Coffee in Japan: A Short, Tasty History

Coffee in Japan: A Short, Tasty History

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Woman drinks coffee in Japan
Picture: Ushico / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Did you know canned coffee is a Japanese invention? Learn how coffee went from foreign luxury to everyday staple in Japan.

If you’re a coffee addict about to step foot in Japan…boy, do I have some good news for you. Coffee in Japan is not only available but plentiful.

Japan’s relationship with coffee is rather shallow, dating back only in earnest about 150 years. But that hasn’t stopped it from becoming one of the country’s most popular beverages. Here’s how coffee came to Japan – and how national chains like Detour and international conglomerates like Starbucks are redefining it.

Coffee in Japan Arrives in the Edo Era

Many historians believe that coffee probably arrived in Japan via Dejima[1], the island off of Nagasaki reserved by the Tokugawa shogunate to control the exchange of goods and information with the outside world. (For more context, see our overview of the historical periods of Japan.) It appears to have arrived as early as 1640.

However, coffee didn’t become commonplace overnight. Before coffee shops, Japan had tea shops[2]. The first recorded tea shop surfaced in the Edo era in 1735, in Higashiyama, Kyoto. But coffee shops didn’t follow suit. In fact, coffee drinking largely remained limited to those in contact with Dutch traders (Japanese traders, workers, etc.) on Dejima.

The Birth of Japanese Coffee Shops

In a book dictated to Japanese physician and Dutch studies scholar Kou Ryousai, Siebold recommended coffee consumption for better health and a longer life. Share on X

A couple of factors may have helped stimulate coffee’s reach across Japan.

One explanation attributes the rise in coffee drinking to one Phillip Franz Balthazar von Siebold (known commonly just as シーボルト in Japanese). Siebold, a German physician, was one of the “Three Scholars of Dejima” – three natural history researchers on the island of Dejima and three of the few non-Dutch visitors to have regular contact with the Japanese citizens of the time. In a book dictated to Japanese physician and Dutch studies scholar Kou Ryousai, Siebold recommended coffee consumption for better health and a longer life.

This is a neat explanation that you find on a lot of coffee company Web sites in Japan these days. However, it’s hard to tell if Siebold’s recommendation was really as transformative as some give him credit for.

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What’s more certain is that, during the Meiji era, tea shop Houkoudou (放香堂) began selling coffee beans. They also offered taste tests of this new-fangled product within the shop itself. Thus was Japan’s first coffee cafe (喫茶店; kissaten) born. However, the first “true” kissaten didn’t take flight until the launch of the shop Kahisakan (可否茶館) in Tokyo’s Ueno in 1888[3]. Today, Japan commemorates the opening of Kahisakan on April 13th with Coffee Shop Day (喫茶店の日; kissaten no hi).

Coffee shops grew slowly in popularity during the Meiji Era until experiencing a massive boom in the Taisho (大正; 1912-1926) era. At first, many coffee shops also acted as bars and sold alcohol alongside coffee. Starting in 1929, tighter regulations led to the creation of 純喫茶 (jun-kissa)[4], or coffee shops that sold only coffee and no alcohol.

From Kissaten to Starbucks

Cup of coffee and coffee beans. Coffee in Japan
Picture: HiroS_photo / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Nagoya made history in 1970 with the first manga-kissa (漫画喫茶), which paved the way for today's ubiquitous manga Internet lounges. Share on X

The boom contracted in the wake of post-WWII import restrictions. However, as Japan’s economy recovered, so did its love for coffee. Coffee shops generally broke down into two types of stores:

  • Kissaten, which retained their Meiji/Taisho-era atmosphere of low lighting, a coffee bar surrounded by stalls, and soft jazz or classical background music. Most Kissaten are generally individually operated.
  • Cafes (カフェ), which are generally noted by their brighter and more modern atmosphere, an updated menu, and an atmosphere conducive to work or study. As opposed to kissaten, many cafes are chain-operated.

In the 1960s, independently operated kissaten dominated the coffee scene. Stores built their reputations based on the individual flair and variation brought by their owners. Nagoya made history in 1970 with the first manga-kissa (漫画喫茶), which paved the way for today’s ubiquitous manga Internet lounges.

In the 1970s, chain-managed cafes became more prominent. Customers began seeking a more leisurely, updated environment in which they could pass the time between work and errands. As a result, Japanese chains like Dotour rose to prominence in the 1960s and 70s. (Dotour continues to this day as Japan’s second-largest coffee chain.) The introduction of Starbucks in 1996 brought “Seattle-style coffee” (milk-heavy espresso drinks) to Japanese shores. Starbucks’ arrival further transformed how Japan consumed its beans.

Today, Starbucks rules the roost in Japan in terms of number of stores. (It’s also the most popular chain among women[5], according to some surveys.) As I’ve written before, Starbuck’s ability to adapt to the Japanese market has helped it expand rapidly. But that hasn’t stopped native Japanese companies such as Dotour from enjoying success.

Can Coffee: Japan’s Contribution to the Coffee World

No discussion of coffee in Japan would be complete without a discussion of canned coffee. Especially because…it’s a Japanese invention!

Two Japanese inventors developed the first canned coffees independently in the 1960s. Other companies had attempted to perfect the art of canned coffee before. However, none succeeded in creating a product that would keep. In 1965, Miller Coffee owner Miura Yoshitake partnered with experts in Hamada, where canning technology was advancing rapidly. The result was the country’s – and the world’s – first successful canned coffee product.

Shortly thereafter, in 1969, UCC upped the ante with the launch of its own canned coffee product. The invention – a sweet concoction containing coffee, milk, and sugar -was the brainchild of UCC founder Ueshima Tadao. Ueshima reportedly tackled the idea based on his own experience as a commuter. Having to return his unfinished coffee cup before boarding the train to work irritated him. So, he developed a solution!

Today, canned coffee is a staple Japanese drink. You can buy it easily not only from conveniences stores but from vending machines – both hot and cold. However, this staple drink has taken a hit in recent years. Many younger coffee drinkers have drifted in recent years to plastic-bottled coffee drinks. And, as one might expect, the COVID-19 pandemic led to a sharp dip in canned coffee sales[6].

Indeed, some experts see signs that the pandemic has permanently changed Japanese coffee lover’s interests. Consumers, some say, are drifting away from pre-packaged products and back to “true,” freshly-brewed coffee.

Coffee in Japan Continues to Abound

Picture: kouta / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

This short but rich coffee history is good news for coffee lovers who go to Japan. Certainly, large cities like Tokyo are teeming with foreign chains like Starbucks, Tully’s, and even San Francisco’s Blue Bottle. But you’ll also have your pick of national chains, such as Dotour, Saint Marc (サンマルク), and Komeda, among many others.

Want the more “traditional” kissaten experience? Good news, as these small, throwback stores continue to thrive. If you hate secondhand smoke, though, make sure you’re not entering one that allows smoking. These not only exist in abundance but have been enjoying a certain resurgence as of late.

No matter what your preference, take heart when you travel to Japan, oh coffee lover. Your beverage of choice is not only available – it’s celebrated.

Why the “Strong Highball” is Booming in Japan

Sources

[1] コーヒー誕生の歴史、日本初上陸のとき. Holly’s Cafe

[2] 喫茶店の歴史 日本初は神戸の茶商・放香堂 世界で最初はイタリアだった. Bushoo Japan

[3] 可否茶館とは?日本の喫茶店の土台を作った喫茶店. TailoredCafe

[4] 喫茶店とカフェの違いは名前だけじゃない!純喫茶やバルとの違いもチェック. Coffetown

[5] 2位が意外!? 【スタバ、ドトールetc…】コーヒーチェーン店「人気ランキング」 女性約200人調査. Yahoo! News JP

[6] 缶コーヒーが“消える”!? 「クラフトボス・ショック」から3年、市場で起きた異変とは. Bunshun Online

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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