If you’ve ever worked with pour over equipment, you might have noticed that many of the most popular and successful coffee cones, paper filters, and pour over sets come from Japan. While Japan is certainly a tea-loving country like its East Asian neighbors, coffee has a very long history on the island – and Japan remains one of the biggest importers of coffee in the world.
Imported by Dutch traders in the early 18th century, coffee was not a very well-loved drink initially – but that changed as Japan moved away from isolationism and towards cultural assimilation in a colonial world.
Coffee, like the Western suit, Christianity, and yōshoku, became a major part of Japan’s pre- and post-WWII cultural identity, blending ancient tradition and reverence for local culture with a high-speed shift towards industrialization and urban living.
However, much like anything Japan has adopted from other cultures, Japanese coffee culture has developed independently, revealing its own unique style in the process.
How Coffee Got to Japan
Japan’s relationship with coffee is complex, and while it can be traced to the drink’s introduction to Japanese natives in the 18th century by Dutch sailors (alongside an anecdote that Edo period poet Ōta Nanpo called the drink “burnt” and “tasting of nothing”), coffee’s popularity largely soared during the 20th century, fueled in large part by the urge to emulate Western culture during Japan’s frantic post-war recovery efforts.
Coffee had made some cultural headway prior to Japan’s involvement in WWII, but a ban on all Western imports meant that any coffee lovers had to go cold turkey during the war.
The Japanese Café
Prior to the war, the first real attempt at introducing coffee to the masses came through Tei Eikei, a multilingual traveler and adoptive son to the Taiwanese ambassador in Japan.
He envisioned a coffee version of the prominent and ancient chaya, which were izakaya-esque social lounges where tea and gossip were served to strangers and locals on the countryside’s well-traveled roads. Thus, came about the first kissaten, a kind of coffee lounge, established around 1888. However, its popularity was incredibly short-lived, and it went out of business a few years later.
But the idea stuck, and it grew with subsequent generations. As Japan transitioned away from Sengoku and Edo period concepts of class and spearheaded towards rapid industrialization train station and roadside coffee shops became a popular destination for busy salarymen and women looking for a place to rest and chat between errands.
These kissaten were reminiscent of old diners and European cafes, a dank and relaxing corner store that sells cheap coffee and provides a place to sit, have a small meal, and a quick smoke. In addition to drip coffee, kissaten often served Western-style food and black tea.
Their identity was unique and different from store to store – these weren’t chain shops, but little multigenerational establishments that often had a family working behind the counter to take orders and cook simple meals alongside liters of black coffee, all while playing relaxing music and providing a calming atmosphere for workers between shifts, and students up late studying.
Canned Coffee and Coffee-To-Go
With Japan’s economic post-war boom in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, came the proliferation of coffee as the worker’s drink, and the kissaten as the worker’s preferred “third place”. But the end of the 80s saw the slow decline of the kissaten, and the transition towards coffee as a “to-go” drink.
It all started in 1965, when Mira Coffee developed the first “canned coffee” (kanko-hi) in Japan. While it didn’t stick at first, the older and more influential UCC (Ueshima Coffee Company) pioneered the prototype and began a massive trend. Alongside coffee vending machines, the trend of buying coffee to-go meshed well with Japan’s transition towards an even faster lifestyle, as salarymen no longer had the time to rest in cafes and instead needed something to sip on to survive long commutes and longer hours.
The dawn of the 80s saw the final nail in the original kissaten’s coffin: the founding of Doutor Coffee, Japan’s first and most famous coffee shop chain. What began as a small European-style café has since sprouted into a regional behemoth with stores throughout East Asia, and more cafes in Japan than Starbucks.
Between canned coffees and standardized coffee chains, the quaint kissaten became a rare sight. Teens and younger Japanese coffee lovers grew up with coffee vending machines, kanko-hi, and disposable cups from local chain stores.
Specialty Coffee in Japan
Interest in single-origin and specialty coffee grew in Japan alongside the West. While the US saw a rediscovery of coffee as an artisanal craft in the 90s and 00s, Japanese immigrants working abroad brought their knowledge and experience as baristas back to their home cities to experiment on introducing local Japanese coffee-lovers to a new kind of coffee experience – something distinct from commercialized coffee chains and kissaten drip coffee.
The result is a boom in specialty coffee shops since the early 2010s, particularly in the larger cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. However, Japan’s history with specialty coffee is far from young. Hario and Kalita Wave should be familiar names to anyone experimenting with home brewing.
While Hario began as a glass manufacturing company in 1921, their most successful product (a glass filter coffee syphon) launched in 1949, soon after the restrictions on coffee imports were lifted. The Kalita Wave is another pour over coffee staple, designed and sold by the Kalita Company established in the 1950s. Pour over coffee, now rediscovered and adored by baristas and coffee snobs around the planet, caught on in popularity during the early days of kissaten.
Today, modern Japanese specialty coffee shops aim to provide their own unique identity much like the kissaten of yore, while focusing on the quality of their craft. Major kanko-hi producers like Santory and Boss, and brands like Doutor, Starbucks, and McCafe continue to be a primary source of coffee for millions of Japanese people, but many are turning towards smaller specialty shops to get their caffeine fix as well.