Japanese Coffee: How It Became So Popular

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:

[yframe url='http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWYtrF1z5mc']

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.

P.S. Want your daily dose of caffeine tweeted at you? You should follow us on Twitter.
P.P.S. More of a tea person? Perhaps Facebook or Google+ will meet your fancy.


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.


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  • http://twitter.com/BlueKutsu Paul

    I’d be interested to know why in Japan “American coffee” seems to mean “weak coffee.”

  • Atty

    I would assume it has something in common with Japanese spicy vs American spicy.

    What is considered mild in Japan is considered fairly spicy in America, to my experience at least.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    I came for the Tommy Lee Jones commercials, I stayed for the most well-cited post in Tofugu’s history.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    oh lolol

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I have no idea – all coffee tastes strong to me :(

    I wonder if that’s from all the instant coffee we do here, which I feel is kind of watery (I’m guessing, no idea?).

    But yeah, I’m no coffee person, so I’m just making things up right now.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    yeah, we big weaklings here when it comes to spice :(

  • John

    When we were in Japan everything labeled “spicy” was not even remotely spicy. At least in the kansai area anyway. So who knows! Maybe it just varies by region/place to place. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  • riuros

    American coffee is said to be rather weak in Germany, too, although we don’t call the weak coffee “American”..

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    I found Japan’s “spicy” was fairly mild… Except GoGoCurry’s “Dragon” level spicy curry. :(

  • Nic

    American and Japanese coffee seems to be largely alike – percolated black stuff which sits in pots for extended periods of time. Coffee chains aren’t much better.

    In Tokyo the best coffee I had was strangely enough at a cat cafe…

  • Menu Maker

    Same thing in Portugal. Actually, when Starbucks first arrived here it was not  successful because of this, it only carried the variety seen in USA (i know, been to NY), which was not as strong as the one we usually consume. Took them some time to realize but they adapted.   

  • http://www.meow.fr Meow • Japan & Urbex

    I buy Georgia cans everyday. Why? The can (I have a Zeitaku Expresso on my desk now) looks really nice. I guess it makes the coffee tastes better? Athough in reality, I don’t think any of them taste really good. It’s simply that they’re super convenient, desirable and… super hot (or cold!). Depending on the weather, it’s always a real treat. They make me love Japan even more :)

  • Kwok Leuih

    Nice post, Viet.

    But waitaminit. Didn’t lots of Japanese go to Brazil to help harvest coffee at the beginning of the last century? Surely that played some role in introducing the brew to Japan?

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    ooh yeah, interesting point. I wonder too!

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    I’m just making an educated reasoning here, but I don’t think the Japanese immigrants contributed much directly introducing coffee to Japan. Many of the Japanese immigrants ended up staying in Brazil for many reasons, one being poor pay and ending up indebt to the point where they couldn’t return to Japan and possibly share the coffee culture. The only contribution would be farming the product. I’ve tried looking up Brazil export data in the early 1900s, but sadly couldn’t find any for Japan. Their coffee imports were so low at the time, so I’m not surprise a lot of literature don’t list Japan in any of their data.

  • hira

    Those commercials were awesome!

  • http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com Ἀντισθένης
  • http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com Ἀντισθένης

    I never had a bad cup in Portugal!  Saw a Starbucks a stone’s throw from
    Café Pastéis de Belém, and just about fell down laughing at that level of Yankee optimism.

  • John
  • hira

    Nope, haven’t seen those. Thats my next hour gone. Thanks!

  • Brandon Inoue

    Boss Rainbow for me.

    Also, the term spicy doesn’t necessarily mean that.  For Japanese people Karakuchi can be translated as spicy but in reality it means something to the effect of Dry or Bitter.  Think more like alcoholic beverage flavor profiles and you’ll know what I mean (works in French too!)

    Also, don’t forget that Americano just means a cup of coffee as compared to a shot of espresso.  Probably another way that American Coffee got its name.

  • http://twitter.com/jamesoneill83 James O’Neill

    Strange. To be honest I’ve always got the impression that America’s instant coffee habits have nothing on us Brits – I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had “real” coffee when I haven’t been at a Starbucks type establishment.

  • Lir

    I agree! I think the concept of “spicy” is slightly different…like the difference between a habanero and wasabi.

    I took a trip to Korea with some friends after spending 4 months in Japan. It was slightly traumatic, spice-wise…

  • Nick

    an “americano” is a weaker coffee, with extra water added. coffee in places like france or italy is strong, but in America it was originally served weaker. Strong coffee drinks in America are Italian coffee drinks.

  • nick p

    japanese spicy food is hardly spicy compared to spicy foods in america. granted, spicy “american” food is Southern food, and a lot of spicy food in america is from other countries (like thailand, india, mexico, etc.) indian food in japan, though, can be pretty spicy.

  • Hanne

    great commercials. What is the difference between red and green packaging in Japanese coffee? Is the green decaf? Thanks

  • Hanne

    most likely because “American” style coffee IS weak :D

  • blueshoe

    Ah yes, and the sun is hot because it’s hot. Good one, Hanne.

  • Nay Wangtal

    I recently visited Japan and didn’t see too many Starbucks joints. In Bangkok, they’re everywhere. EVERYWHERE. It takes two hands to count the amount of Starbucks there are within 2km (1.3 miles) around my house. But overall, coffee is definitely a big thing there as far as I saw.