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Reviewed by:
  • Coffee Life in Japan by Merry White
  • Ofra Goldstein-Gidoni (bio)
Coffee Life in Japan. By Merry White. University of California Press, Berkeley, 2012. xii, 222 pages. $63.00, cloth; $26.95, paper; $26.95, E-book.

Japanese visitors to cafés are there “to watch and take note,” so writes Merry White (p. xi) in an absorbing book about coffee and cafés in Japan. White compares her stance to that of these imaginary café visitors. The author is well present in the book, which can be read, at least in part, as an ethnography, or at any rate as an ethnographic memoir, summarizing the long path of the anthropologist of Japan through the alleys of coffee. The rich descriptions of these journeys are indeed one of the merits of the book. The reader travels with the anthropologist from nostalgic venues such as Tokyo’s Kahiichakan, Japan’s first coffeehouse of record, which is now marked only by a monument, to contemporary “exotic” or hidden cafés. How can one resist the rich firsthand description of the frequent visits of the anthropologist, coffee lover, and visitor to venues such as the Ryugetsudo café in Kyoto, which continues to do business today apparently virtually unchanged since the 1950s? Customers in this classical music café (meikyoku kissa; literally, “important” or “famous” music café) are not allowed to speak nor to make any other noise while sipping their coffee, and stuffed animals such as teddy bears used for better acoustics may be caught sitting in the laps of mainly elderly men as they listen to one of the more than over eight thousand records in the café’s collection (pp. 61–62). The “thick description” embedded [End Page 536] in the ethnographer’s own physical and emotional experience makes the cafés so attractive that I will surely look for them in my next trips to Japan. This book, which also contains photographs, is an inviting one for those interested in Japan and in coffee culture in general.

Nevertheless, White attempts a project larger than an ethnographic account of what she identifies as “coffee life” in Japan. The book’s treatment of coffee and café in Japan includes four themes: the social history of cafés; an ethnographic treatment of cafés as urban spaces; the development of coffee as a commercial industry; and the culture of coffee itself, including coffee as an object of work, connoisseurship, and artisanal practice (as stated on p. 7). The author’s endeavor to construct a solid line of narrative from the first tastings of coffee brought by missionaries and traders to Japan in the sixteenth century to the ubiquity of coffeehouses in current times cannot be missed by the reader. White offers a totalizing description according to which “the story of the first coffeehouse in Japan illuminates the later paths coffee and the café have taken in Japan” (p. 7).

There is no doubt that White, who has been engaged with the study of Japanese society and culture for many and productive years, is one of the few scholars of Japan who could take upon herself such a challenge. This attempt at building a single narrative that goes from the Portuguese and Dutch trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, through the colonial exchanges in the late 1800s, into the Western city life that began in the early twentieth century, and up to the corners of the urban space in today’s Japan is indeed thought provoking and at times also rewarding, especially in its abundance of rich historical and ethnographic stories, anecdotes, and personas. It is also useful for dispelling a number of stereotypes about Japanese culture, especially the one about Japan as a country of tea. This book represents the victory of coffee over tea. We learn not only that modern Japan is the third largest coffee-consuming country in the world but also that the global expansion of the coffee industry was originally triggered by the rise of coffee drinking in Japan in the early twentieth century.

However, White’s insistence on providing a single line for the story of coffee in Japan seems to be also the source of...