Saturday, May 27, 2017

Coffee Etiquette in Japan

“That’s for the sugar... The handle starts on the left so the customer can hold the cup steady with the left hand while stirring in sugar with the right. Once that’s done, the customer turns the handle clockwise, around the top, so the handle is easy to pick up with the right hand. That’s how we taught customers to drink their coffee.” — Japan coffee shop owner, Yasumi Yamabe

Coffee was hardly an everyday drink when Yasumi Yamabe started his career in the early postwar years. “Oh, coffee was still very much a luxury item then,” he confirmed. “A cup would set you back ¥50 when a portion of oden (stewed foods) or oshiruko (sweet red-bean soup) cost only ¥5. Most people weren’t familiar with coffee, so we had to educate them. Almost everyone in those days took their coffee with cream and sugar.”

No one knows exactly when coffee was introduced to Japan, but the first beans were probably brought in by 17th-century Dutch traders for their own use at their trading post at Dejima, near Nagasaki. Contact with foreigners was strictly limited, so if any Japanese were able to sample their coffee, it would have only been the few merchants, translators and prostitutes allowed to visit Dejima. 


The oldest known account of a Japanese drinking coffee was written in 1804, in which a man named Shokusanjin Ota described boarding a foreign ship and being served a drink called “kauhii.” It tasted quite unpleasant, he said, and was made by mixing sugar into water with a powder of roasted beans.

Formal imports of coffee began in 1858, and the first Japanese coffeehouse of record, the Kahiichakan in Tokyo, is said to have opened in 1888. Drinking coffee became fashionable among the intelligentsia and the upper middle class, but remained something of a rarity. 


Imports were halted in 1944, during the war, as coffee was branded both a zeitakuhin (extravagance) and a tekikoku inryō(enemy drink). It wasn’t until after the war, and the liberalization of imports in 1960, that Japan got on its way to becoming a major coffee-drinking nation. Today Japan is the third largest importer of coffee, after the United States and Germany.

At the All Japan Coffee Association, executive director Toyohide Nishino responded to the question of why the spoons are placed where they are when coffee is served in Japan.
 “Very often the inquiry comes from the executive offices of a large company, with the caller saying something like, ‘Our chairman is particular about manners and wants to make sure we’re doing it right.’ But actually there is no single accepted way to serve coffee in Japan.”

Even in the coffee industry, companies serve guests differently. Visitors to UCC (Ueshima Coffee Co., Ltd.) headquarters in Kobe get their coffee with the handle on the left, while at Key Coffee, in Tokyo, the handle is on the right.

Some hypothesise​ about the tea ceremony, in which the cup is placed so its front, or decorated side, faces the guest so its beauty may be enjoyed. The guest, in turn, expresses humility by turning the cup before drinking so as not to place one’s lips on the most beautiful part of the vessel. Nishino found the idea interesting, but concurred with Yamabe that having the handle on the left is for convenience when adding sugar. He noted that coffee shops used to offer kakuzatō (sugar cubes), which take more effort to stir into coffee than today’s standard of granulated sugar.

The oldest reference found was in a 1922 book titled “Seiyo-ryori no Tadashii Tabekata” (“The Correct Way to Eat Western Food”). In somewhat archaic language, Kaneko Tezuka, who was a professor at Japan Women’s University, wrote that when coffee is offered after a meal it should be served in small chawan (cups) with the totte (handle) turned to the left and the saji (spoon) placed in front. Unfortunately, Tezuka didn’t offer a reason for this placement, nor did she speak to its origins.

In any case, the orientation of the coffee-cup handle may well become moot as tastes and consumption patterns change. Today, taking coffee burakku (“black,” without milk or sugar) is the most common preference, practiced by 38.3% of Japanese coffee drinkers. In addition, there is a clear shift away from genteel service and toward take-out, with convenience stores grabbing a growing share of the coffee market. Seven-Eleven, which offers self-serve coffee for just ¥100, expects to sell a whopping 700 million cups this fiscal year — and in disposable cups with no handle at all. — From the Japan Times, 2013