Coffee around the World: Japan

in Did you know?

Go into a coffee shop in Japan and, chances are, you will get your coffee served with mug handle turned to your left.

It isn’t because Japanese people are all be left handed, but it is, as basically everything in Japan, result of Japan’s history and unique tradition.

The History of Coffee in Japan

The story of coffee in Japan begins on the small island of Dejima in Nagasaki, where in the 1800s it was enjoyed by the European merchants living there, mostly Dutch and Portuguese. In fact the Dutch word koffie gave rise to the Japanese word for coffee: kouhii.

Coffee then made progress in Japan due to its medicinal properties. It was also used by prostitutes in Nagasaki as a stimulant to stay up all night. From there it spread to the the rest of the countryside in the form of koohiito, coffee and sugar balls that were steeped in hot water.

The import of coffee to Japan really took hold after "sakoku", (the time when Japan self-isolated itself from the rest of the world isolation in the years from 1638-1858), when foreign merchants’ strictly regulated access to Japan was lifted. Bulk imports of coffee therefore didn't begin until the mid-1800's, with the first coffee shop in Japan opening in 1888.

The two World Wars significantly slowed the import of coffee, but in the 1960s, after import restrictions were lifted, it started to become trendy, and today Japan is the third-largest importer of coffee in the world.

The highest price per cup

Today Japan is among the world’s largest importers of coffee, bringing in US$1.4 billion worth in 2014 alone.

Even though Japan doesn't even break the top 15 in per capita coffee consumption, it nonetheless has the highest retail prices for coffee on earth. This is mainly helped by a 20% import tax, which was meant to protect the native tea industry.

Not in the ton on consumption of coffee, but on the rise

As of 2014 the Japanese were consuming 11.13 cups of coffee per week. An average of 10.73 cups were consumed in 2012 and 10.03 in 2002.

This increase is partly because of the rising popularity of the already brewed coffee that convenience store chains have introduced over the past few years. Still most Japanese people consume their coffee at home, and in most cases it is instant coffee and coffee brewed from ground beans.

Handles to the left

When coffee was starting to gain ground in Japan, it was considered a rarity, a truly special commodity. In those days it was very expensive and it is reported that a cup of coffee cost ten times more than a bowl of soup.

Also Japanese people drank pretty much all their coffee with cream and sugar. So the tradition grew so as to always hold the handle with the left hand, so people could easily add and stir cream and sugar with their right hand.

Knowing that and knowing that it was a very expensive experience, it is pretty much self-explanatory that you would get your coffee served exactly the right way, ready for drinking.

Being a nation so heavily reliant on tradition, this stuck and even today you will get your coffee served with a handle to the left.

Nothing personal. Just the way to drink coffee in Japan... ;)


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