Episode 66 – Dr. Merry White (Boston)

Originally published on October 5, 2018
[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. On this episode, I’m talking with Dr. Merry White, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University. Among Dr. White’s many publications is Coffee Life in Japan, published by the University of California Press in 2012. Dr. White, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Merry White: Oh, it’s lovely to be here.

TG: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that you’ve published so widely on Japanese anthropology, but in particular on two things: coffee and food. But we might not necessarily associate Japan with coffee, right? So often, we think of Japan as a tea country. Could you talk about what is the position of coffee in Japan, and give us little bit of that background of how Japan comes to be a coffee country?

MW: Absolutely. Well actually, yes. When I raised this subject of coffee in Japan, everyone always says: “But don’t they drink green tea?” And then that’s my opening. I kind of love that. It is absolutely true that Japan was well-steeped in coffee well before American intercessions like Starbucks (a good hundred years before). So, we’re looking at what happens when a substance of a commodity comes to Japan. It always becomes something other than what it started.

Coffee, actually, was in Japan with Portuguese missionaries and traders in the 1500s-1600s, and with the Dutch traders at Dejima in Nagasaki in the 17th century and on. What was interesting about that is that when coffee first came to Japan, it was seen as a medicinal aid to promote sleep. Some of the clients of the prostitutes of Nagasaki (who were Dutch) gave the substance to the prostitutes as something to stay alert so that their clients wouldn’t cheat them. So, it worked both ways: it seemed like a soporific and a stimulant at the same time.

The Dutch also brought siphon coffee to Japan (that glass vacuum container that creates coffee in a very dramatic way), and it flourished in Japan. The whole idea of siphon coffee is still alive and well in some rather old school coffee shops. Even today’s biggest technology creator for coffee Hario Company makes a fantastic Space Age siphon machine, which is often used even in London in third wave coffee shops. So, there’s some interesting sidelines that came about, but the actual public social drinking of coffee didn’t really take off until the Meiji period, and in the Meiji period, the first dedicated coffeehouse was created.

There’s quite a story connected with that first coffeeshop, which was (I think) opened in 1881 about the time when the streets of the Ginza area, for example, were illuminated. The lights in the street brought a middle class nightlife to Tokyo, particularly and Yokohama as well apparently. So, there were these places where people went, strolled around as flȃneur and boulevardier, people who would gain the night, and even women would appear in these night spaces. But cafés, to go back to the first café, attracted a range of people who might not ever have talked to each other before in this new kind of social space.

The first café was created by a young man born in Nagasaki to a Chinese foreign service translator and was thought of by his father (I think it was actually his adoptive father) to need a foreign education to get ahead in Japan, seeing as how he was of Chinese ancestry. His name, transliterated from Chinese into Japanese, was always used as “Tei Eikei.” Tei Eikei was sent to Yale University in New Haven to gain this extra cachet, but Tei Eikei was not very studious. In fact, he was so attracted to the coffeehouses of New York City that he spent rather little time at Yale and flunked out.

His father discussed with him, and said: “Well, we’re going to make something of you one way or another.” And sent him back to Japan by way of Europe. He said: “Get some culture.” So, Tei Eikei arrived in London at the end of the coffeehouse epic of London history, but the coffeehouses were still rather grand places, very masculine places, places where men of a certain class (merchant class mostly) would come and sit for hours and have all kinds of elegant amenities such as stuffed leather armchairs and newspapers on racks and all kinds of things that weren’t in other kinds of social spaces, but might have been in the clubs of the elite.

So these coffeehouses in London attracted Tei Eikei just like their New York equivalents, and he came back to Japan and said: “That’s what I want. I want a new kind of social space. I want to help Japan’s democratic modernity, to help people gather who wouldn’t know each other just the way they had for him in New York and London.” He romanticized these spaces, and he made his own coffeeshop which was called Kahi Chakan (sometimes it was called Kahi Kan). So, using the word “coffee” (karahī) of the time (it’s now kōhī), and using a character for tea (cha) in the middle.

It looked like a European place, but it had reference, in some ways, to the old teahouses (the chaya) in Japan. But of course, it served no tea whatsoever. A person could stay all the day for the price of one cup of coffee, which was, I think, 1 sen (a unit that is no longer used), and basically use up the amenities without really benefiting the establishment.

Tei Eikei himself thought of it more in the terms of a consumer rather than a businessman, and he went broke. His place even had showers, napping rooms, all sorts of things that you could stay all day and enjoy. But having gone broke, he fell into a depression, and a friend found him on the verge of suicide and sent him to Seattle. Now, that becomes interesting because Seattle, of course, was a depot in the late 19th-early 20th century for shipping of coffee from Latin America. He was found in a dry goods shop, and he did have some connection with selling coffee beans, but he wasn’t good at that either, died in his late 30s in Seattle, and his gravesite is much visited by Japanese coffee industrialists and other fans of this whole history of coffee in Japan in the Lakeview Cemetery in Seattle.

So, there’s quite a funny circular connection between America and Japan’s coffee shops, but that social space went on to flourish even if Tei Eikei’s Kahi Kan did not, although there is, on the very site of his old coffee shop, a monument to him with a very old photograph etched into it commemorating Japan’s first real coffee shop.

TG: You mentioned that there are multiple waves of coffee shops, and this older style of coffee shop, the kissaten kind of coffee shop. Even though it’s called a “teahouse,” it serves coffee. Kahi Kan, I think, is still around at least as the name of a coffee shop. But could you talk about what are these three waves of coffee in Japan?

MW: Well, the idea of the three waves is not a Japanese idea. It was created by a woman, a coffee expert named Trish Rothgeb, an American. Trish decided there have been these very marked stages in connoisseurship or just the plain consumption of coffee, especially in America.

And so, the first, of course, is the old “boil the beans, Sam, keep it in an urn all day,” you know, not particularly very thoughtful or obsessive, we would now say. But this is what you have. You just have coffee. You don’t think about it. It’s like an invisible thing that just re-appears. The slightly more conscious stages were really about the same time that instant coffee became popular in the ‘50s at the same time that people were really burying the idea of subtlety in taste that there was also a move to think about this. Let’s use something that was called the Chemex with the paper filters, which is what you did if you did not want to drink instant coffee and a way to you could show your newly developed connoisseurship. But you were still using coffee out of vacuum cans like Maxwell House or other coffees, so the coffee itself hadn’t changed, but there was the interest in the fresh coffee, the coffee from real coffee grounds.

Some people had begun to roast coffee at home, which was usually a disaster, but then came along idea of origin, and this is where you get the third wave, which is thinking about where the beans come from, in a sense, their terroir. This is where Starbucks had a big initiative in giving us names for points of origin, an image of some tropical territory. First of all, the acknowledgement that coffee was from somewhere else, and coffee has to grow within 25 degrees north and south of the equator, and mostly, it is drunk in countries that do not produce it. Brazil is the big exception. Brazil is a high consuming and producing country.

So, you get these people now thinking: Oh, this is an adventure. This is a geographical pursuit, drinking coffee. And being able to order a coffee from Ethiopia and say: “I want the yirgacheffe,” and that idea of  geographical knowledge came into the third wave of coffee. The 3.5 wave (which Trish Rothgen did not call it, but other people were) is the effect, actually, of Japan. Specialty coffeehouses all over the world (and I mean Australia, London and even Paris, where you never thought they’d care that much about the coffee itself, only the café), use Japanese coffee technologies (the Kalita Company and the Hario Company, as I said before). There are places where the pour-over or hand-pour coffee, which is, I would say, the most developed Japanese coffee style and very particular to Japan, is used often without actually realizing it is Japanese because it has become so assimilated everywhere in the world. But if you go to an old school coffee shop in Japan (and by “old school,” I mean 1930s to the early postwar years), you won’t find espresso. That’s because that is seen as too technological, too not handmade, whereas a hand-pour is about the hand, and a skill that cannot be exhibited through a Marzocco machine, for example.

TG: You know, there is this transplanting of this third wave idea. Maybe we could say three generations of coffee shops in Japan too. You have these older kissaten. There’s one in northern Shibuya, where you’re not even allowed to talk. You come in, you read your book, you drink your coffee, and you don’t have any conversations, and they’ll actually tell you to be quiet. Then we have the second wave of these stores: Starbucks, Detour, Excelsior. And now maybe a hipster third wave, where it’s more the artisanal cafés?

MW: I think that what’s happening now is about a single person, the barista (who would be called the the masutā), or the master’s own passion for coffee. That personal expression, which was also in many kissaten, where the man behind the counter gives the flavour, gives the literal flavour to the coffee and the establishment. I think now, though, that is usually a much younger person, somebody who did not want to follow in his (usually “his”) father’s salaryman footsteps, but wanted to do something very creative and very personal instead of becoming a faceless cog in a corporate workplace.

I think now, you’re seeing the artisanal, as you say, coffee, the tezukuri (handmade coffee), but it’s also going in a new direction to, in fact, the espresso. There’s one coffee shop that really epitomizes both the personal and the machine, and that is Bear Pond in Shimokitazawa in Tokyo. There is this one man who will make your espresso shot, and then take maybe 15 minutes between shots to take apart the machine, steam-clean it, rethread all the screws, and put it back together again before he will make the second shot. He maybe can make 20 shots a day because of this painstaking approach. That, he says, makes this espresso machine into an extension of his hand and thus, it is handmade. But obviously, the chain stores use espresso machines in a much more efficient way, less artisanally.

So, you get a range of things happening. You also get a certain amount of nostalgia for the old kissaten: the brown or sepia coloured café, where one man, again, will express the feeling of the café, where you are mostly silent unless you’re chatting with the barman himself, and you’re certainly not bringing in a laptop. You do not find laptops in the specialty coffeehouses in Japan. You’re not encouraged to sit forever with a laptop. You certainly could sit forever with a newspaper or even those thick, heavy weekly manga books, but the idea of a laptop is anathema to many of these older places and the new speciality connoisseur coffee shops.

TG: When I was in Japan as a dissertation student and just wanted to go there regularly, of course, I spent a lot of time in coffee shops. You could really learn some interesting observations about Japanese society through the coffee shops. So I’m curious, for you as an anthropologist writing about coffee in Japan, what are some of those observations you’ve made? Or what is the view of Japanese society you get from the coffee shop?

MW: I think regarding the question of what you see from the seat of a café about a country, you, of course, have to keep modifying your view by testing it against other information. But yes, when I, like you, first went to Japan, which was in 1963 (much before you actually), I realized that the Japan I was seeing that year was rapidly changing, and the coffee shop was a testing ground, then, for new ideas much as it had been in Meiji and Taishō.

We were still in the postwar in 1963, and novelties were coming to Japan through coffeehouses as they had been before. For instance, gallery art was being displayed in coffeehouses that wouldn’t have been seen yet in museums. So, I was looking at an avant-garde Japan in 1963 through the coffeehouse. The other thing I was beginning to notice by the ‘70s (when I came back to do field work) was that responding to the new middle class of Japan that was employed in large corporations that had developed the salaryman culture (that we all read about in Ezra Vogel’s new middle class book), the idea of a space that would be antidote or timeout or respite from the pressures of corporate life imbued the coffeehouse of the ‘70s. So in responding to society’s needs, the coffeehouses kept changing.

Also, by the 1990s, you saw the coffeehouse reflecting a new kind of employment pattern. For example, you saw furītā (freelance workers or part-time workers) using coffeehouses as little offices, not with laptops, but using all kinds of spaces to do some writing, some reading. They were places where people who didn’t have an office could go. Women were using coffeehouses for all kinds of reasons too in ways that reflected their changing status and changing employment patterns.

But some interesting things kept happening. In Japan, it’s terribly important to be on time to a meeting, and a coffeehouse represented a place for time management. So by the early 2000s, I was noticing people trying to get to a meeting on time by using a coffeehouse as a time gauge place; you came early, had 15-20 minutes to spend so that you would arrive cool and calm and collected at the meeting without looking like you just rushed from the train by staying in a coffee shop nearby. And there were, of course, three or four coffee shops on every block, so there was never a gap that couldn’t be filled by a coffeehouse.

TG: You were talking about Bear Pond Espresso, and the obsessive detail you could say, almost, that this barista goes into preparing each cup coffee. And there’s this specialization of coffee in Japan, where if you want a nel drip, you can go to this café, if you want a siphon drip, you can go to this café, if you want Chemex, whatever. But these styles have fallen out of fashion elsewhere. Why do you think it is that they’re still so popular in Japan?

MW: It’s very interesting to see the diversity of styles of coffee in Japan because they each reflect a specific market. Older people might remember their youth by going to a siphon coffee shop, but siphon is interesting to young people too who may not always just want to go to a Starbucks. So, there’s a whole bunch of different factors in the choice, but what I think is important is the capacity to have a choice in what kind of coffee you have.

One day, you might want a can of coffee from a jidōhan baiki (from a vending machine on the station platform) because you’re on your way somewhere and it’s hot, you want a cold coffee. The same person, though, might later that day go to a specialty coffeehouse to have the most amazing and very expensive hand-pour coffee. So you have your choices of kinds of coffee to have, and I think that enlivens the life of a coffee connoisseur, and you might also be drinking instant coffee at home (the very same person).

But I think that the idea of the old style coffeehouse might have a nostalgic ring for the older people, and where (by the way) many older people congregate because the aging population in Japan is looking for spaces of sociality too. These old kissaten are the object of borrowed nostalgia for young people as well, so young people go to them and reflect on the past and have a quiet moment that isn’t always geared to their smartphone.

TG: I was wondering, we talked about Bear Pond, and maybe we shouldn’t advertise too much, but do you have particular stores that you like in Japan? And maybe rather than individual names, when you go to a coffee shop, what is it that you’re looking for? What is it that you enjoy in these coffee shops?

MW: For me, the choice of a coffee shop on a given day, and often I got to three or four a day (I sound so committed to this), is dependent on where I am, what my mood is, whether there’s a particular coffee master I want to talk to. And so, for example, there are a rising number of young couples in Japan opening coffee shops as a kind of dream occupation where they can work together. It’s almost a romantic fantasy, but it works. I know several of these in Tokyo and Kyoto where I’ve frequented.

They have a lovely mood, and sometimes, I’ll go to a coffee shop because I really don’t want to talk to anybody. So in that case, I’m going to choose a coffee shop that I don’t frequent, where I’m not known, and Japanese people do that as well. Having a variety of places, those coffee shops that are holes in the wall, where nobody knows your name instead of where everybody knows your name are also valuable locations. I think that the use of coffeehouses for many different purposes by the same person is a key to the success of a variety of coffee shops.

TG: And I totally understand what you mean about having a series of them to go to depending on your mood. So often, in previous years, it was depending on whether you wanted to smell like smoke for the rest of the day too. But it seems like now in Tokyo, those are starting to disappear (where you can actually smoke in the coffee shop).

MW: (Laughter) Well, I have been going to coffee shops so long in Japan that the smell of cigarettes in coffee shops is almost nostalgic for me, though I don’t smoke myself. And so, one Japanese gentleman said to me: “I miss the old coffee shop that smelled of stale cigarettes and smelly socks.”

TG: (Laughter)

MW: You know, on a wet day, people take off their shoes and their socks smell. There is something about the smoking in coffee shops that also said to me “sophistication” in the early ‘60s because I was quite young, and smoking seemed to be sophisticated. But now, I think that the use of coffee shops by increasing numbers of women of all ages among whom smoking is not so popular, and the use of coffee shops by many people who just don’t smoke means that’s an important reason to go to a place if it doesn’t have smoking.

The use of the nostalgia factor doesn’t always include cigarettes. It also includes music, and the music that’s played in cafés was very important from the Taishō period on, when both recordings of classical music and jazz music were calling cards for coffeehouse connoisseurs. So, I think that’s another aspect to the café that might seem nostalgic to some people, but is an active presence for many people.

TG: And I’m a total convert to the Hario Pour Over. I ground my beans this morning with a Hario Conical Burr grinder, poured it into the Hario V60 Pour Over, using a Hario thing. I even make a Hario cold brew.

MW: (Laughter)

TG: One of the things that I picked up from being in Japan for so long with just coffee, and when I was living in the Shinagawa area up in Takanawadai, there’s a coffee roaster named Sai. It’s just a green bean store where you walk and you pick out the green beans, and you roast them.

MW: And you come back.

TG: Yes, exactly.

MW: There’s one in Yanaka that I go to a lot, and there’s several in Kyoto. This idea of personalizing your choice is what that’s about too. You’re not just taking something and running. You’re making a considered choice, which I think people enjoy too.

TG: And a friend of mine even runs a coffee shop in Japan called Paddlers. I should put a shout-out to him.

MW: Oh yes.

TG: (Laughter) What’s the most you’ve ever paid for a coffee in Tokyo?

MW: About 2200 yen.

TG: Oh wow. 2200…that’s (laughter)

MW: Yes.

TG: Was this a Jamaican Blue Mountain?

MW: No, it was at a  place in Shinjuku called Ban, and it’s one of those places where you choose a fancy cup. You don’t take the cup home with you, of course, and it was ridiculously expensive. It’s not a place I go back to much.

TG: I had one. So in Gotanda, there’s a place down in the basement that does a nel drip coffee, which you really don’t see around too much anymore.

MW: Oh yes you do in Kyoto. The flannel bag, yes.

TG: Okay. I picked out an Ethiopian, but it was aged.

MW: Wait, you’re not talking about Café Doranburu, are you? Because they do that at Doranburu, but that’s in Shinbashi.

TG: Okay. No, this was in Gotanda, but I never had aged coffee before.

MW: Well, the guy who started that is named Sekiguchi. He is 105 this year, and he owns this very very old coffee shop called De L’ambre or Doranburu, and it’s very very very famous. He ages beans. You can’t age roasted beans. You can only age green beans.

TG: I see.

MW: But he will accept a phone call the day before, and you say you want a Yemen ‘93 (1993), and he will roast the amount you will need for the coffee you’re going to come and drink the next day.

TG: (Laughter)

MW: Because if you drink coffee right out of the roaster, it needs 24 hours at least.

TG: Right.

MW: And then he makes it in the nel bag only. So this guy, your Gotanda person, might have trained with Sekiguchi.

TG: I can’t let you go until you tell us about your own coffee preparation techniques.

MW: (Laughter)

TG: What do you use? Don’t tell us that you use instant freezer dried crystals or something.

MW: (Laughter) No. I only use a V60, and I use a Burr grinder. I mean, this is only when I’m at home of course, but actually at my office at the university, I have a Burr grinder. I can’t control the temperature of the water very well, but I have a V60 there as well, and I only grind the coffee after the boiling has turned off. So, I’m really stupidly fussy.

TG: (Laughter)

MW: And I’ve think I just made myself ridiculous, but I do a pour-over. I do have one of those pinch spout Hario pouring kettles.

TG: Right.

MW: It’s crazy, and I get beans from local roasters who are my friends, and I drink coffee out a lot. Maybe once or twice a day here, I go to coffee shops, but only if the teaching schedule permits it. But my first cup of coffee, it better be good.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode: 

Merry White, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, October 5, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-66-dr-merry-white-boston/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.