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Surprising Spaces: Café Culture
in Japan

Prof’s research challenges some common stereotypes

| From Research Magazine | By O’rya Hyde-Keller

While tea is the traditional drink of Japan, the country is also home to a thriving coffee industry and hundreds of cafés—as well as some of the most discriminating coffee connoisseurs in the world. Photo courtesy of Merry White

Soon after Merry White arrived in Japan in the mid-1960s for the first time, she was invited out to a local coffeehouse in Tokyo.

“It was a dark, cavernous, French-style artists’ café. And the first thing I noticed was that there were white sheets hanging all over the walls,” she says. “Soon after we arrived, we were asked to take off our clothes.” Artists at the café painted White’s body with bright, cobalt blue paint, and then she and the other participants became living paintbrushes, à la Yves Klein, pressing themselves against the white sheets. “This was not the Japan I expected,” she says. “It never is.”

Since that first trip to Japan, White, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of anthropology, has become a leading expert on Japanese culture, publishing multiple books on the country’s education system and popular culture. And that surprising episode at the coffeehouse has always stayed with her, inspiring her forthcoming book with the University of California Press on the role of the urban coffeehouse in Japanese society.

To research her book, White became a regular at 14 cafés in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe over four years, and spent hours upon hours interviewing customers as well as coffee masters (the people we know as baristas). She enrolled in a coffeehouse management course, so she could learn more about the logistics that went into running these prolific public institutions—there are often multiple coffeehouses on a single city block in Japan. She also spent time with Japanese coffee roasters and importers and read primary documents from the 1600s when coffee was first brought to Japan, including Dutch journals that recounted Japanese prostitutes trying coffee for the first time.

What White discovered is that coffee, not green tea, is the foremost social beverage in Japan. There have been coffeehouses in Japan since the 1880s, and the country is the third-largest consumer of coffee, after the United States and Germany. The first coffeehouse chain in the world, Paulista, opened in Tokyo in 1908. Japan is also the frequent testing ground for new varieties of coffee before they go on to be marketed throughout the world. “The Japanese have higher coffee standards than anywhere else,” White says. “So if your coffee can pass there, it can pass anywhere.”

Specialty coffee in Japan is usually served using a hand pour, rather than brewed by machine. And the Japanese prefer blended coffee. “This preference comes from the sense that a real master can ‘play’ the different notes of different coffees together, making a symphony of flavor,” says White. The whole process, she says, is very handmade, very artisanal—as much a cultural experience as a beverage. Recently, cafés in the United States and Europe have begun to use Japanese techniques to brew and serve coffee. “What interests me is coffee as an industry in Japan, but also this new export of Japanese-style coffee from a place that people really don’t think of as a coffee-drinking country,” she says.

And it’s not just this prevailing image of the Japanese as the quintessential tea drinkers that White hopes to challenge. She also hopes her work will confront other common stereotypes. “We have the idea that the Japanese are all incredibly fastidious people who sleep and work and don’t take time off,” she says. But Japanese cafés show another, more dynamic side of Japanese culture, playing a central role in the country’s arts and cultural scene. And unlike the United States, where you’ll usually find patrons firmly fixated on their laptop screens, the coffeehouse in Japan has remained a vibrant social center. That said, Japanese cafés can also serve as a personal time-out space, where an individual can find solitude in public, a rare thing in what White calls a “densely relational society.”

Whether Japanese coffeehouses are used as a place to exchange ideas or a space in which to contemplate them alone, White believes cafés provide an illuminating glance at the country as a whole. “These are creative, innovative spaces. Unlike many other institutions in Japanese society where people have their identities given to them, the café is a free, flexible place where there is no operative role that governs you. There are stories in the coffeehouses and cafés of Japan that people wouldn’t expect. There are a lot of surprises,” she says. “And I think these surprises ultimately extend beyond the café environment.”

This article originally appeared in Boston University’s Research Magazine 2010.

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