Coffee, coffee, coffee! The kick-starter fuel that many of us consume every waking moment. For some, like us Pacific Northwest dwellers, coffee is pretty much a religion. We aren’t alone, of course. Many parts of the world enjoy and make a living off of this pleasing beverage. But how many coffee beans need to sacrifice their lives in order to appease us, their drowsy, crabby, overlords? Turns out that number comes out to nearly 2.5 billions cups of joe, per day. That’s about 40% of the world population, assuming that only one person drinks one cup (like that’d happen)! To further put it into perspective, coffee is the 2nd most traded commodity in the world, putting it right behind crude oil. The industry itself is valued to be 70 billion dollars. So where does Japan fit in all of this?
Coffee And Japan
Japan only ranks as the 39th largest consumption per capita for coffee, tallying in at 3.2 kg per individual. However, they are the 3rd largest importer of coffee, sitting behind the United States (1st) with 4.23 kg per capita and Germany (2nd) with 6.93 kg per capita.1,2 Working out the numbers, Japan imports over 440,000 tonnes of coffee annually.3 This means they import about 7% of the world’s annual coffee exports.4 So what is a country where tea is the more common mainstay brew doing with a product that is common in the West and Near East? Is it to fill all those coffee bean sniffing cups for all of their insane department stores’ fragrance floors? Nope. Like a KFC Christmas, it is the result of fifty years of clever marketing and Western influence that helped coffee become the go-to-brew for the Japanese.
Brief History of Coffee in Japan
Nothing like a refreshing, cold bottle of coffee before battle.
Like so many Asiatic nations, Japan’s first introduction to coffee occurred in the 1800s via Dutch trade ships. However, coffee didn’t start booming until the 1960s. Shortly after the import suspension ended in 1949, coffee started to trickle itself back into the Japanese market. As noted earlier, Japan imports more than 440,000 tonnes of coffee annually. Back in 1960, the yearly import was 15,000 tonnes.5 Quite a huge difference, wouldn’t you say? A 3,000% increase in only 50 years.
Interesting there wasn’t much of a drop after the 1990s bubble.6
What is responsible for the coffee boom? It’s a combination of many things, but it can be boiled down to Japanese interest in everything Western (especially after World War II), and large investments in marketing and R&D.
The first breakthrough for coffee came in 1965, when Japan released the world’s first かんコーヒー (canned coffee) called Mira Coffee. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much of a success as the hype cooled down(!) shortly after. Four years later, UCC Ueshima Coffee Co., who is often credited for pioneering canned coffee, released their product to the masses and the rest is history.
Although the concept of canned coffee was a success, it alone was not responsible for the bean’s early success. In 1973, the hot and cold beverage vending machine was introduced in Japan. Coupled with the 100 yen coin that began circulation in 1967, vending machines and subsequently canned coffee became a huge hit. Ready-to-drink (RTD) products were just part of the equation for the rise of coffee.
On a different part of the spectrum, Japanese coffee houses and chains also began to emerge in great numbers. Doutor Coffee chain opened their first store in 1980 and established the coffee culture in Japan. Recovering from World War II, the Japanese spent great lengths to recover their economy. With their perseverance and hard work attitude, grabbing a meal and drink on the go for the long commute to work or the late-night working sessions was becoming a more common sight. Doutor Coffee anticipated this. In response, they modeled their business for the on-the-go working Japanese. This has been a successful model that many associated with coffee until the mid 1990s, when Starbucks entered the marketplace with their friendly, casual “third place” model.
Coffee Products in Japan Today
Can you spot the famous Starbucks located in Shibuya?
The Japanese Coffee market is a very competitive, saturated market. A few of the popular Japanese canned coffee brands are Boss (produced by Suntory), Georgia (produced by Coca-Cola), Nescafe (produced by Nestlé), and Roots (produced by Japan Tobacco). Quite a diverse group of producers we have here, wouldn’t you say? Liquor, soft drink, food, and cigarette companies all making canned coffee. Some of the aforementioned popular coffee shops are Doutor and Starbucks. Starbucks entered the Japanese canned coffee market in 2005, partnering up with Boss’ producer, Suntory. Fast food joints are also joining the fray. McDonalds, not wanting to be left out, launched their own chain of coffee store fronts, McCafés, across Japan a few years back.
As with anything Japanese, coffee isn’t exempt from their weirdly fascinating marketing. Take for example Boss coffee. In 2006, the company hired Tommy Lee Jones to be their spokesman. Since then, he has appeared in many commercials as character “Alien Jones” who was sent to Earth to examine the human society. Roots Coffee also has their own celebrity spokespersons (Ewan MacGregor and Brad Pitt), however they aren’t on the same level as Tommy Lee Jones. Here are a couple commercials for your viewing pleasure:
Who watched all seven and a half minutes of these BOSS commercials? *Raises hand*
So, what Japanese coffee brands do you prefer? I don’t think I really have a preference, but I think the BOSS ads have affected me. Tommy Lee Jones coffee all the way, baby.
1 Takada, Aya (February 4 2003). “Japan brews record coffee demand, more growth seen”. Reuter News.
2 ”Resource Consumption: Coffee consumption per capita“. World Resource Institute. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
3 ”Imports By Selected Importing Countries From All Sources: August 2011“. International Coffee Organization. Retrieved November 31, 2011.
4 ”Medium-term prospects for agricultural commodities: Coffee“. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved November 30, 2011.
5 Lewis, Leo (November 23 2010). “Coffee at heart of a new cultural revolution”. The Times. London.
6 ”Resource Consumption: Coffee consumption per capita“. World Resource Institute. Retrieved November 30, 2011.