory, coffee has been constantly reinvented as a secular ritual - whether it is a ritual of performing modernity, learning about music, or engaging in prescribed ‘taste regimes’.

The cultural construction of taste around various components of washoku builds an image of Japan as a culturally homogeneous entity. The exclusivity of the tea ritual fits into this process of nation-making by re-enacting the notion of Japan’s uniqueness. The ceremonial dimension of coffee creates a much less homogenous image, in which banality coincides with enchantment, and spaces of nostalgia - with spaces of innovation, highlighting the plentitude of Japan’s cultural myths and their dynamic nature.

If green tea can provide people with a metaphor for the nation, can coffee serve as a metaphor for the nation’s participation in global culture? Coffee has been successfully localized; on the other hand, its foreign cultural baggage still frames the coffee experience inside Japan. In its ability to address both the global and local systems of meanings, coffee epitomizes the complexity behind the cultural dichotomy of wa and yo in the age of globalization and standardization of taste.

  • [1] 3 In accord with the notion of ‘banal nationalism’, coined by Billig in Banal nationalism.
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