2008 Student-Faculty Fellows: Vassar College

Starbucks in Japan:
A Case Study in Globalization and Cultural Change

Mentor: Hiraku Shimoda
Students: Jonathan Kaye, Eli Lewis, Lauren Scanlan, Robert Woodward


Eli Lewis, Robert Woodward, Hiraku Shimoda, Lauren Scanlan, and Jonathan Kaye at a Starbucks in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Project Abstract

Lewis, Woodward, Scanlan, and Kaye in front of Doutor

The Vassar research team investigated the on-going globalization of Japan’s long-standing café culture. We sought to understand Starbucks and other cafes as instructive sites where globalization, consumerism, and culture converge. We spent three weeks conducting fieldwork in three specific neighborhoods in central Tokyo Shibuya, Ginza, and Jimbocho where Starbucks operates against three types of competitors: the Japanese chair Dotour; the American chain Tully’s; and traditional neighborhood coffeehouses (kissaten). The team compiled both quantitative and qualitative data in these stores through observation and interviews with customers and management. This intensive ethnography gave us a sense of how Starbucks found its place in the local landscape and earned its cultural capital. At the same time, our findings suggest that Starbucks is hardly a handmaiden of Americanization or globalization; rather, even a successful brand like Starbucks must continually struggle to maintain its worth in what remains a competitive, complex, and diverse locality. Our research compelled us to appreciate globalization not simply as a unilateral imposition of Western practices upon local society, but a series of contested, multilateral negotiations that does not necessarily exclude plurality.

Jonathan Kaye

The team interviewing Asawa Yukako, a student at Achi University and a long-time Starbucks employee

Our research revolved around an evaluation of the cafe culture in Tokyo specifically attempting to observe the relationship between Starbucks and their competition. Despite Japan’s century long history as one of the world’s largest coffee markets, Starbucks has managed to carve a sizable portion of the market for itself. The main inquiry of the research was to precisely determine Starbuck’s place in relation to its consumers and its competition and subsequently examine how these lessons apply to the question of how globalization works at large. We decided that as a group it would be most effective to have each group member experience all the approaches and facets of the research. Each person spent an equal time slot in all of the targeted cafes but was given the ability to approach the methodology for data-collection in his/her own way. I was interested in why people overwhelmingly chose Starbucks over its competitors. To that end, I focused on interviewing as many people as possible to get a concept of the Japanese consumer psyche. I made a rough sketch of what age groups were attracted to one chain versus another. I paid close attention to choices made by various cafes regarding design, store layout, decor, and employee practices. Although it proved difficult to find the ratio of sit-down to take-out customers, I made an effort to track how long sit-down customers spent in the store. I tried to determine if the normal cafe goer is more concerned with the brand or the environment. It was evident that from the start Starbucks has a specific and contentious business model for Japan, and that this model goes far to explain Starbucks success in Tokyo even as Starbuck’s market saturation model in the U.S. begins to fall apart.

I am in the process of transforming this research into a senior thesis for my International Studies major by utilizing my knowledge of the Starbucks experience in Japan to explore ways in which corporations can effectively penetrate other foreign markets. The next step for me is to figure out how to connect the hard data, the conceptual theories, and the socio-cultural interactions and make it coalesce into a modest proposal for would-be multinational corporations. I can now unite my interests in East Asia, international business, economics, and globalization with a set of concrete findings.

Eli Lewis

The first Starbucks in Japan (est. 1996, Ginza, Tokyo)

In this research, we compared the Starbucks franchise in Japan to its competitors: the Japanese cafe chain Dotour, the American chain Tully’s, and some selected traditional cafes, or kissaten. We chose several locations of each cafe type within Tokyo and visited each location several times to collect data. Our methods involved close observation of customer activities and consideration of the demographics within each cafe and also involved interviewing customers. We decided on three Tokyo neighborhoods to focus on, each with a distinct demographic associated with it, and found one of each of the three cafe chain’s shops and a kissaten within a short distance of each other. The three neighborhoods were Shibuya, for a young and fashionable crowd; Ginza, for an older, more business-oriented crowd; and Jimbocho, known for its used bookstores, for a student crowd. While our goal was to observe what sorts of people tended to patronize each of the four types of cafes, we also wanted to get as many first-hand opinions from Japanese coffee drinkers as possible. We attended a seminar about coffee put on by Starbucks which afforded us the opportunity to both witness some of Starbuck Japan’s marketing strategies and connect with some enthusiastic Japanese customers. Lastly, our group was able to have an extended interview with a previous Starbucks employee who had done her own research project on Starbucks Japan’s hierarchal employee system. We split duties equally amongst ourselves, each of us taking one shift in each of the four cafe locations in a neighborhood every day. I took notes on how many people came in and sat down, and what drinks they ordered. I grouped customers based on age groups, dress (casual vs. business), gender, whether they came alone or with companions, and what they did as they sat in the cafe. Whenever I could, I took the opportunity to approach customers and briefly interview them.

Taking part in this research was a dream opportunity for me a chance to practice using the Japanese language to research an interesting topic. Since our research topic was a coffee chain and the business model associated with it that has managed to span global cultures, the interviews would often tend towards the topics of globalization and general cultural connections between Japan, the United States, and the rest of the world. Interviewing Japanese also gave me the chance to build bridges and destroy misconceptions between the two countries. Spending three weeks in Tokyo taking in the city and practicing the language taught me plenty, but getting to participate in an organized field study about a specific topic was an added bonus

Lauren Scanlan

Scanlan with a Starbucks employee

Our research mission statement was simple: go to Tokyo to find out how people choose where to get their coffee. We had many questions that we wanted answered. What influences the choice between a Japanese brand and an American brand? Do the Japanese know where the brands are from in the first place? Why do individuals choose a chain over a family-owned restaurant? Who is making these decisions, a student doing English homework or a salary-man taking a well-earned break from work? Our plan was to study four different types of coffee shops in three different neighborhoods in Tokyo. Due to my interest in history, I was most interested in study local kissaten, independent coffeehouses that are usually European in style and that gained popularity in the years following the end of World War II. Their survival seems counterintuitive to the current mentality of Japanese capitalism and consumerism. These coffee shops are usually decorated in 19th-century European styles, though the three we went to are all very different from each other. For example, the one in Shibuya stayed true to its European roots, while the Ginza kissaten took a modern approach and used styled furniture and ambiance to create a trendy setting. The one in Jimbocho had an historic Japanese setting, with one table even having an old-style cooking area in the middle. In the age of large corporations and mass standardization, these shops stand out because of their quirky individual style. In all three kissaten, there is a bar surrounding the area where the coffee is made where customers can sit. This allows them to talk to the barkeep and makes them feel like they are a part of the coffee making process. This creates an atmosphere that invites the customers to stay, rather than to grab a coffee and leave. The baristas make an effort to make the kissaten experience an extremely personalized one. For the Japanese, drinking coffee is a relatively new tradition. It was not developed, grown, or brewed by their ancestors; it was an iconic product of the foreigners that came to their shores. There is still a sense of “otherness” that becomes apparent when there is a Starbucks right next to a Shinto shrine.

The history that makes it into textbooks is far removed from the history I saw in action. Every time a customer chooses a chain over a kissaten and the owner is forced to close a shop that has been in Tokyo for thirty years, history is being made. Every day, Japanese choose either to enter the local kissaten coffee shop or carry a cup of Starbucks to work with them as a symbol of status. The personal choices of individuals change history but are often overlooked.

Robert Woodward

I travelled with three other Vassar College students and a mentor to Tokyo to study how Starbucks operates in Japan in competition with other coffee chains and coffee stores. To collect data, we observed the clientele and employees at the coffee shops, studied the layout of the coffee shops, and interviewed customers and employees. We also did background research and participated in a Starbucks coffee-appreciation seminar. During the limited time we were in Japan, we could not hope to produce either a scientific statistical study or an authoritative ethnography; rather, we focused upon developing our skills in both. Although our observations are limited in scope, they yet provide interesting and nontrivial information about Starbucks in Japan. We were able to analyze how Starbucks created its corporate image and how this image compares with that created by Doutor, Tully, and smaller cafes. We discovered that Starbuck’s customers tend to be younger and that there are more females at Starbucks than at Doutor or Tullys, with Dotour having the oldest and largest percentage of male customers. Customers at the kissaten were too few in number to enable us to draw conclusions. Starbucks and Tully’s appear to offer similar products in similar settings with comparable pricing. Doutor is cheaper and offers food with its coffee. The kissaten are independently managed, situated on side roads, rather than major thoroughfares, and have fewer customers than the chair stores. They seem less preoccupied with selling large volumes of coffee. Their food is more expensive than that offered by chain shops, which helps to offset the lower volume of customers. Employees at all locations are very friendly and readily interact with customers.

Doing this research enabled me to gain valuable experience in data collection and analysis, planning research, and conducting interviews, all of which are readily applicable to my major field of study: economic statistics. Furthermore, my skills in Japanese language and cross-cultural communication improved significantly.