In 2019, over 7.5 million 60 kg bags of coffee were consumed in Japan. Japan is one of the biggest coffee-consuming nations in the world, despite the fact that the amount of home-consumption barely creeps into the global top 50 rankings.
Why people drink coffee in Japan, and the reason why canned coffee is so popular
While drinking coffee at home is a relatively new cultural phenomenon in Japan, coffee permeates the countries culture with both the abundance of cafe’s and the popularity of canned coffee sold in vending machine’s on nearly every street corner. In addition, the introduction of the ‘third wave’ coffee culture and a newfound interest in specialty coffee beans is creating a whole new ‘café-hopping’ culture in a country with the perfect infrastructure to support the industry. There is a linguistic pattern you will notice in Japan. People really like to say ‘ganbarimasu'(頑張ります), and people also really like to say ‘otsukare’ (お疲れ.) ‘Ganbarimasu’ is an extremely nuanced word with multiple meanings depending on the exact situation, but could probably be best translated into English as ‘I will work hard to do my best.’ Otsukare’ on the other hand, is something that you say to other people to encourage them to work hard. While this is also extremely nuanced (it can also mean ‘goodbye’ in certain situations. That’s a whole another can of worms for another time), ‘Otsukare’ can probably be best translated to ‘You look tired. Good job for all of the hard work that you do.’ This linguistic call-and-response is one of the most important communicative relationships in both the Japanese language and Japanese culture. You will hear it EVERYWHERE. Here is an example;
Takeshi: Yuki-san, here is your assignment. Good luck.
Yuki: ‘Ganbarimasu’ (I will work hard to do my best)
After some time, Takeshi walks into the room, where Yuki is currently working.
Yuki: Oh, Takeshi! ‘Otsukare!’. How did the project go?
Takeshi: Oh, its going okay, but I think I need to work harder next time. Next time I will ‘Ganbarimasu’ even harder…
I made this us up, but I may as well have just recounted any conversation I’ve had here in the last 7 years. My point with this story being that there are a number of times somebody may have bought either a coffee for themselves, or a coffee for somebody else in this context. I believe that this is one of the reasons why canned coffee, and vending machines in general have such a huge presence in Japan.
Takeshi may have bought a coffee for himself before starting the new project as a way to boost his productivity.
Yuki may have bought a coffee for Takeshi after he saw how hard he worked.
Takeshi may have bought himself a coffee after finishing the project as a way to recover.
What’s more likely is that Yuki would buy both Takeshi and himself a coffee, because Yuki is the superior or ‘Jyoshi’ (上司) to Takeshi, and little gestures like this are a common expectation in the vertical structure of Japanese society.
This focus on effort, maintaining effort, summoning effort, encouraging effort from others, and acknowledging other members of the communities’ effort is an integral part of Japanese culture, and is one of the reason why canned coffee has become a cultural cue in many aspects of Japanese society. This is one of many reasons why coffee consumption is increasing steadily year-by-year.
Coffee is slowly replacing smoking as the staple break time excuse
As other nations continue to roll out more anti-smoking regulations, Japan has become somewhat infamous in recent years for it’s high-rate of public smoking, especially when considering that Japan is known for having some of the longest-living citizens in the world, and highest general life expectancy.
So why is smoking popular?
Well, just like the rest of the world, the idea of smoking being a danger to public health has only recently been able to penetrate the wall of advertisements and persistent marketing campaigns of the 20th century. As of 2021, around 35% of Japan’s citizens are over the age of 65. It is safe to say that 35% of society grew up in a different world where smoking was seen as this cool elusive image of masculinity and adulthood. It was simply a way of their life. This is slowly changing, but, just like my explanation above, smokers have an incentive even in Japan’s modern work culture to practice their habit at work. Why? Because it gives them a visible and non-verbal excuse to take frequent breaks throughout the day, in a country where the average citizen works a 12-hour work day. This is true in other countries as well, but Japan’s work culture that values effort (I.E, time spent at the office) over concrete results pushes this to an extreme. Recently, instead of getting up for a smoking break, people have begun stopping for a coffee break. Georgia and Suntory with their brand Boss Coffee, have gone to great lengths to encourage people to use coffee as an excuse to take that ‘well deserved break’. After all, you did ‘ganbarimasu’ so hard! Wow!
Now go buy our coffee…
Oh yeah！I didn’t mention, but Tommy Lee Jones has been the star of (hundreds? It seems like it…) hundreds (yeah, let’s go with hundreds) of Boss Coffee ad’s, where he plays the titular role of “Alien Jones.” I’ll just leave this here for you to enjoy…
The new ‘third-wave’ coffee phenomenon of Japan
So…what is this mysterious ‘third wave’ I have been hinting at? Well, all this really means is that the coffee culture in Japan has entered it’s ‘third wave’, where the current emphasis is placed on the careful selection of beans, and a more purist style of preparation. The ‘first wave’ of Japanese coffee was the era of instant coffee (gross) which ran through the 1960s. This was followed by the second wave from the 1960s to around the year 2000 when Seattle-based coffee chains like Starbucks and Japanese brands like Komeda Coffee and Doutor began to explode in popularity. The ‘McDonaldization’ of coffee was here, with emphasis on convenience, location, and trendy new flavors (gross.) The current third wave is characterized by the careful selection of bean by origin, roasting in-store, and the use of the pour-over method for precision brewing. Coffee enthusiasts in Japan nowadays care a lot more about what is going into their cup, and less about fancy brewing techniques. Essentially, coffee brewers in Japan began to treat coffee the same way they would treat the preparation of any other Japanese dish or beverage; It is to prepared pure, simply, and to bring out the best flavor from the best bean. It’s like a purist tuna nigiri sushi, but inside your cup. Wow! Yum? It’s yum, despite my manner of explanation.
One of the key aspects of the 3rd wave experience in Japan is not only drinking good coffee, but also watching the process of how brewers make good coffee. Observe the minimalism of the décor in the picture below;
One observation you may have made is that the country-of-origin is written on each jar of coffee. This is a pretty regular practice at 3rd wave coffee shops, and is an integral part of the experience. Just like much of the general infrastructure of Japan, at-home coffee consumption is less common because the full experience you can get from heading off to a specialty shop is just so much better. Only time will tell if we will every hit a ‘4th wave.’ If you’re ever in Japan, I recommend heading into one of these shops for a break. It’s a pretty relaxing experience.