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Coffee Life in Japan: The Exotic and the Apparently Familiar

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Japan occupies an interesting place in Western popular culture: as one of the most developed countries in the world, its presence is warranted among the major players in the global economy and in international politics. Its industrial and technological products are among the most common household names in consumer culture across the globe. Its popular culture, especially when it comes to fashion, design, anime, and manga, has a considerable following outside its borders. The disasters following the recent tsunami have also contributed to a prominent spot for Japan in the global imagination.

Yet, when it comes to food, Japan has lost some of its mystery. Restaurant patrons are conversant with sushi, sashimi, and tempura, and shoppers are less and less surprised to see wasabi, seaweed, green tea, and even mocha in the "international aisles" of their supermarkets. The recent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi reflects the interest of Western gourmets in a culinary tradition that, until a few decades ago, was shrouded in exoticness. Now we have access to delivery sushi; we can pick sashimi off little conveyor belts; and cookbooks, TV shows, and other media are contributing to make Japanese cuisine accessible and comprehensible. Still, there are still layers and layers that some Western foodies have yet to consider, including the many local traditions that stubbornly survive in parts of the country, the kaiseki dining and cooking style, and the ongoing evolution that has created relatively novel approaches like the Japanese-inflected wafu pasta.

Merry White's new book, Coffee Life in Japan guides us along as we discover a visible yet quite unexplored dimension of Japanese consumer culture. An anthropologist by training and by trade (she teaches at Boston University), the author takes us from coffee house to coffee house, uncovering a whole world that would be hidden from those wrongfully believing Japan is only about tea. As a matter of fact, it is the third largest coffee-importing country in the world, with an internal market shaped by high prices, high quality, and high costs of production. Although the country's love affair with the drink is more recent than Europe's, cafes were thriving long before the arrival of Starbucks.

White proves that the drink has played a significant role in the process of modernization in Japan through its ability to adapt to political earthquakes, changing urban structures, and evolving behaviors. Cafes turn out to be places where people can take a break from social pressure and express one's individuality outside the harmonious consensus that many perceive as a defining trait of Japanese culture. Throughout the book we get to explore wildly different establishments, meeting a curious cast of characters that have dedicated their lives to preparing the best café possible, each embracing quite different standards. Preparations, design, techniques, atmosphere and soundscapes may vary, but all the café owners portrayed in the book seem to take coffee and customer care with the greatest seriousness.

Kodawari, the disciplined dedication and attention to detail that these individuals display, is far from being the stereotyped perfectionism (bordering on the pathological) that many attribute to Japanese culture. As White points out:

"A café in Japan is not a 'global space' -unless one counts the Seattle-based chain stores - nor is it usually a deeply local place, forbidding to newcomers... There is no single model for the café... The very openness of definition, along with the cultural parameters of services and quality that make these places 'Japanese' is the draw and the preservative of the café in Japanese cities... Its cultural logic is strongly Japanese, but the experience of the café can break almost all the usual rules of being Japanese."

White wanders from café to café, from brewing master to coffee merchant, with nonchalant pleasure. At times the book structure seems far from linear, returning to topics and concepts already touched on before, but White's affection for the world she describes is infectious. The narrative often reads like a memoir, and the author is able to transport us to places and situations that are not only described with the eye of the anthropologist, but shared with the passion of a true coffee lover.