Food for Thought

Some years ago, I came across an article explaining why operating a cafe in New York City is mathematically impossible. The writer had tried it himself. Owning a cafe is one of the most popular dreams among full-time employees. I, too, have fantasized about a cafe where creative people can hang out and exchange ideas. Although it sounds like a naive idea now, there used to be many creative hubs like this in New York. The rent is too high to allow people to take up tables sipping coffee for hours. As predicted by the article, I’ve seen cafes like this come and go.

Apparently, in Tokyo, such cafes are still possible. Every “kissa-ten” I’ve visited has left me alone to chill out for as long as I wished. The only issue is that they open late, like noon. I asked my mom why this might be, and she theorized that Japanese people go to cafes primarily for space, not coffee.

Japanese people love expressing themselves through an established structure. The best example is haiku; they express their individuality within the fixed number of syllables. Kissa-ten is no exception; every place offers its unique takes on classic menu items like milk toast, cream soda, naporitan (pasta), and omurice. Decor reflects the personal values and tastes of the owners; some are modern and Western, while others are traditional Japanese.

The choice of a cellphone case is another example of an expression through structure. Even though Japanese students wear uniforms, they can express themselves through cellphone cases. The variety of cases available at electronic stores is overwhelming.

This is a reflection of how they understand the concept of “self”; society comes first, and the self is defined within the societal structure. In the West, the self comes first, and the societal rules are made to be broken. This is reflected even in the way mailing addresses are written. In Japan, you start with the largest context and narrow down to where you are; prefecture (state), city, and street. In the West, you start from yourself and expand outward.

However, ironically, unbridled capitalism makes self-expression impossible in New York City because its expression, money, is uniform.