COFFEE LIFE IN JAPAN, by Merry White. University of California Press, 2012, 240 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

Those of us interested in coffee, life and Japan will open Merry White’s “Coffee Life in Japan” with high expectations. For most readers, alas, these expectations will be only partially fulfilled.

White is an anthropologist, but one would be hard-pressed to guess her profession from this text. There’s a barely perceptible nod to the methodology of Ian Condry in his “Hip-Hop Japan,” and some throat-clearing justification of her approach — one that yields, she admits, “a questionable set of data for the more scientific anthropologist” — but that’s about the extent of it.

“Coffee Life in Japan” has more in common with that spate of books popular a few years ago where an author picked a popular foodstuff — cod, salt, spam, whatever — and then produced a book in which every fact he or she could dig up about that foodstuff was, in more or less entertaining fashion, and with some firsthand reportage thrown in — a behind-the-scenes look at a spam farm in Slovenia! — retailed.

Like those books, White’s contains interesting tidbits of knowledge about its subject. Who knew for example, that the world’s oldest chain of coffee shops, Cafe Paulista, is not from Washington State, but from Japan, or how important Brazil was in making Japan — today the third largest coffee-consuming country in the world — the coffee mecca that it is?

As interesting as the tidbits is White’s analysis of what is going on in Japanese cafes. She is certainly right when she says that: “From the beginning, the Japanese cafe was more than a cup of coffee and a coffee-maker. It has always been something more than the drink on offer.”

“Third spaces” such as cafes, as Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, has reminded us in recent years, are an important part of urban life. In Japan, as elsewhere, as work ceased to be something that was done at home, among family and neighbors, and happened instead at a location to which one commuted, intermediate spaces such as cafes that were neither home nor work, became necessary. Cafes, then, are both a product of modernity and, through the space they provide for new ideas to develop, a driver of modernity.

The definition of “modern” or, in the Japanese manner, modan, is relative to the moment in which one finds oneself. It is a concept whose meaning is flexible, and one thing that accounts for the popularity of cafes, White argues, is precisely that they, too, are flexible: They evolve.

Thus the first cafe, the Kahiichakan, which opened in 1888, was, White tells us, supposed to be English style and filled with “masculine amenities.” Other cafes, at a time when “modern” was synonymous with “Western,” evoked Vienna or Paris.

Later, as modernity became a part of Japanese life rather than something necessarily foreign, they were the hangouts of the modern girls and boys, moga and mobo — the hipsters of their day.

Later still, other cafes appeared suited to the needs of different (though often overlapping) clienteles: artists, intellectuals, housewives, businessmen, activists, students, and so on. The information is scattered among chapters, so one has to do a bit of work to put it together, but White is good on both the history of cafes in Japan and in her taxonomy of the types of cafe that have existed and continue to exist in Japanese cities.

The problem with “Coffee Life in Japan” is that White doesn’t really give us a book’s worth of observations and insights: One can’t help but suspect that the repetitions that litter the book are an attempt to bulk it up. It’s not that her insights are banal or untrue, but that so often we’ve heard them before, from White herself, 20, 30 or 70 pages earlier — or worse, 20, 30 and 70 pages earlier.

Further, it is often difficult to pin down the argument that the observations and insights she provides are meant to illustrate and support. Indeed, this seems a book driven less by a desire to impart a thesis than by a love of hanging out in coffee shops. One wouldn’t want any less of the latter, but the book could do with a bit more of the former.

One unstated argument of the book, though, comes through crystal clear: Spending time in a good independent cafe is one of the great pleasures a city has to offer. The “unreliable guide” to selected cafes in Tokyo and Kyoto that closes the book will assist readers in doing just that.


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