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Book Review: White, Coffee Life in Japan

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Merry White, Coffee Life in Japan, University of California Press, 2012. pp, 172 (text), illustrations, appendix, notes, bibliography, index.

Merry “Corky” White has turned a career-long infatuation with coffee and coffee shops in Japan into a short book. That is both a strength and a weakness. Trained as an anthropologist, the book does indeed include snippets of individuals, particularly proprietors of her favorite shops. An example is Sekiguchi Ichiro, the 98-year-old owner of a shop in Ginza in Tokyo who specializes in “vintage” coffee. She traces the early history of the industry, from the proprietor of the first coffee shop to the development of ties with Brazilian wholesalers that made Japan one of their largest markets. Her enthusiasm extends to details, such as that the norm in Japan was for much stronger coffee, 18 grams per cup, a full 50% more than an “American” coffee at 12 grams.

While readable, I’m not a coffee fanatic – though I’m sitting in a local coffee shop, founded by a local specialty coffee roaster as I edit this. Living in a small town, the coffee shop is also a social institution. There’s bluegrass every Wednesday morning, and regulars in their appointed hours; I always know someone, it’s a small town institution. I was thus disappointed not to find more on coffee shops as social institutions. I bought the book hoping for anthropology, but White’s training as an anthropologist is seldom brought to the fore. We do get a section on the intelligensia of the Taisho area, drawn from standard Japanese-language histories. Her history is incomplete; at least a few us remember the days when having a telephone was far from universal, and the local snack and coffee shop was a nexus of communication, a place where you could make phone calls without standing on the street, and where (if you were a regular) the proprietor might take messages. More generally, while the book is replete with casual observation, we don’t get a detailed case study of any individual shop, or systematic treatment of how (for example) neighborhood shops vary from those in the urban center. The focus really is coffee.

Now I like my coffee black, and shun Starbucks – to my unrefined palate they burn their beans. In Japan, however, I was a regular at the local Dotour, and as a reader of Nikkei could hardly avoid the “Sutaba” phenomenon (check your local bookstore’s business section, too – Amazon Japan lists 298 titles). White implicitly dismisses these as irrelevant. Data suggest otherwise. Over the past decade for which data are available, the number of coffee shops fell 25%, while overall retail held its own. (I haven’t assembled data on revenue; my impression is that per-store sales haven’t fallen, but that’s merely an impression.) Furthermore, in employment terms the normative coffee shop is no longer the one down the street run by mom and pop; it’s tied to Dotour (1,375 stores of which 1,039 are franchises) or another such operation. Now at the establishment (store) level, 58,000 of the kissaten had 1-4 orkers in 2009, but they accounted for only 116,000 workers. In contrast, 171,000 worked in shops with 10 or more employees.

So my reading is that the coffee shops about which White writes are a smaller and smaller share of the coffee universe. I too am nostalgic for the mom-and-pop vegetable store or local izakaya. They however are unable to compete with modern retailers in control of their supply chain and their marketing strategy, are are increasingly dependent on coffee fanatics. They won’t vanish, but their day is past.

喫茶店 (Coffee Shops)
Year Establishments Employment
1999 101,945 366,270
2001 88,933 329,227
2004 83,676 314,959
2006 81,062 322,450
2009 77,036 350,845
These surveys don’t indicate where hybrids such as Mr. Donuts would be counted.
mike smitka
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