Saturday, February 5, 2011

Uncanny Canned Coffee

Canned coffee has become just as Japanese as green tea or sake

A can of Boss Café au Lait

Most people outside Japan, if asked to make a list of what they think are typical Japanese beverages, would probably come up with answers like « sake » or « tea », sometimes « beer ». But the country, famous for its tea ceremony tradition and beer brewers such as Asahi or Kirin, has been craving just as much for another drink over the past forty years: coffee. And though coffee was basically alien to Japan before, Japanese companies have found a unique way to make it a best-selling beverage that appeals to local consumers: to sell it in cans. From a European point of view, and according to many non-Japanese people I've talked with about this topic, selling coffee in a can is a sacrilege, a gastronomic heresy. Well, it might be, but this surely did not prevent the business to flourish within Japan – and now, in other East Asian nations – to the point that canned coffee (缶コーヒー, 'kan kouhii') can now be bought at every street corner in the country, from one of the countless vending machines that proliferate around Japan or from convenience stores and supermarkets. It is just everywhere, and there is no segment of the population that has not succumbed to the charms of canned coffee: its audience ranges from high-school students to salarymen, but appeals to women or construction workers just as much. There are dozens of brands and products on the market, and the industry seems to be growing more and more every year. As the canned coffee frenzy phenomenon is another uniquely Japanese one, I naturally wanted to look for the reasons behind it. How can the canned coffee success story be explained? How did it start? What are the marketing techniques used to promote it? Does it really taste that bad? Here we go.

The genesis of canned coffee

The first company to ever come up with the idea of keeping coffee in a metallic tin seems to have been, in 1876, the American coffee firm Chase & Sanborn, also famous for its old advertisement posters whose refinement and good taste have been entertaining generations of happy consumers for decades. 

They did worse.
Yet, the first coffee cans per se were born in Japan. The exact date and place of the invention being widely discussed, a consensus has emerged to consider that the starting point of the whole industry was the launch by UCC (Ueshima Coffee Company), in 1969, of their « UCC Coffee ». The Japanese Wikipedia page about canned coffee mentions that a coffee called ダイヤモンド缶入りコーヒー (Daiyamondo Kan Iri Kouhii – Diamond Canned Coffee) was launched as early as 1958, but it is rather obscure since it does not look like it has ever been popular, and the company behind it went bankrupt in 1964. So let's just follow the wind and consider UCC as the father of canned coffee. I've read somewhere that canned coffee, then a totally new item, was a big hit during the 1970 Osaka World Fair, thus participating in giving the product more visibility. Soon after, a competitor named Pokka launched in 1973 a type of vending machines that would keep beverages hot and/or cold, thus making hot coffee available anywhere and quickening its rise to success. After that, other companies joined the business, and canned coffee became one of the most widely consumed beverages in Japan. 

A can of UCC Milk coffee from 1969.
Hot, or cold, the cans are usually made of steel and are said to be specially designed to preserve the aroma and the virtues of coffee despite it sitting for a long time in a can. But let's have a look at some figures to see if we can get a clearer idea of the size of this industry.

A dynamic, constantly expanding business

Figures about the canned coffee industry are not the easiest to find, and no book seems to have ever been written on the topic. Nonetheless, upon looking casually through the United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service website ( – but it's probably already in your bookmark list... just kidding), I found interesting articles aimed at US companies who would consider entering the higly protectionist market of canned coffee in Japan. The first one, dated October, 1992, provides noteworthy information:

« Last year, Japanese consumers downed $7.3 billion worth of canned coffee products, accounting for nearly one in four canned beverage sales. The market is expected to grow at 8-12 percent per year over the next three years. […] Roughly 70-80 percent of canned coffee is sold [through the vending machine distribution], according to the Japan Soft Drink Bottlers Association. The remaining 20-30 percent is sold in convenience stores and supermarkets. »

Very well. Another article, from October, 2004 (twelve years later) states:

« Canned coffee is consistently one of Japan’s most popular drinks. […] Sales have doubled over the last decade.
In the past, canned coffee was made from either instant coffee or coffee extract. In 1994, however, companies switched to using regular coffee beans. In fact, the bean variety is promoted as a selling point. Recently, canned café au lait and cappuccino have become especially popular with women. »

What we understand from those two extracts is that the canned coffee industry is growing bigger and bigger every year, both in size and quality, despite the Economic depression, known as the « Lost Decade », that Japan had to face during the 1990s. Canned coffee accounted for « one in four canned beverage sales » in 1992 and we have reasons to believe that the proportion is even bigger by now. In the meantime, very big actors entered the market. Actually, there is so much competition on this market that I'm amazed to see all those companies still standing in spite of the common sense. One of the possible reasons to this situation is that, except from Pokka and UCC which still hold strong positions as of today, most of the market's coffee brands are actually parts of bigger, huge beverage companies such as Suntory, Kirin or Asahi, which smartly diversified their products to attract consumers. Those companies have strong networks, including their own vending machines operations (and, as I said, there are so many of those machines it defies imagination), so they can always capitalize on their existing infrastructures and scale economies to reduce costs drastically. 
Several vending machines in a row... Not an unusual view in the Tokyo landscape. (picture found on

Main canned coffee brands thus include UCC and Pokka, but also and more importantly Suntory's BOSS Coffee, Kirin's Fire and Asahi's Wonda, among many others. But interestingly and oddly enough, the most powerful actor on the market is Coca Cola Japan-owned Georgia (created in 1975), whose name comes from the State in which The Coca-Cola Company headquarters are located. It is certainly an unusual fact, but actually, in Japan, Coca-Cola grosses much more money with its coffee branch than with its worldwide-known sodas. For example, in 2007, Georgia cans' sales were twice as larger as Coca-Cola's. Other foreign companies have timidly tried to strive on the Japanese canned coffee market, without much success. Notably, the Swiss giant Nestlé, in spite of its worldwide success with its Nescafé range of products, failed at establishing himself as a leader on the Japanese canned coffee market. The US Foreign Agricultural Service explains:

« Stiff import tariffs, high shipping costs and Japan's complex product distribution. system tend to discourage many [foreign] beverage manufacturers from giving serious consideration to export opportunities. »

But as we start to get a slightly more precise vision of the industry, one can still wonder why has canned coffee achieved such a strong popularity with the consumers in Japan.

Of the Japanese liking for canned coffee: reasons behind a success

Why is canned coffee so popular in Japan? After some research and after giving it some thought, I came up with a short list of elements that can help to find an answer:
  • Coffee was not associated with any tradition or specific habits of consumption in the country, so people would not consider the fact of drinking coffee from a can heretic: there was no negative predjudice against this type of packaging. People were more or less not used to drinking coffee (not that it did not existed, but tea was much more popular), so they would not have perceived so strongly the alleged 'bad taste' of the coffee. In other words, as coffee was not sacred, there was no problem with the can format and its downsides. Plus, in the hectic working life that most Japanese employees must face, caffeine fitted right in the picture.

  • Canned coffee is everywhere. Convenience stores are found every 100 meters, and vending machines are even more common in all Japanese urban areas. Sometimes, even in the countryside, on a random route in the mountains, in an old temple or even at the very top of Mount Fuji, you will find a vending machine selling coffee. It is available anywhere, anytime, and therefore it allows people to take a caffeine break wherever and whenever they want. Typical places to drink canned coffee are a train platform, the road on the way to school, the front of an office building while taking a cigarette pause, or the street after eating lunch in a restaurant (since many traditional restaurants serve tea rather than coffee). 

    Salarymen taking a coffee break in the business district of Shinagawa
  • Canned coffee is cheap. The price of a can commonly ranges from 100 to 120yen (about 1 $US), depending on where the vending machine is located. For example, in Okinawa, the poorest region of Japan, canned coffee can be purchased for 100yen, whereas in Tokyo 120yen is the most common price. When you know that buying a coffee from one of Tokyo's many nice cafés often costs more than 500yen, no wonder why cans are more popular than cups. More recently, Starbucks and Japanese look-alikes have started a new trend of drinking coffee that is more similar to the one in the US (drinking from a big take away paper cup), but prices are still much higher than those of the vending machines. 

    The vending machine on top of Mount Fuji is the most expensive in the country.
  • Canned coffee can be enjoyed all year round thanks to the vending machines that serve both hot and cold beverages depending on the location and the season. To ensure the success of canned coffee at all times, manufacturers often release special season edition cans, with only the packaging changing whereas the taste often remains rather similar. 
  • The « cool factor » is also of importance. Canned coffee has its own marketing rules and practices that all competitors seem to have embraced. Basically, the idea is that canned coffee is manly and symbolizes an active and dynamic life. Canned coffee is a brief moment of happiness and peace amidst all the hardships that we endure every day. This trait is emphasized beautifully by the slogan of rather recent Boss coffee commercials: 「このろくでもない、すばらしき世界。」(Kono rokudemonai, subarashiki sekai) - which could be translated as something like « O Worthless, Beautiful World! » Another common marketing element in the « canned coffeeverse » is the constant reference to the West, commonly America but also France or Italy (two countries with strong coffee traditions), through English (sometimes even Engrish, nonsensical broken English that is often seen in Japan and never fails to amuse foreigners) names or slogans, Western-looking characters and TV commercials with famous American actors. For your enjoyment, here are three good illustrations of the last point:

The ironic thing is that as canned coffee is presented as something Western (since coffee in general is perceived as such, tea being the Japanese traditional beverage), it is not even sold in the West. But the laws of marketing are what they are, and it seems that the strategy has worked quite well for Japanese canned coffee manufacturers. The Boss Coffee campaign with Tommy Lee Jones posing on poster ads and appearing in many TV commercials as « Jones the Extraterrestrial » (宇宙人ジョーンス – Uchuujin Joonsu), and which is still going on as of today, is in my opinion a masterpiece. It sums it up all: a manly, taciturn Western man (well, he's actually an alien on an exploration visit on Earth to better understand human beings) tries different job activities to always come down to the same conclusion: life on Earth is difficult and overwhelming, but thankfully, Boss coffee is here to help us relax and appreciate the beauty of our miserable existences. 

As seen everywhere around the country (poster ad on a Suntory vending machine)
So canned coffee found a favorable ground in Japan for several reasons: there was no national coffee tradition so there was space to create one, it fills a void for stressed workers in need of cheap, easily available caffeine inputs, and it is marketed in a very clever, coherent and constant way that appeals to consumers.

Great... this leaves one question unanswered: how does canned coffee taste like? Can something be so successful and disgusting at the same time? Be warned, the following lines are higly subjective.

Taste-wise: An undeserved bad reputation

I'm a rather heavy coffee drinker. I usually like mine black, without sugar nor milk, but I also like a good cappuccino from time to time. I hate watery coffee, and I appreciate the sincere bitterness of the product. I was born in Paris, France, where everyone drinks coffee several times a day and where an expresso is the natural conclusion to any decent lunch. This does not make me a good candidate for liking canned coffee, and yet, I do like it. Actually, I love it.

Canned coffee does not have to replace your typical expresso, but it brings coffee consumption to another level: coffee can be enjoyed as a soft drink, anywhere, in a convenient way. There are a wide range of canned coffees, but the most popular ones usually have a smooth milky feeling and develop an intense sweet taste. The taste may not be as good as in a chic café where the beans are freshly roasted, but honestly, compared to what I get from the average coffee machines located in offices or student cafeterias outside Japan, I can't say canned coffee tastes bad. When you buy a can, you know what you're in for: a sweet, mild caffeine income that feels like a candy. Sugarless and black coffee is also available in the can format, but some of them are too watery and not really thrilling. I guess that to appreciate canned coffee, you have to consider it as « canned coffee », precisely – not a substitute to what you usually drink, but as another option, another way to broaden your horizons, another way to enjoy coffee.
Canned coffee is slightly addictive, and it is one of the things I miss the most since I've left Japan.
Allow me to finish with a short account of a pleasant experience I had in Japan:

One of my best memories with canned coffe is a night winter walk in the Western Tokyo suburbs: I was freezing cold, my hands were turning to ice and my throat badly hurt. Suddenly, in a street, I noticed this blue vending machine in the dark, lit and welcoming. After inserting a coin with difficulty because of my frozen fingers, I bought a can of hot BOSS Rainbow Mountain Blend, and as I was holding it with my two hands, the warm steel helped to ease my body and my heart. I slowly drank it as I walked back home, and as I came back to the warmth of my room, I felt an unprecedented sentiment of peace and detachment had filled my whole being. I fell asleep right after that.

Sorry for that last paragraph. 


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Japan's Kawaii Culture Into Question

What does the overflow of cuteness say about contemporary Japanese society?

Before coming to Japan, my impression on things kawaii (in Japanese かわいい, or more rarely 可愛い, a word that means “cute, kind, adorable”) was relatively neutral. I would just look at it with amusement, as another one of those unique cultural quirks that Japan seems to often come up with. Upon my arrival there, though, I discovered that the omnipresence of kawaisa (可愛さ, which would translate as something like “cuteness”) within Japanese society was far more prominent than what I had ever imagined: to put it simply, let's say that there's no single aspect of daily life in Japan that is not affected by the implacable wind of cuteness that has been blowing for almost thirty years now. 

Hello Kitty is perhaps the most famous kawaii figure in the West.

For in Japan, the kawaii wave is far from being limited to an audience of kids who eventually get tired of it when growing old. One of high school girls' favorite activities is to take pictures of themselves in “purikura” photobooths that make their eyes bigger and sparkly, University of Tokyo students and salarymen in suits alike proudly sport cellphone straps in the shape of such famous cuties as the robot-cat Doraemon, Hello Kitty or Rilakkuma (the new kawaii idol), whereas toy dogs forced to wear pink clothes, sometimes carried and pushed in baby-cars by their owners, can be seen everywhere around Tokyo. Whether you're buying food, medicine or condoms (no kidding), there has to be something cute on the packaging. My UFG credit card has Winnie the Pooh on it. In a famous example of kawaii madness, one can also think about the All Nippon Airlines airplanes flocked with Pokémon characters and offering a truly kawaii Pokémon experience on board ( Even symbols of officialdom and solemnity have a cute mascot character these days: every city, monument, museum or organization of any sort must go the kawaii way, and this goes as far as including the Tokyo Police or religious, sacred sites such as Mount Kouya, Wakayama Prefecture, the heart of Japanese spirituality. Can you imagine the Smithsonian Museum, the Notre-Dame cathedral or the LAPD with such mascot characters? Probably not. 

Pipo-kun is Tokyo Police's mascot.  Connoisseurs would find a likeness with the Russian Cheburashka...

Kouyakun is the mascot of Japan's most sacred site. This looks wrong... (picture from
This is indeed a very Japanese phenomenon. True, the kawaii culture has started to expand within other East-asian nations and even to a lesser extent in the West, but not on the same scale and not in such an extreme way. As I said it earlier, in Japan all aspects of the society are affected, even the way people behave, as kawaii translates into fashion or language. The word “kawaii” itself has become so common an utterance as to be applied to almost anything – actually, even something ugly can be considered “kawaii” through such nice words as “busukawaii” (ugly/cute) or “kimokawaii” (weird/cute). A little baby is kawaii, a grandma is kawaii, a cat is kawaii, a strawberry is kawaii... This leads to a natural question: Why is cuteness so big in Japan?

Causes of the kawaii culture's overwhelming prominence in Japan

Let's get back to the meaning of the word « cute ». Why do we find something cute in the first place? The definition seems to be loose, though there are some patterns, some cues that help to understand why people fall for cute things. An article by the New York Times in January 2006 states:

« Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire. »

In other words, we – as human beings - feel an attraction to anything that evokes fragility, weakness, childhood: thus the big eyes, big heads and childlike features of all the popular kawaii characters. But this alone would not explain why the phenomenon is bigger in Japan than elsewhere in the world. There must be particular causes, inherent to the Japanese society, something deep-rooted that causes Japanese people in general to like cute things more. 

Momochan was the star of Kichijouji's cat café... I'll definitely write an article about that.
My first intuition, when I started to think about this issue after some time in Japan, was that the taste for kawaii arose in the 1980s as something totally opposite and alien to the stressful, mundane and overwhelming responsibilities of adult life. In a country where economic growth was an obsession and where workers were expected to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of the society as a whole, the economic bubble burst of the late 1980s that led Japan into the "Lost Decade" depression gave rise to a feeling of dislike and fear toward the adult working life. Therefore, the kawaii culture, a reminder of childhood and eternal youth, appeared as one of innocence, the symbol of a life without obligations, a life of purity, of hope and possibility. Unstained, contrary to the dreadful existence of, say, a typical salaryman. The unprecedented economic depression and the particularly hard working conditions in Japan (with overwork being the norm), the pressure put on the shoulders of people at a very young age, all those reasons would explain why a naive world like the kawaii one appears as a loveable refuge from the past-paced and merciless real life.

Also, there is in the Japanese language a somewhat unique concept known as amae (甘え). There is hardly any satisfying translation for this word coined by the Japanese psychanalyst Doi Takeo, but Wikipedia gives the following definition: « the behavior of a person attempting to induce an authority figure, such as a parent, spouse, teacher or boss, to take care of him ». The article adds: « Doi explains that amae is the noun form of amaeru, an intransitive verb which he defines as "to depend and presume upon another's benevolence." It indicates, for Doi, "helplessness and the desire to be loved." » Amae is thus at work when a child cries and begs for something from his parents, for example. It's a desire to be at the center of attention, an instinct to reveal one's own fragility and willingness to depend on someone else. The underlying idea is also that, contrary to what happens in the West where parents consider such behaviour to be childish and try to refrain it, this type of behaviour lasts into adulthood in Japan and is a pervasive element of social relations. The link between this and the success of kawaii culture could be that as childish attitudes are tolerated and commonplace to some extent, and as a double-edged dependency/'parental attitude' relationship pattern is deemed normal, the attraction for cute things is a direct consequence. The empathy toward a fragile and dependent cute character, and the need to care for such a weakling, are thus combined to make kawaii irresistible. And desirable.

Other theories, arguably more sensitive, are also worth of interest and insist on the structural, even cultural causes behind the emergence of the kawaii culture. Alex Kerr, in his fascinating 2001 essay Dogs and Demons, after describing how the Japanese society infantilizes its own people because of an old obsession with control over everything (think about bonsai as the extreme control of nature, for example), quotes the writer Fukuda Kiichiro:

« One could say that social control in Japan has come to invade the private realm to an extreme degree. Of course "control" does not take place if we have only people who want to control. It's a necessary condition to also have a majority of people who wish to be controlled. It's the same mechanism that sociologists call "voluntary subjugation." That is, people who wish to be controlled struggle to bring about control over themselves. It's related to the fact that children in high schools and students in universities never tire of having their teachers advise them what to do. Japanese college students are not adults who bear rights and responsibilities - they should all be called "children." »
A typical Japanese adult according to Fukuda's view

I think the idea here is quite clear, though a bit extreme: if you teach people to be like children, then do not be surprised to see them acting as such. According to this view, the problem thus resides in the post-war educational system, a really strict, discipline-based system which does not encourage students to stand up or think ouside the box. The emergence of the kawaii culture, when also adding the other reasons talked about above, would then be a collateral consequence of it.

An interesting and insightful contribution to this issue is made by contemporary artist Murakami Takashi, known for his « superflat » aesthetics and widely known abroad as the pinnacle of contemporary Japanese culture. The emerging recognition of kawaii culture worldwide is greatly due to his fame, but his opinion on it, though he embraces it, seems ambiguous. His idea is that since World War II, Japan has been « emasculated »; Japan has become a little boy compared to the United States of America. The fact that the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 was codenamed « Little Boy » would then be the symbol of a self-realizing prophecy (in 2005, Murakami curated in New York an exhibit called “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture”). The idea of Japan's infantilization appears again here, with at the core of it the trauma of World War II. 

Murakami exhibited some of his works in the Versailles castle at the end of last year
Another artist, Japanese-born New York-based Torimitsu Momoyo, rejects the kawaii aesthetics, and yet she brings a simple but meaningful comment to the debate. When asked by The Japan Times in 2007 what her opinion on Japanese art scene was, she had this answer:

« In Japan, there seems to be a certain movement or school, in the tradition of nihonga [Japanese-style painting] schools. I'd call it a school of anime-like works or kawaii-type [cute] works. Or we might call it the "[Takashi] Murakami School." He trained in nihonga, so it makes sense. »

I like this comment because it replaces kawaii at the core of what is above all an art movement, a « school », just like, say, impressionism was, without the whole ideological and sociological whiff that other commentators would express. Every art movement is born from a particular social and historical context, but sometimes it is good to distinguish art for what it is and the overall context in which it was born. In other words, any attempt at understanding the kawaii culture is not necessarily a crusade againt cuteness and the various forms it takes.

However, I do think that this modern obsession with cuteness and the idealization of childhood in general has its dark sides – in other words, the kawaii wave does not only have causes, it also has consequences, some of them a bit suprising or disturbing.

Valuing innocence too much may not be that innocent...

The idealization of childhood creates a context in which its eroticization can take place. The term erokawaii describes something which is at the same time cute and sexy, but this usually applies to grown-up women or girls in their late teens and therefore can be interpreted as a Japanese version of Western «sexyness» (there is a common idea among Japanese girls that their beauty is of a different kind than the Western one, that they are 'cute' rather than 'beautiful'). However, another term refers to the eroticization of children: lolita complex (commonly lolicon) and its variant with little boys shotacon. Lolicon is a sexual deviance but also a subculture that flourishes legally, mainly through underground comic books with explicit sexual depictions involving characters who are visibly underage. This tendency is marginal but such products are nevertheless easily accessible as many Akihabara shops, for example, sell them in their adult sections (and by adult sections, I mean 5-story shops). It's a real market, and even in mainstream cultural products (video games, animés), including children in the cast (for example in dating simulation games) has become usual. 

Card Captor Sakura builds on an eroticized vision of childood, even if everything remains underlying. It has inspired countless amateur doujinshi with sexual content...
Concurrently, another trend which has a limited but existing audience is the production of magazines, photobooks or DVDs involving children under 15 in relatively erotic situations, but without explicit acts shown and in which their intimacy is not revealed. Still, in the adult section of some shops, it is quite common to find DVDs featuring 12-year old little girls in bikini chewing slowly on a banana or similar things. Though not illegal, this kind of material clearly aims at arousing the viewer in a sexual way (they are sold near standard porn DVDs, after all), and it is arguable that those children are exploited in a mercantile fashion by their parents without being able to say no.

As seen in Akihabara by myself.

I'm not saying that Hello Kitty is a child molester, but I'm just wondering whether an idealization of childhood and child-like attitudes or features, when taken to an extreme, is not, somehow, a legitimate subject of concern.
Yet, as Metropolis Magazine reports, relayed by Japan Today's website : «there were 754 reported cases of sexual abuse [in Japan] in 2000, compared to 89,500 in the United States. This could, however, be due to underreporting, or the fact that the official age of consent can be 13 in some places.» It is true that underreporting might explain the surprisingly low figures for Japan, but the difference is so significant that in the end, it seems undeniable that Japan is much less concerned by sexual abuse than the US, despite an apparent laxity towards the regulation of kid-related erotic material.

The main problem of this whole kawaii trend may actually be that if we're to believe the arguments about 'infantilization' (and there is, to some extent, probably some truth to them), this would mean that the other important issues that face the country (an aging and declining population, an astronomical public debt, heavily artificial financial rules, an obsession with industry over services that prevents growth and innovation) won't be addressed in a straight-forward way by the new generation as long as it finds a way to escape adult reality instead of changing it. The bureaucracy can then keep on prospering and deepening the gravity of the nation's urgent ills, diverting people's attention by giving them panem et circenses, or more accurately discipline and cuteness... 

The most kawaii window ever...