Now operating over 1,000 outlets in Japan, Starbucks launched its first location (pictured) in 1996 in Ginza, Tokyo. Image: Yukiko Hamada, Photobucket.

American Coffee Retailers Making Tremendous Gains in Japan as Demand Surges


Starbucks now has branches in all 47 prefectures of Japan after opening a location in Tottori Prefecture on May 23. The opening was extraordinarily successful, with around 1,000 customers lining up that morning.

The opening signifies a notable milestone in US coffeemakers’ expansion in Japan. Since making its debut into the Japanese market in 1996, Starbucks Corporation has opened over 1,000 shops around the country and will soon hold sole ownership of Starbucks Japan, after a buyout of the corporation’s Japanese partner Sazaby League and other public shareholders was announced last September.

Other US-based coffee companies have also been rising in the Japanese market. Starbucks is not the first American coffeemaker to have opened a chain in every prefecture, with Seattle-based Tully’s Coffee, which entered Japan a year after Starbucks, accomplishing the feat when it opened a location in Tottori in 2014. High-end Oakland-based Blue Bottle Coffee Company recently opened its first Japanese location in February in Kiyosumi, Tokyo, opening a second shop the following month in the chic Omotesando area of the Japanese capital.

Coffee has been in increasingly high demand in recent years, with Japanese consumption increasing from around 420,000 tons in 2011 to 449,000 tons in 2014. Convenience store coffee sales alone increased 48% from 2013 to 2014, in part because chains like 7-Eleven have begun selling self-serve coffee that is considered high quality but is sold at low prices.

This search for high-quality, specialty coffee is what constitutes a worldwide movement known as “the third wave of coffee.” In Japan, this movement has also tended to focus on creating an environment reminiscent of the country’s traditional coffee shops, known as kissaten, the number of which has been nearly halved since 1990. American chains like Blue Bottle have helped fill this void, and despite its relatively high prices, the California brewer has met great success, with four-hour waits being reported at its Tokyo shops.

With sales continuing to climb, American coffeemakers have every intention of expanding further in Japan. Starbucks Japan CEO Jun Sekine stated in May that his company is planning to open 100 shops a year in the near future. Blue Bottle is preparing to open its third location this year in the upscale Daikanyama shopping area in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Patrick Madaj is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and an undergraduate student at the University of Oklahoma.