[From December Issue 2011]
When looking for cafes in Japan, what first catches your eye are the major chain stores. For instance, there is the American-owned Starbucks coffee shop or the Japanese-owned Doutor. No matter which branch you go to they typically have Western-style interiors and generally the same menus. Popular chains also sell their own brand beverages in convenience stores. These drinks are popular because they are an alternative to going to the cafs.
In Japan, there are also Japanese-style cafes and other uniquely themed cafes: the established Japanese confectionery manufacturer Toraya offers an original menu that uses traditional Japanese ingredients such as sweet beans and green tea; the staff at Silent Cafe in Mitaka City, Tokyo, are all hearing impaired; at the Bookshelf Cafe in Chuo Ward, Tokyo, customers can read electronic books using tablets available in the cafe; additionally, “ouchi cafe” means enjoying a delicious beverage at one’s ouchi (home).
In Akihabara, the city of anime and games, maid cafes staffed by girls in maid outfits are very popular. After these maid cafes became well established, cafes with similar concepts started to appear everywhere. These include shitsuji cafe and miko cafe, which are staffed by butlers and Shinto maidens respectively.
Last July, a new cafe named the Seiyu Cafe opened in Akihabara. “I intentionally named my cafe with maid cafes in mind. I wanted customers to think my cafe was similar to a maid cafe,” says cafe owner, MATSUKAZE Masaya. “But once you step inside the door, you soon realize that our cafe is completely different. All of our staff are real seiyu – professional voice actors.”
“I think the person who came up with the maid cafe concept is a genius,” says Matsukaze. “When we go to Kyoto, we expect to see geisha. Similarly, people who come to Akihabara expect to see maids. But most of the maid cafes only feature staff in maid outfits, the ambiance is uncomfortable and drinks are not very tasty. In our store, customer comfort and the taste of our beverages is very important.”
At the Seiyu Cafe, customers can order dialogue as well as drinks. Serving staff who are also voice actors read the dialogues on the menu at the request of customers. OISHI Tatsuya, a new member of staff, responded to a customer’s request to deliver the lines of a “researcher” by speaking in character for over ten minutes. “Voice actors are in training throughout their lifetime. I am just a beginner,” he says humbly.
“Japanese seiyu have developed techniques to portray characters using only their voice. This is the hidden power of Japanese animation, and the reason why many fans outside of Japan want to enjoy anime in the original language,” says Matsukaze, who is also a very popular voice actor. “I repeatedly tell my staff to keep in mind that this will be the customers’ first and last visit. My wish is to provide customers with a great experience and give them fantastic memories of the fun time they had here at Seiyu Cafe during their once in a lifetime visit to Akihabara.”
KAWAI Kazuyuki, a cafe owner for 38 years in Nagoya also tells his staff that, “We should treat each customer with respect, even if they are a tourist visiting just once.” “I want the customers who chose us over the various cafes in town to be satisfied with their choice,” he adds.
The city of Nagoya where Kawai runs his cafe “Lyon” is a battleground for cafes. This is said to be because Nagoyans have a culture of eating breakfast at cafes. In Japan, it is traditional to eat breakfast at home, but on a Nagoyan weekend, the whole household goes out to a local cafe to enjoy breakfast together. Since competition is intense, many cafes provide “morning service” – a light meal that comes with a beverage. The whole breakfast costs the same as a cup of coffee.
At Lyon, the morning service menu can be ordered throughout the day. “After morning service, customers stop coming in. I thought, if that is the case, let’s keep the morning service going all day,” says Kawai. “But the hardest part of running a cafe is not the cash flow, but finding good staff,” he adds. “If we find staff that provide service not for the money, but for the sake of the customers, visitors become regulars, which automatically results in a sales increase.”
Coming out of Nagoya, “manga kissa (cafes)” are a kind of cafe that have now spread nationwide. At these cafes, customers are able to order drinks and read any comic book made available by the cafe. Soon after this boom, similar concept cafes such as “net cafes,” which provide internet access, appeared. Today, internet and manga “fukugou (combined) cafes” can be found all over Japan, providing comic books, internet access and a free drinks bar.
One of the characteristics of these “fukugou cafes” is that prices are charged by the hour. “Our business is not to serve drinks, but to create a comfortable atmosphere,” says NISHIYAMA Toshiyuki, Chief of Management Planning Division at Runsystem Co., Ltd., which has 184 shops in all over Japan.
Their biggest franchise store, Space Create Jiyuu Kuukan, located in Takadanobaba has approximately 1,980 square meters of floor space, with over 50,000 comic books, six pool tables, shower rooms, dart boards, computers and even karaoke. “We placed popular comic books next to the karaoke rooms, because some customers who come for karaoke may want to read the latest manga,” explains SATO Hiroki, Assistant Manager to the Franchise Operations Division. “One of the shower rooms is for ladies only. We also set up a store shelf displaying billiard equipment for people to purchase, and a tatami room for families.”
“We learn what constitutes a popular service from customers,” says Nishiyama. “For example, if there is a long line at the cashier counter, it means that we need to create a quicker check in/out system. That is how we developed our own unique system.” Unique and popular services are quickly imitated by rival competitors. But “we don’t mind being copied,” adds Nishiyama. “Hardware may easily be copied straight away, but our software, such as staff politeness, cleanliness, and high security, is not as easy to duplicate.”
It’s been said that there is a strong tendency in Japanese to consider “doing something because other stores are doing it.” But if you look to the example of popular cafes, there are many who feel their cafe is different from others, especially in the sense that they have confidence in the service provided by their staff.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo