If you order a cup of coffee in Japan, you may notice something “unusual” about the way your coffee cup is served.
In Japan, it’s common for the coffee cup handle to be placed to the left with the spoon in front, forcing right-handed customers to turn the cup 180 degrees in order to pick it up.
Left-handers may justifiably be rejoicing at being catered to by default for once, but just why is coffee in Japan served with the handle to the left when most people will be inclined to pick up their cup from the right? (Fun fact: approximately 11 percent of Japanese are left-handed, just slightly higher than the world average of 10 percent.)
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Japanese coffee custom – handles to the left
As luck would have it, I walked right into the answer, or at least the beginnings of one, when on a trip to Ibaraki Prefecture. I was cycling around Lake Kasumigaura when I developed a hankering for a good cup of joe, or kōhii (コーヒー) as it’s called in Japanese.
After quite a search I found a promising shop called Coffee Brazil in a quiet part of the town of Tsuchiura. There was no one there except the elderly man who runs the place, and when he served my coffee — you guessed it — the handle was on the left.
It turns out I had stumbled onto Yasumi Yamabe, who at 90 years of age has been serving coffee for the past 70 years. In fact, he boasted to me, it’s quite possible he’s been in the coffee business longer than anyone else in Japan. Naturally, I whipped out a pen and paper, invited him to join me and asked why he placed my cup the way he did.
“That’s for the sugar,” he replied. “The handle starts on the left so the customer can hold the cup steady with the left hand while stirring in sugar with the right. Once that’s done, the customer turns the handle clockwise, around the top, so the handle is easy to pick up with the right hand. That’s how we taught customers to drink their coffee.”
Keep in mind that coffee was hardly an everyday drink when Yamabe started his career in the early postwar years. “Oh, coffee was still very much a luxury item then,” he confirmed. “A cup would set you back ¥50 when a portion of oden (stewed foods) or oshiruko (sweet red-bean soup) cost only ¥5. Most people weren’t familiar with coffee, so we had to educate them. Almost everyone in those days took their coffee with cream and sugar.”
How to serve coffee in Japan
I also paid a visit to the All Japan Coffee Association in Tokyo, where a senior staff member listened to my coffee handle question and nodded knowingly.
“We get that one a lot,” he told me. “Very often the inquiry comes from the executive offices of a large company, with the caller saying something like, ‘Our chairman is particular about manners and wants to make sure we’re doing it right.’ But actually, there is no single accepted way to serve coffee in Japan.”
Even in the coffee industry, he said, companies serve guests differently. Visitors to UCC (Ueshima Coffee Co., Ltd.) headquarters in Kobe get their coffee with the handle on the left, while at Key Coffee, in Tokyo, the handle is on the right.
My informant concurred with Yamabe that having the handle on the left is for convenience when adding sugar. He noted that coffee shops used to offer kakuzatō (sugar cubes), which take more effort to stir into coffee than today’s standard of granulated sugar.
What are the origins of this coffee custom in Japan?
I was curious to know when the handle-to-the-left practice arose. It may well have been earlier, but the oldest reference I could find was in a 1922 book titled Seiyō ryōri no tadashii tabekata (The Correct Way to Eat Western Food).
In somewhat archaic language, Kaneko Tezuka, who was a professor at Japan Women’s University, wrote that when coffee is offered after a meal it should be served in small chawan (cups) with the totte (handle) turned to the left and the saji (spoon) placed in front. Unfortunately, Tezuka didn’t offer a reason for this placement, nor did she speak to its origins.
When did coffee come to Japan?
No one knows exactly when coffee was introduced to Japan, but the first beans were probably brought in by 17th-century Dutch traders for their own use at their trading post at Dejima, near Nagasaki.
Contact with foreigners was strictly limited, so if any Japanese were able to sample their coffee, it would have only been the few merchants, translators and prostitutes allowed to visit Dejima.
The oldest known account of a Japanese drinking coffee was written in 1804, in which a man named Shokusanjin Ota described boarding a foreign ship and being served a drink called “kauhii.” It tasted quite unpleasant, he reported, and was made by mixing sugar into water with a powder of roasted beans.
Formal imports of coffee began in 1858, and the first Japanese coffeehouse on record, the Kahiichakan in Tokyo, is said to have opened in 1888. Drinking coffee became fashionable among the intelligentsia and the upper middle class but remained something of a rarity. Coffee imports were halted in 1944, during the war, as coffee was branded both a zeitakuhin (extravagance) and a tekikoku inryō (enemy drink).
It wasn’t until after the war, and the liberalization of imports in 1960, that Japan got on its way to becoming a major coffee-drinking nation. Today Japan ranks among the top ten coffee-importing countries, currently holding seventh place after the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and the Netherlands.
Modern-day coffee culture in Japan
The orientation of the coffee-cup handle may well become moot as tastes and consumption patterns change. Taking coffee burakku (“black,” without milk or sugar) has become the most common preference, practiced by just over half of Japanese coffee drinkers.
There is also a clear shift away from genteel service and toward take-out, with convenience stores grabbing an ever growing share of the coffee market. Seven-Eleven, which offers self-serve coffee for just ¥100, sells a whopping 1.1 billion cups per year — and in disposable cups with no handle at all.
Looking for more non-alcoholic drinks to enjoy in Japan? Why not try Japanese craft cola?
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Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer. She started her career in journalism reporting from Washington, DC for food industry trade publications on regulation and legislation. Since relocating to Tokyo more than 20 years ago, Alice has made it her “life work” to provide insight on Japan through various media including newspapers, magazines, television and film.
She is delighted to be an early contributor to Japanese Food Guide, where she can once again focus on great things to eat, and how they are grown or made.