Coffee Reads: 'Coffee Life in Japan'

Book Reviews

Drinks-related books to add to the stack on your bedside table.


[Photo: Liz Clayton]

For those for like a little culture in their food-based beach reading, Merry White's Coffee Life in Japan offers an academic treatment to a culinary movement—and cultural phenomenon—so often treated lightly.

Tracing the trajectories of coffee's practical evolution (sourcing, preparation, regional tastes) as well as the social implications that came along with cafes in a nation known for its reverence to tea, White winds back and forth through storytelling that situates the brown drink squarely in a place of critical importance to Japanese culture.

From its origins in Brazilian trade (right down to Japanese migrant farm workers shipped off to fazendas) to contemporary cafes offering hand-poured siphons, "aged" beans, or classical-music listening cafés where "to create a more perfect acoustic environment, there are large stuffed animals—teddy bears, polar bears, rabbits, and dogs—sitting here and there on chairs."

Though White jumps back and forth here and there, her ethnographic treatment of the subject is balanced and inquisitive: why and how is craft valued (as in cafes where the mastery of the proprietor is the main draw), versus the cafe setting itself? How does a culture enthralled with meticulousness reconcile micro-controlled hand pouring with, say, coffee beans that may be fraudulently represented or degraded by roast quality, like the "elite" Jamaica Blue Mountain? And most importantly, how does the cafe itself—and coffee, as an originally outsider beverage—function as both respite and rebellion, as both a social space and an anonymous space?

Indeed, many of these questions are translatable across cultures—here in the US, we have plenty of places that push meticulous preparation of bad coffee, and vice versa; or spaces that seem social yet operate in a totally disenfranchised "alone with other people" fashion. That these contradictions are the human condition is one of the clearest takeaways from the book, but White's extensive experience with Japanese culture adds a dimension of seriousness and respect to the worlds in and around coffee that American audiences in particular may find validating. Why not take coffee seriously, and still be contradictory, and human? We are obviously in this game for more than just our palates.

And while White's style is certainly more academic than storycraft, or even narrative nonfiction, her open, direct approach to the combined forces behind coffee's sway over this part of the world (and, it should be added, her willingness to explore feminist questions many other writers wouldn't have thought to ask) should be of of keen interest to anyone who likes coffee, urban spaces, or just Japan. You'll find your eyes opened beyond the new and storied cafes you've heard of and into regional corners and paradoxical tastes, and into the social understanding of coffee as a break from spaces like work and life that, though challenging to all cultures, bear their own Japanese way of being—and have brought forth their own, distinctly Japanese, places of reverent escape.