Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Book Review: Coffee Life in Japan

There are people who like to read cultural anthropological studies about specific niche areas and I am one of them. These books intrigue, especially when you are part of the phenomenon they are describing. In this case, I am not Japanese nor a Japanese cafe goer. However, I am an ardent fan of coffee and have studied some Japanese history. The throw away part of the phrase about being a subject refers to reading a bunch of studies on cyberpunk and other subcultures in the 90's while being on the edge of some of these cultures. Sometimes, they got it right and other times, the nuances of meaning were lost while the researcher tried to boil down multiple experiences into something wrought with academic meaning. Sometimes, it just doesn't work.

It was good that I had some passing familiarity because there are some unexplained terms and some descriptions of Japanese everyday objects and concepts that may challenge someone with no background. I am getting too far into the criticism without covering the basics. The book is, of course, Coffee Life in Japan by Merry White. It is a cultural history of cafes in Japan.

Japan opened their first cafe in 1888. They are the third largest coffee consumers in the world. They bring a special approach to the brewing of the beverage. There is a concept of craftmanship called kodawari which the author notes definitions of obsession, fastidiousness, disciplined dedication of a personal passion to pursue something. Based on her observations, it kind of like a nerdy hackerness where repetition to get something perfect for the sake of perfection and the craft. It feels like a deep curiosity. The kodawari  lives in the thing that is being crafted. It is like a elegant hack or a beautiful piece of code.

There are very few shops that sell espresso drinks, favouring the more delicate preparations of pour-overs, siphons and sumiyaki (charcoal roasted coffee). Some of the shops, the masters are referred to as coffeemaniakku. The other great Japanese word that floated through this book was koohii meaning coffee.

Another theme was how coffee places social places had changed over the years to evolve into a place where you go to not have the pressures of the outside; in a cafe you are not mother, daughter, employee, boss. This is a place of no obligations rather than a liminal place that the cafe serves in American culture. Japanese cafes are not for waiting or being something (no posing in the corner with your laptop as a famous writer or having loud conversations showing your erudition) but rather for being free of all social obligations.

I am not doing the coverage justice.

I wonder if it would be possible to take that most Japanese of ideas and translate into a North American location like Toronto. Toronto cafe culture often feels forced. When I moved here around thirteen years ago, the only cafes worth visiting were few and far between. There was so much emphasis placed on the commercial aspects and not as much on the social reasons for the cafe. That has been evolving and now there is a type of independent cafe that rewards visitors with both an atmosphere and a good cup of coffee.

After all that, if you are interested in the role of cafes in society, this might be a good book to read. Sure, it is a foreign culture but it is often when we take a look at someone else that we can start to see our similarities and differences.

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