Some would consider Starbucks to be an example of something “anonymously globally.” So omnipresent and generic, that it becomes an empty and meaningless reflection of no particular culture.
Being a Starbucks fan, and having the experience now of living in both the U.S., and Japan, I would argue that culture prevails over commercialism, and that the experience of visiting a Starbucks in Japan is quite different from the U.S.
On the surface, things look basically the same. Similar interior and lighting. Even the products are the same, except for a few unique items in Japan. But below the surface customs are quite different. It take times and attention to notice these tiny details, but if you go to Starbucks as much as I do, these small details become glaringly obvious as time goes by.
Take a Seat, then Order
In the U.S., it is extremely rude to walk into a seat-yourself-café and claim your seat before ordering. This is rude to those people in line, who will receive their drinks or food before you and will have no place to sit.
In Japan, go right on ahead.
I’ve seen countless people walk into Starbucks, set their bags or coats down on an open table, then get in line to order. Even my Japanese friends so this. From what I have observed, it is totally normal.
One of the first things I noticed about Starbucks Japan, was how damn hot the lattes where. I almost burned my tongue every first sip. So I when the barista asks, “hot or iced” I would say, “Hot, but please don’t make is so hot.” This would usually elicit a pause, awkward stare, then a response of “Oh, ok, I understand.” Finally I asked a barista what the proper thing to say is:
That’s ライトホット in Japanese. Yes, I'm serious. That’s how it works here.
Line up at the Drink Counter
Japanese people love order and they love lines. Of course, it is expected that people line up at the register, so that it is clear who is the next customer to order. This is true in the U.S. too, but at the drink counter all bets are off. Usually people in the U.S. will crowd around the Starbucks drink counter or wait at their seats, because it really doesn’t matter what you do or where you wait, since your drinks will come out in order anyway. However, in Japan, the etiquette is to line up at the register, order, then line up at the drink counter. I get bored waiting for my drink, so I usually return to my seat, but this seems to trouble the baristas and other customers. Not enough for them to say anything, but just enough for them to give me confused looks.
The Drink Call–out (or lack there of)
In America, barista call out the name of the drink, or sometimes the name of the customer, when the drink is ready. This is how you know which drink is yours. In Japan, they never write the customer’s name on the cup, and I’ve never heard them call out the drink once it has been made. Instead, you are expected to line up at the drink counter (see above) and receive your drink in person in proper order. Whenever I have returned to my seat or gone to the bathroom after ordering, I was expecting to see my drink waiting for me at the counter, and when it wasn’t I approached the counter, only to have it handed to my by the barista.
In Japan, they will not set your drink on the counter and wait for you to claim it. They will keep your drink behind the counter and wait for you have to approach the counter and have it handed to you.
I have no statistics for this, but I generally don’t see people ordering food at Starbucks in America. Sure, a few people will have cake or a scone, but in general I would say most customers only order beverages. In Japan, nearly everyone has a cake with their coffee. The café culture here it to regard Starbucks like a real café, and order something to drink and eat. If you scan a typical Starbucks anywhere in Japan, more than 70% of the customers will be eating cake off a porcelain plates and silverware, handed to them on a black tray. In America, I usually just see people eating their cake out of the paper take-out baggies.
At Starbucks in America, a good portion of their customers are single people. I'm not talking about their relationship status, I'm just saying that they go to Starbucks alone and read, or study, or stare at their laptop screens. In Japan, most customers are in groups of two or more. Occasionally, you will see a lone person chilling on their laptop, but the scene is dominated by couples and homogenous groups of friends (like, a group of all high school girls, or a group of all men in their 30s, or a group of all women over 50). Starbucks is the place you hang out with your peers. Rarely will you see families or mixed groups.
Timing is Everything
In American, coffee is considered a morning indulgence. Starbucks has worked hard to change that, and to make people crave their drinks at all hours of the day and night, and their efforts have worked, but by and large, coffee is an American morning ritual. For that reason, Starbucks in America will open at 6:00 or 7:00 am, and they will be crowded in the morning. But in the afternoons and evening, not so much. There may be a second wave at night, but not like the morning.
In Japan, it’s the opposite. Starbucks doesn’t open until 8:00 or 9:00 am, and generally stays open until 10:00 or 11:00 pm. The crowds come after lunch 2:00-4:00, and after dinner 8:00-10:00 pm.