When I think of my own Cool Japan, I picture a refreshing tall glass of Aisukōhī (“iced coffee”). As much as I like iced Matcha tea, you cannot get between me and my iced coffee. Foreigners don’t necessarily picture a coffee-drinking geisha, but Japan is the fourth largest coffee consuming country after the United States, Brazil and Germany. The Japanese were the first to invent canned coffee, the ubiquitous beverage served in millions of vending machines scattered conveniently across the country. The annual consumption here is estimated at around 450,000 tons or 48 billion cups.
While we associate Japan with the tea ceremony practiced, taught, and admired throughout the world, coffee-drinking enthusiasts in Japan are here to stay. Drinking coffee has become associated with taking a much-needed break from Isogashii (“being busy and overworked”), but drinking coffee did not just happen on its own. It had to be promoted as a modern lifestyle habit in a direct Brazil-to-Japan line.
One little known story about that promotional campaign goes back to 1930s pre-war Japan in fashionable Ginza. Café coffee consumption by the public in elegant settings like those in Paris or Sao Paulo were still rare, with a few exceptions like the coffee served in the Imperial Hotel. The Brazilian government decided to give Ginza a caffeine jolt that everyone would walk to, talk about, and frequent.
Tokyo is less than two years away from its global showcase to the world, Tokyo 2020, and could take a page from the cultural diplomacy playbook of Brazil. Cultural diplomacy involves the exchange of ideas, information, art, language and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding. The key is on mutuality and building ties between nations over the long-term, not for short-term policy gains. We who study diplomacy by other means (public, cultural, sports), often refer to cultural diplomacy as revealing the “soul of a nation.” In this case, the soul-revealing from Brazil to Japan came through designing a beautiful setting for a delicious free cup of coffee as a starting point, and layering aspects of women-targeted advertising and instruction in cafezinho (coffee Brazilian style) within a context of modern, sophisticated living.
The Embassy of Brazil in Japan is sharing this cultural diplomacy story of the propagation of coffee through the establishment of Ginza’s Café do Brasil in an embassy exhibit free and open to the public. It reflects how culture was and remains the driving force of Brazil’s foreign policy. The Brazil-funded Ginza café lasted six years (1934-1940) until Brazil declared war against the Axis. This exhibit is a freeze frame that depicts a Japanese café society unaware of how much would change for Tokyo in just a few years’ time.
Brazil is over 17,000 kilometers from Japan, but as the largest producer of coffee in the 1930s, it had a vested interest in expanding its market share to Asia, specifically to the Japanese consumer.
In 1930, coffee exports made up 56.5 percent of total exports from Brazil and the Brazilian share of world exports was 55 percent. The economy’s continued wealth and growth were dependent on expanding the taste for the liquified brown bean. Today, Brazil remains the world’s leading coffee exporter, followed by Vietnam, Germany and Colombia, but coffee exports are just 3 percent of total exports and Brazil’s share is under one-third of the global market.
In 1930s Japan, Brazil wanted to promote the art of drinking coffee in a coffee house like the elegant ones frequented by the intellectuals and artists in Sao Paulo. The heart of Japanese sophistication and commerce, the center of Ginza, was chosen for the government-sponsored Café do Brasil, which offered Brazilian coffee for free in its elegant showroom. The intention was to open up the Japanese palate to Brazilian coffee, not to sell. The café featured jute bags of coffee beans on display. Jute was first introduced to Brazil by Japanese immigrants.
We may not automatically associate government bureaucracy with upscale style and class, but the Brazilian public sector’s approach to coffee promotion was to spare no detail or expense and to make the act of consuming coffee a luxury that everyone could enjoy. The then National Coffee Department and Embassy commissioned the best artists and architects to make the café come to life.
Czech American architect, Antonin Raymond, who had come to Japan to help Frank Lloyd Wright with his design of the Imperial Hotel, along with his wife and creative partner Noémi Pernessin, became the architectural designer of the building that housed the Ginza Café do Brasil, as well as its avant-garde furnishings. The Raymond Architectural Design Office in Shibuya has the original architectural drawings, which the Embassy attempted to reproduce, but the costs were too prohibitive.
Café do Brasil, with its artistic flourish and modern furniture, immediately attracted the Ginbura (“walking around Ginza”) patrons. For the older generation Japanese, Ginbura became associated with going to have coffee at Café do Brasil. A photo from the exhibit captioned “Furniture for Propaganda Room of Brazil Coffee Tokyo 1934,” reflects the neutral meaning of the word propaganda in Portuguese, often used interchangeably with advertising or promotion.
The most famous Japanese painter of the 20th century, Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (藤田 嗣治 November 27, 1886 – January 29, 1968) was commissioned to paint the mural panel in the main room of the cafe. As a sly wink to the public, he even added his self-portrait showing himself, paintbrush in hand, painting the cafe mural.
Foujita had been to Brazil in 1932 where he experienced Rio’s Carnival and met his Brazilian counterpart, Candido Portinari, whose award-winning 1935 masterpiece, Colhedores De Café, depicts migrants working in a coffee plantation. Foujita’s Sao Paulo influence is evident in the Ginza café paintings, as is his appreciation for Latin American muralists.
A large part of the original mural can be found in the Hakone Open Air Museum. Still missing to this day is the left part of the mural depicting the self-portrait Foujita painting the Bay of Rio. In Japan, some experts argue that the Foujita panel is considered to be the greatest example of the use of art in commercial advertising. At the time, the panel was commissioned for $20,000-40,000. The attraction of the coffee café was as much about the mural as it was to try the free Brazilian coffee. Perhaps even more so. Everything was carefully chosen to transmit an image of sophistication.
Visitors will marvel at several iconic photographs by the acclaimed photographer, Hiroshi Hamaya, including 1935’s “Coffee Girl” (“A moca do Café”) and see several hundred never-before-seen photographs of various activities related to coffee on offer. There was a very comprehensive effort to train Japanese women in Brazilian coffee making. The promotion of coffee living in Japan was quite strategic: to educate the consumer in the preparation of the Brazilian coffee at home or work. Women of Japan were also the main target consumers of the propaganda campaign. On display are original 1930s advertising posters and magazine features illustrating a modern, sophisticated, and Western-oriented female as a nod to the cosmopolitan interests of the Japanese women of the day.
Click here for the official link to the Café do Brasil exhibit at the Embassy of Brazil, which runs through 31 October (Halloween).
Nancy Snow (Ph.D., International Relations), lives in Tokyo, Japan and is Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Snow is Professor Emeritus of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of 11 books on communication, diplomacy, and politics, including Japan’s Information War, the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, and Propaganda, Inc.: Selling America’s Culture to the World.