JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Merry White on ‘Kissaten: Japanese Cafes Past and Present’

"Japanese coffee standards are the highest—when there is a new varietal on the market, it is often sent to Japan for testing. If a bean can make it in Japan, it can make it anywhere. The quality tasters are very keen, and there are fewer defective beans permitted than anywhere in the world." (Courtesy of Merry White)

“Japanese coffee standards are the highest—when there is a new varietal on the market, it is often sent to Japan for testing. If a bean can make it in Japan, it can make it anywhere. The quality tasters are very keen, and there are fewer defective beans permitted than anywhere in the world.” (Courtesy of Merry White)

Brewing Up Something at Japan Society

By Alexis Agliano Sanborn (Shimane-ken, 2009-11) for JQ magazine. Alexis is a graduate of Harvard University’s Regional Studies-East Asia (RSEA) program, and currently works as an executive associate at Asia Society in New York City.

When it comes to notable food and drink of Japan, for many “coffee” is not the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, on May 21, Merry (Corky) White, Professor of Anthropology at Boston University, will teach audiences at Japan Society in New York City just how robust their coffee culture is, and how exacting their measurements are. Get ready for something good at Kissaten: Japanese Cafes, Past and Present.

White’s no newbie to food and Japan—it’s been much of the foundation of her professional work. If you look her up on Amazon, you’ll see that she’s been publishing food-related books since the mid-1970s, and regularly offers contributions to publications the world over. Definitely a foodie—and someone who knows her stuff. When not researching coffee and cafes, she’s active teaching about Japanese society, women in Asia, food and culture, and the anthropology of travel and tourism. Check her out on Twitter, where she regularly posts food- and culture-related content.

To whet your appetite for this program, JQ recently caught up with White to learn more about the coffee world in Japan, and what we can expect to hear from this rich presentation.

At your lecture at Japan Society, what do you hope to teach the audience about Japanese coffee culture?

I hope to surprise at least a few people, who may not yet know that Japanese coffee is a well-rooted, well-developed cultural product with a deep history. The coffee experience is also about cafes, koohii hausu, and kissaten, places with a special meaning that have developed over time in Japan. These places have offered people various distinctive experiences, depending on the era. The first ones, in the Meiji period (1868-1912), gave people a window on Europe, decor, clothing, foods—which continued into the Taisho period (1912-1926)  when the flappers and lounge lizards demonstrated a new modernity, and the urban cultures were changing to, for example, give women a place in public, too. It was fine for a young woman of good family in the daytime, anyway, to go to a cafe, though probably she might have a chaperone…

Can you describe an iconic Japanese-style kissaten?

Courtesy of Merry White

Courtesy of Merry White

Kissaten are now places of memory, as well as ordinary community life. Brown kissa are the “sepia-toned” places where especially middle-aged people (I would say over 60s) like to go for a nice place to sit and get good service and maybe see friends. Young people like them, too, as they often share a love of the past (one they wouldn’t have had themselves) as a retro experience. Kissaten, though, also have more contemporary styles.

Personally, many of the kissaten I have visited in Japan have an atmosphere steeped in the 1960s and 1970s. Am I just imagining things? What, in your opinion, was the golden age for coffee and kissaten culture?

There might have been a peak time for cafe/kissaten construction, but there’s no slacking off in the use of these places which are in everyone’s life. Not just young people [visit kissaten]. Business people, male and female, use them for meetings, for catching a breath between assignments, [and] for gauging the time exactly before they show up at a meeting. As one said, “Isn’t it great to have a place to do nothing at all?” A lot of people say that the best use of these spaces is not social, but personal. One said, here we can be “private in public.” This is a rare commodity in Japan, privacy.

What’s the difference between some place like Starbucks versus kissaten?

Starbucks is seen as anonymous, faceless, and standardized. People think their beans are “burnt”—too dark and hiding something by being over-roasted. The sweet “coffee desserts,” as they are called in Japan—things like Caramel Macchiato, etc.—are liked by high school girls, but not liked by coffee-wise people.

In a Boston University article, you state that the Japanese have the highest coffee standards in the world. This is quite a bold statement! How do they compare to the Italian or French standards, two other countries and cultures which enjoy a good cup?

Yes, Japanese coffee standards are the highest—when there is a new varietal on the market, it is often sent to Japan for testing. If a bean can make it in Japan, it can make it anywhere. The quality tasters are very keen, and there are fewer defective beans permitted than anywhere in the world. Everyone knows French cafes—they are iconic. But the coffee has always been poor. You go to the cafe to see and be seen, to watch the scene. Now, however, specialty Japan-type coffees are in Paris, but in specialty coffee shops, not in the iconic cafes like Telescope, or Cafeologie, where, yes, they use Japanese coffee equipment made by companies like Hario or Kalita.

What is your favorite(s) kissaten in Japan? Do you have one in the U.S.?

My own favorite barista in the U.S. is Judson Macrae, who knows Japanese coffee and visits Japan to learn more. My favorite cafes are many and some are about the coffee and some about the ambience. Coffee? I really like Dwelltime in Cambridge. I like Everyman, Ninth Street, Blue Bottle, Grumpy, and so many more in New York City. Blue Bottle helped introduce Japanese coffee styles on the West Coast and is now in New York City. And in Tokyo!

The big news in Boston is a new Japanese cafe, part of the Ogawa Coffee enterprise in Kyoto. Ogawa promises to be a big hit, serving beautiful lattes—they did a book on latte art, and their star, Haruna Murayama, is a really talented woman.

In major cities across the United States, a Korean coffee chain called Caffe Bene has begun to open up. Do the Koreans have a similar history of cafe culture? Have the Japanese lost an opportunity to create a uniquely Asian rival to places like Starbucks/Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf?

I’ve been to Caffe Bene, and it’s very cheerful—and very “young.” Lots and lots of Korean students go there, and it seems to be mostly a social gathering place with many sweet drinks and sweet pastries, including a riff on Japanese shokupan toast, which is called “brick toast” served with syrup and tons of whipped cream. While fun, and good for a date, it’s not a place to go for serious coffee; no contest for Japanese coffee there. There is very good coffee now in Korea, however. The Japan influence on Korea brought it there, not Starbucks. And it’s not very old—maybe thirty years. (Just a note: Japanese kissa or cafes or koohii hausu do not serve green tea, ever. They may serve European-style “black” teas. )

In Japan, there are manga kissaten, maid kissaten, cat cafes, and more. How did these types of themed, or specialty, kissaten develop? What do you see as their future worldwide? For example, in the U.S. maid and cat cafes are popping up in major cities.

Cat cafes. Very young, again, and certainly not about coffee. Still, businessmen and young women go to pat the cats. It’s kind of recreational. Manga cafes are also not about coffee; they’re kind of retro now as more people just use their phones, but older men use them nostalgically, too. Maid cafes have become rather touristy and are one of those relatively short-term fads. Again, not about coffee. Not about sex either, in case anyone wonders—it’s about “cute.” And they resemble Hello Kitty more than they resemble “French maids.”

Kissaten: Japanese Cafes, Past and Present will be held at Japan Society in New York, 333 East 47th Street, on May 21 at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $16, $12 Japan Society members, seniors and students. For more information, click here.

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