Japan from the inside out

Java jive

Posted by ampontan on Monday, September 24, 2012

SOMETIMES it’s the observation of small matters that leads to the recognition of big differences. The contrast of those big differences sometimes leads to a recognition of the nature of that which is being contrasted.

As an example, here’s a post from the Beijing Shots website. Some people in China are seriously wrinkled over the presence of Starbucks in their country, and some people are cranking themselves into righteously indignant knots about a new Starbucks near a monastery:

The American giant Starbucks has caused heated discussion in China over whether it is appropriate for the world’s largest Western coffee shop to set up in the Lingyin Temple, a Buddhist monastery in Hangzhou, East China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Sina Weibo account of the company’s stores in Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces announced Friday that it would open a shop in the monastery on Saturday. The news was reposted over 4,000 times with many biting comments about the odd combination of the modern commercial shops being set up in ancient temples.

Here’s the problem — particularly the parts after the comma:

A Weibo user said it creates an odd juxtaposition to drink coffee in a setting meant for meditation, as Starbucks symbolizes foreign culture and Lingyin represents traditional Chinese culture. Another user complained that even religious sites are not immune from the invasion of foreign culture.

Starbucks defends itself:

“The new coffee shop is located outside of the central scenic area requiring a 20-minute walk,” a staff member surnamed Wang with the management office of the temple told the Global Times, adding that Starbucks has met all the strict requirements the management office sets for commercial establishments.

But that’s not good enough for an on-call academic:

“The scenic spot’s management office should do its research before opening a foreign brand store at a cultural heritage site,” Zhang Yiwu, professor with the Department of Chinese Language and Literature at Peking University, told the Global Times, adding that finding a balance between Chinese culture and commercialism is critical.

They’ve also forced Starbucks out of the shop it opened in the Forbidden City seven years ago. The company removed their sign from the window two years ago, but that wasn’t enough for a CCTV news reader:

“The Chinese people did not have the taste or tradition for drinking coffee, but Starbucks has turned China into its second largest global market. This is an admirable commercial success. But there is something that is disappointing: there is a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. I and numerous Chinese and foreign friends believe that it is incongruous to have a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City, because it is ‘obscene.’ I don’t know if Starbucks has any plans to be present at the Taj Mahal Palace in India, or the Pyramids of Egypt, the Buckingham Palace in England and other world cultural treasure and miracle sites, but I ask you to get out of the Forbidden City.”

– Rui Chenggang @ Yale CEO Summit Conference

Do you think this is starting to read as if it were a clinical case study of terminal ethnocentrism? Wait until you read what the Beijing Shots editor wrote:

Editor’s note: In addition to being a huge waste of money, Starbucks is seen by many traditional Chinese as being a culturally invasive. In case you were born yesterday, Chinese people have always drank tea, NOT coffee. It would be a shame for China’s beautiful tea culture to disappear and be replaced by a less sophisticated, coffee. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if Starbucks coffee weren’t so darn expensive.

If China’s several millennia of beautiful tea culture were to be supplanted by the invasion of that crude and barbaric beverage because there are now more than 570 Starbucks outlets in a country of 1.3 billion, it might be because more people wanted to drink coffee than tea. It also might be because Starbucks saw the opportunity to create a new market and took advantage of it. Odd how little confidence the editor has in China’s cultural resilience, despite the confidence he has in its superiority.

And the price of Starbucks products is a matter between the company and its customers. If they’re too expensive or culturally insensitive, drink all the tea in China instead. That’s how free markets work.

There’s more. The editor quotes a foreigner writing on another site who praises something else Mr. Rui wrote: “An essay about Japan that every Chinese person ought to read”. Said the unidentified foreigner:

(It) should indeed be required reading by every Chinese for its poignant and critical analysis of Nationalistic pride and misguided views about Japan. It should also be read by foreigners to de-jade them of the opinion that all Chinese think using a sliver of the perspective that the world at large holds.

Here’s the de-jader:

That bitter part of Sino-Japanese history is just one shadow cast in the two-thousand-year history of Sino-Japanese relationship. It is not everything. The future will be even longer.

We cannot keep repeating that the Chinese language is the ancestor of the Japanese language, wanting the Japanese people to be the descendants of the 3,000 boys and girls that could not find the magical eternal-life potion for the First Emperor of Qin, or forgetting (or even being totally ignorant) of the contributions that Japan has made towards China.

Admitting someone else’s good points does not mean that you are deprecating yourself. On the contrary, it is an expression of self-confidence.

That sets the editor off about the foreigner, not the Chinese news reader:

The attitude from the western multinational corporate mouthpiece reminds us all that Starbucks must in fact be boycotted, otherwise this kind of arrogance, and hostility will continue, as these writers cannot survive without funding from western multinationals. If you consider yourself a person with honor, you ought to also boycott websites such as danwei, and imagethief. and inform others of their malicious agenda….Maybe the time has come to stop whoring out our land, and put heavy restrictions on western multinationals. If we want to protect our culture, then Mcdonalds, KFC, Carefour, Jack Jones, Uni Qlo, all must be limited, not only Starbucks. If the corporate mouth pieces insist on slandering the Chinese people, Chinese culture, and the Chinese government, then it is certainly fair game to turn up the heat on western multinational corporations. What goes around, comes around.

Why yes, they do want to exact revenge on everyone who mistreated them for the past 150 years. Didn’t you know?

What they don’t know is the concept expressed by the economist Tyler Cowan in his book Creative Destruction, and quoted by Don Boudreaux at Café Hayek:

Trade, even when it supports choice and diverse achievement, homogenizes culture in the following sense: it gives individuals, regardless of their country, a similarly rich set of consumption opportunities. It makes countries or societies “commonly diverse,” as opposed to making them different from each other….

Cross-cultural trade does not eliminate differences altogether, but, rather, it liberates differences from the constraints of place.

To which commenter Yevdokiya Zagumenova added:

….and gives the natives who don’t appreciate the loss of illusory control in a world they no longer understand something to rail against with charges of “American Cultural Imperialism” (for example).

The editor at this site isn’t an outlier, if that’s what you’re wondering. The Chinese expressing views such as these in English have become a presence on the Internet.

Now for the contrast. Here’s what I wrote about a new Starbucks that opened in Japan last December:

Starbucks Japan announced they will open a shop on the sando, or approach path, to the Dazaifu Tenman-gu Shinto shrine on the 16th. It will be the first Starbucks shop at a shrine or Buddhist temple.

The Tenman-gu shrine is a large facility with gardens containing 6,000 plum trees in addition to the buildings. A Shinto shrine was first built there in 905, and the current building, registered as an important cultural property, dates from 1591. It was built on the grave of Tenjin, the deification name of Sugawara no Michizane, renowned for his erudition and learning. They’re opening the Starbucks at just the right time, too, as tens of thousands of people will visit the shrine for New Year’s. The visits will continue into January as students make the pilgrimage to ask the deity for a blessing to pass their high school or university entrance examination. Another attraction, the Kyushu National Museum, is within walking distance nearby.

The location demands that this shop not resemble the typical shopping mall Starbucks. It was designed by University of Tokyo architect Kuma Kengo, known for his work on the Suntory Museum of Art and the Nezu Museum. That design combines the traditional and the modern with natural materials, primary among which is 2,000 pieces of Japanese cedar obtained by thinning out forests. It will also have two gardens, one in front facing the sando and one inside with more plum trees. There will be 46 seats in the interior and 10 on the terrace.

The post includes a photo of the interior and a 10-minute YouTube video of the street where the shop is located and the grounds of the shrine itself.

The Dazaifu shop opening was a news item on the day it was announced, but people have since forgotten about it. If anyone complained, it escaped my notice. Starbucks Japan has 955 shops in Japan, according to their website. Yet Japan’s beautiful tea culture is still thriving. Even young people, mostly women, practice the tea ceremony. They have clubs in high schools and colleges. And when they open a Starbucks near a Shinto shrine, they make sure it harmonizes with the neighborhood.

Some people are adaptable and are the stronger for it. Some people are rigid and are the weaker for it.

Some people in the West get all warm and fuzzy and why-can’t-we-get-along about the Chinese. Some, such as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, are openly envious of their political and social systems.

Which part of those systems, exactly?

As their own name for themselves indicates, these folks believe they’re the flower in the center of the world.

You know what that makes us.

The website says there are 200 Starbucks outlets in China. There were 570 as of May. Mr. Rui said China was the second largest global market. There are more than 955 outlets in Japan.

There’s no need for me to make pithy comments when I know you’re thinking plenty of pithy thoughts on your own.

Whoops Mr. Moto, I’m a coffee pot.

8 Responses to “Java jive”

  1. toadold said
    According to Mr. Chang China is proving to be an untrustworthy business partner and won’t only be the Japanese that won’t invest there.
    From what I’ve absorbed over the internet the Japanese can be very purists when it comes to coffee. The upscale coffee shops use siphon brewers for instance. It may be that the attention to detail in the brewing of tea translates over into other areas?
    Meanwhile in celebration of the fact that “everybody knows the Japanese aren’t good at jazz because of its improvisational nature:

    My only complaint is that Hiromi Uehera can take her improve into the ultra modern Jazz areas that I can’t follow.

  2. humansequalearth said

    Found it!

    The Forbidden Starbucks

  3. humansequalearth said

    Starbucks must use products made in china, in china and operations world wide!
    I am now curious what products Starbucks buys from china to operate world wide.

  4. toadold said

    You could everything for a Starbucks store in China except the coffee. Paper cups, plastic stir sticks, stainless ware, thermal jugs, just about everything can be China sourced if you keep on top of the suppliers on quality control. China would be closer to a lot of the S.E. Asian coffee producers so I wouldn’t be surprised if they roasted and ground a bunch in China also.

  5. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    “Odd how little confidence the editor has in China’s cultural resilience, despite the confidence he has in its superiority.”

    A: It is the same as Japanese older generation back in 50’s to 70’s treated rock’n’roll, yeah!

    No, I found out the editor’s real complaint at the end. He is merely saying Starbucks is very expensive. And I agree with him on that. Particularly here in Sao Paulo, coffee is just like a green tea in Japan. It is omnipresent and frequently free (at lunchonette, etc.). It is not of super quality, generally, but it still is tasty. So I rarely go to Starbucks. I go to McDonald’s (the menu called Angus Bacon is about 21 reais, about 800 yen, but is absolutely meaty and bouncy) twice a month. KFC is rare, probably because chicken in Brazil is generally of high quality and it attracts less people, in my understanding. Starbucks is crowded with people most of the time, as in Manhattan and Tokyo.

  6. Andrew in Ezo said

    At Starbucks, you’re paying for the ambience and a place to pass the time, as the drip coffee is pretty bad (Tully’s is better, and as far as chains go, Peet’s has the best). That said, few customers at Starbucks actually drink coffee, usually you’ll see them sipping those calorie and fat-laden frozen concoctions topped with whipped cream, even in winter in Japan. Starbucks, to its credit, offers decaf, which is still relatively rare in Japan, and must for me after 6pm…

  7. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    AIE: I admit that the Starbacks provides the ambience and the place to pass the time but I cannot rely on them since there are almost always too much people there! I agree that Tully’s is better and frequently have it to go (in Tokyo).

  8. ampontan said

    Toadold: They do have coffee plantations in China. See this.

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