I don’t know about you, but I like sleeping at night. That’s why I try to avoid caffeine in the afternoons or evenings. This was relatively easy to do back in the United States, where every diner had a fresh orange-capped pot of decaf ready to pour into your mug. But here in Japan, it’s not that straightforward.
The first issue is availability. You simply can’t find decaffeinated coffee in places you normally expect, like traditional coffee shops and neighborhood grocery stores. You would think the opposite would be true, since Japan appears to be a highly caffeinated country. When they aren’t drinking a bottle of Boss Coffee, the locals are filling up on a vast selection of green teas. There is even an entire ceremony devoted to the wonder of powdered tea. And on top of this, research suggests that Asians in general metabolize caffeine at a slower rate than Caucasians, so you would think they would seek ways to reduce or eliminate that stimulant.
Yet there is no need to be nervous. Non-caffeine drinks can be found at most major beverage chains. Getting a cup of that lower-powered drink is easy, as long as you know the secret word. Back in my American homeland, we have a few different ways to request a drink without caffeine, and you can use them interchangeably at any coffee shop. The standards are “decaf” or “decaffeinated.” You can also say “unleaded,” which always gets a smirk. My favorite is the “Why Bother,” where a decaf latté is crafted with sugar-free sweetener and non-dairy creamer.
In Japan, you can’t be as willy-nilly with your ordering preferences. I have found that each store wants you to use just the right word when choosing decaf. The easiest place to practice is at Starbucks, where the preferred term is “décafé” (デカフェ), just a bit different than “decaf.” Notice the Frenchified “é” characters throughout the word, pronounced like the “e” in “Hey!” This will get you a more relaxing coffee beverage, though at a ¥50 markup.
Yet if you try to use that “décafé” word at, say, the large Doutor chain of coffee shops, you might get that reaction where a Japanese person struggles to understand what native word you are bungling yet again. In most coffee shops, including Doutor, you need to use the term “caffeineless” (カフェインレス), a made-up English word that really should be included in Webster’s Dictionary.
What I find especially amusing is that each shop will force you to confirm their specific term before completing your order. If you use “caffeineless” at Starbucks, they will make sure you really want to order a “décafé” drink. If you find a Doutor that permits the use of the word “décafé”—perhaps a registered trademark of Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd and therefore anathema to competitors—the counter staff will prompt you to say the word “caffeineless” before ringing in your order. This isn’t a universal occurrence, but it has happened enough times to me that I think there is a Candid Camera hidden somewhere behind the counter.
Starbucks is currently in the minority in terms of decaf language, but I expect their preferred term to eventually dominate. When I first moved to Japan, most coffee purveyors would ignore any word other than “caffeineless,” but these days they will at least acknowledge “décafé” when taking your order. As post-pandemic tourism picks up and foreigners start recklessly throwing the “decaf” word around, Japan will adapt to the new standard. Fortunately, all that caffeine has made them alert enough to handle the transition.
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