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JAPAN’S OBSESSION WITH CANNED COFFEE

Between morning rush hours and jam-packed back-to-back meetings, not everyone has the luxury of time to sit down and sip a cup of coffee before work. A typical lifestyle of a Japanese salaryman consists of a crazy 12-hour workday and on-call the rest of the time — can he spare a second to breathe, let alone a full minute to order and down an espresso shot?

That’s one of the main reasons why Japan is obsessed with canned coffee; it takes almost zero time out of one’s day for a full caffeine fix. Just a walk down the street with a hundred yen coin in hand — there and back in two minutes tops — for some java. Nothing’s more efficient than that. Who would have thought that putting coffee in a can was going to be a huge success?

History of Canned Coffee

Back in the late 1960s was when canned coffee first became available. The coffee manufacturer and retailer Ueshima Coffee Co., better known as UCC, is one of the pioneers of canned coffee development. The founder of the company, Ueshima Tadao, thought of this brilliant idea after an incident that happened to him on an average day back in 1968.

Before the invention of canned coffee, people in Japan had a very limited choice of beverages to drink when they were out and about. Ueshima was sipping on a hot beverage that he got from a station kiosk while waiting for the train. Some say the drink was coffee, others said it was milk. Regardless of which, it didn’t change the situation — unlike modern Japan’s efficient train schedules, the train he was waiting for was about to leave the station early.

Ueshima was forced to leave behind his drink which he only had a sip of. Inspired by this unfortunate situation, Ueshima came up with the idea of making coffee accessible to drink anytime, anywhere.

After countless trial and error, sweat and maybe blood and tears, this canned coffee pioneer successfully developed a technology to preserve coffee and all its flavours in a can. The first-ever canned coffee was sold in 1969. UCC is currently the world’s longest-selling ready-to-drink canned coffee brand, going strong 52 years and counting.

The Cheap & Convenient Choice

Coffee culture wasn’t something new — it existed way before the first canned coffee. Kissatens, traditional coffee houses, were the place to go back then for your daily caffeine fix. A few decades have passed since then, and the people of Japan now have a strong affinity for coffee in a can. Two factors play a part in that: convenience and cost.

You can get a canned coffee anywhere — while there are various other places, the most common ones are convenience stores, or konbini, and vending machines. With over 50,000 konbini and over 5 million vending machines in Japan alone, it’s no wonder an average Japanese person drinks around 100 cans annually, according to a 2012 survey by All Japan Coffee Association.

Vending machines, in particular, are significant in this trend. The Japanese have a fast-paced lifestyle with no time to spare — the whole concept of a vending machine is to cater to that lifestyle. There’s no need to wait in line or talk to anyone; you just simply put coins in a slot, press a button and a drink comes out. All of that in under 10 seconds. Combine that convenience with caffeine and you get the perfect combo for a modern-day Japanese businessman.

Despite the rise in local speciality coffee shops, international coffee chains and the growth of coffee machines in konbini, canned coffee remains to hold its own. According to a 2014 survey by Suntory Beverage and Food, canned coffee remained one of the tops, and 25% of its consumption were by those who drink five cups of coffee in a week.

Its affordability definitely plays a role in its top position. With a competitive price of ¥100 to ¥150 ($1 to $1.50) as compared to a ¥500 ($5) latte in an already expensive country, it’s a no-brainer for coffee drinkers to opt for the cheaper option when they’re assured the same caffeine buzz.

As the demand for canned coffee rises, other major companies have developed their own coffee in a can. Popular brands include Georgie by Coca Cola, BOSS by Suntory and Fire by Asahi. Over a hundred new varieties of canned coffee are produced each year by beverage companies — everything from black and espresso to latte and artificially sweetened canned coffees are accessible with just a few minutes walk to the nearest vending machine.

Canned coffee enthusiasts have discussions of which brand comes out on top when it comes to satisfying their taste palates. Many votes are for BOSS, but to each their own on this one.

Has Canned Coffee Affected Japan’s Coffee Culture?

By this point, it goes without saying that coffee is as easily obtainable as one can imagine with canned coffee — other than having packs of instant coffee at home. With that factor of convenience and its competitive cost, one might think that canned coffee has a huge impact on other coffee business like coffee shops in Japan.

From observation and small conversations with locals, I believe that the impact is not as big as we might think. Sure, canned coffee is flavoured during the weekdays, but a relaxing sit while sipping a hot cup of joe is what a lot of them look forward to on the weekends. Coffee is both a necessity and a choice — it all boils down to the situation you put a person in Japan in.

With the recent global pandemic, many are working from home. Canned coffee on the weekdays become instant coffee sticks or a freshly brewed pot in the house. While the future of canned coffee is certain — it’s here to stay as long as vending machines and convenience stores are still in favour — we might see a decline in its ranks if Japan moves towards a remote working society.

But that’s still in the very far future; even in this pandemic, as we speak, trains are packed at rush hour, businessmen are still running around to make it to face-to-face meetings and vending machines are still Japanese people’s best friend.

Conclusion

Canned coffee is not as common outside of Japan, but it’s extremely prominent in the country and it’s here to stay for a while. As long as the nation continues to be a hub for technology, business and innovation, beverage companies like Coca Cola’s Georgia and canned coffee pioneer UCC are going to get ahead of the game to meet the demands of Japanese coffee lovers.

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