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The Life of Coffee : The Roots and Journey in Japan

The Story of Black Gold

The fact that coffee sustains the livelihood of approximately 125 million people (Fair Trade Foundation) and widely consumed around the world makes it one of the most valuable commodities in the world. However, the complexity of the supply chain, volatility of coffee markets, domination of few international corporations, institutions, and countries on coffee markets make coffee trading a strong driver of economic and social inequalities.

The story of Black Gold (2006) shows the neglected facets of coffee growing and trading as well as how these phenomena change the lives of different actors who are tightly connected through nodes of globalization. That is, mostly at the expense of coffee farmers.

The story begins in Ethiopia that is among the largest producers of coffee. The coffee produced by Ethiopian farmers connects nearly everything from subsistence strategies of families, the welfare of communities, the future of next generations, and the power of the country within the global arena of trade and politics together. However, the precariousness of the producers and the hardships of communities are chaotically determined by the multiplicity of local and international actors engaged in the supply chain. 

According to the story, within the first chain, the coffee is grown and picked by family labor. Then, the exporters such as individuals or smaller companies buy the coffee beans from local auctions. The vital point is that the price of coffee is mainly determined by ÔÇťspotÔÇŁ (cash) and ÔÇťfuturesÔÇŁ ( contract prices for future) prices regarding the availability of coffee at the spot or in the future (International Coffee Organization, 2011) within the finance hotspots New York and London. Meaning that the prices are highly volatile and determined by the benefits generated for higher places within the exploitation chain rather than the cost burdens and the needs of farmers for sustaining their lives. After the beans are sold for processing, the chain gets longer and more crowded until it reaches retailers, cafes, and our homes. Thus, commodity fetishism wipes all the female, child, elder labor as well as all other hardships experienced during the production. It culminates in the attraction of advertisements, the passion of the skilled baristas, and the joy of mornings. 

Up until the notions of ethical consumption or fair trade products entered our field of awareness, the coffee used to denote its quality determined by serious corporations, health and efficiency increasing benefits, sociality, and cultural importance. However, the legacy of privatization in the form of monopolistic domination ,erosion of agricultural subsidies dictated by international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) including the authority of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in setting the rules of the trade, make the coffee a highly politicized commodity . Further, this situation do not allow the voices of those who take most of the burden to be heard through the rooms of Euroamerican centric negotiation tables. 

The Life of Coffee

In the book Coffee Life in Japan (White, 2012), coffee becomes a multifaceted commodity as well as a relation that establishes the connections between culture, history, place, ÔÇťmasterÔÇŁ and consumer along the lines of social, political, and economic transformations, and the differences in identities. 

The types of connections established by coffee reveal different realities and make other connections relevant to oneÔÇÖs field of awareness. For example, the coffee can become relevant with its ÔÇťmasterÔÇŁs hard work ( ÔÇťkodowari ÔÇŁ) (White, 2012) or sensation of its place only. So, coffee as a commodity can make the relations and sensations between the masterÔÇÖs effort or story alongside the place relevant to oneÔÇÖs field of awareness, but not the realities existing in the earlier stages in the supply chain.

Even though it is difficult to grasp the complexity of coffee in the flow of daily life, it must be understood through its connections with all the actors, places, institutions, and transformations that are locally and globally involved in the making of its significance. Furthermore, Merry White is very successful in revealing all of these aspects in detail.

The life of coffee is investigated from its origins and throughout its social journey among different continents towards the Japanese life by Dutch traders as well as Japanese workers who managed to finish their contract terms in coffee plantations in Brazil and decided to take on the commercialization of coffee in their home country. However, what would determine the life of coffee not merely as a commodity but as a relation, was the opening of the first coffeehouse by Tei Ei-Kei (White, 2012). Fascinated by his experiences with coffee in the USA and with coffeehouses in London, he decided to bring coffeehouses to Japanese public life as a hub of ideas, culture, and fraternity. Even though his business plan failed, the legacy of his vision persevered by transforming itself throughout history and locations.

Throughout the Meiji and Taisho eras, coffee became secondary to its place. That is, a private subset of the public space. This public space, in consequence of the radical transformations of work, family, and political life, became a place where pressured male workers could get some relief and newly migrated rural men could get to know the city life and establish useful social networks. Consequently, this phenomenon initiated the creation of a vibrant urban culture. 

As Japan progressed through industrialization, opening to the world, and Westernization, the principle or the idea of modernity fractured the urban space as well as the uses of ÔÇťcafesÔÇŁ mainly according to class divisions. The safety of coffeehouses from traditional obligations, norms, and status hierarchy found another meaning in cafes where upper classes could come into contact with Western culture, tastes, and aesthetics. These cafes were the places where Westernized ideas could be reproduced, expressed artistically, and where upper-class women could experiment with their relative freedom in their social lives and styles. Moreover, certain desires that were banned from the public eye could find its expression in cabaret style coffeehouses.

Even though the coffeehouses and cafes were revolutionary in the sense that they challenged the traditional significance of teahouses by shaking the grounds of traditional hierarchy and obligations and became the places for new or radical ideas, certain aspects of class and gender stratification were still being reproduced. Indeed, especially making use of female labor for attracting male costumers through the strictly crafted appeal and narratives did not include women as agents of public space. Instead, it confined them into the dynamics of attraction and attracted as objects and consumers.

As Japan marched towards the Second World War and most of the resources including the coffee dried up, coffeehouses became a safe haven for those who wanted to get some relief from the pressure of state authority and longed for the better days surrounded by the warmth of people. During the postwar years following American occupation, the cafes became diversified aesthetically and ideationally in the form of Bauhaus style showcases, Jazz cafes, or a boiling place for movements defying the status quo. Further, as the boom years were gradually withering away, the 1970s and 1980s experienced drastic changes in the ways of living in terms of rapid globalization through digital nodes of communication, compression of time and space, rising competition, and shrinkage of the Japanese economy. This situation not only diversified the number, aesthetic appeal, and function or meaning of cafes; but also made coffee more significant as an industry, artistic expression, a trend, and work culture (White, 2012).  

As an industry, coffee became perceived as a special narrative and a serious craft that included all the relations between skills, knowledge, innovations, personal efforts and stories as well as ÔÇťgeographic, technological and geopolitical realitiesÔÇŁ (White, 2012) that would generate cultures of coffee which would find its expression through space, tastes and identities. 

The coffee gained its dynamism as a trend through traveling among societies accompanied by new devices, tastes, and appeals. Even though this dynamism is a shapeshifter, it originated in Japan mainly through its unique history, the significance attached to the craft, and consumption of coffee. Indeed, the dynamism also stimulated more and more diversity in Japanese coffee culture in return. 

The masters pouring their skills and soul into every cup of coffee, seniors finding new passions and relationships for their retirement years, mothers creating new semi-private spaces for themselves, working people who have been dreaming of a place to express themselves and their relative freedom, younger people who are passionate about the ways of coffee as well as presenting their skills, experiences and their artistic qualities. All these layers of images create what Merry White was pointing out, a vibrant urban coffee culture emerging out of this dynamism but special to the Japanese context. In the end, it becomes clear that whatever shape the coffeehouses or the cafes take, they are the sites of sociality, consumption, service, learning, creativity, and clash of cultures (White, 2012). Thus, coffee is the relation that connects all these phenomena to time, space, and actors.

In conclusion, both the film Black Gold and Merry WhiteÔÇÖs book not only tell what coffee is and how its story unfolds through different perspectives but also shed light on how global consumption practices are related to social, economic, political, and cultural practices including our daily lives. How we relate to them and how they relate to us. 


Fair Trade Foundation. Farmers and Workers . Retrieved from

Francis, M. J., & Francis, N. (Directors). (2006). Black Gold [Film].

International Coffee Organization. (2011). Relationship between coffee prices in physical and futures markets. London: International Coffee Organization.

White, M. (2012). Coffee Life in Japan. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.