When Japanese tea shone in the world: the development and export of sencha (1853-1918)

The beginning of an adventure

1856: in Nagasaki, an English merchant took 10,000 kin (斤) of Japanese tea on board for Europe and especially the United States.

1853: Commodore Perry arrived in Japan at the head of his “Black Ships” (kuro-bune 黒船), and asked (ordered) Japan to open to international trade. This was a major event in Japan’s history, and it created great discord in the country, leading to the fall of the Tokugawa military regime and restoration of Imperial power in 1868.

1853 was also the year that Ôura Kei (大浦慶, 1828-84), the daughter of an oil wholesaler in Nagasaki, which was at the time the only counter open to foreigners (in principle, only to the Dutch), offered a Dutch trader some Ureshino (嬉野) tea samples. The tea was appreciated, and this led to a huge order from an English trader. It took several years for “O-Kei-chan” to amass the quantity requested: she had to seek tea everywhere in Japan. Today, we generally consider that 10,000 kin corresponds to 6 tons, but Japanese units of measure at the time were not really “units” in that, depending on the product, they corresponded to different weights. Thus, 6 tons of tea is the minimum, but it is possible that the amount required was up to 11.25 tons. In any case, at the time, this was a phenomenal quantity, which explains why she needed 3 years to procure it.

Sencha as the foundation of Japan’s international trade – foreign merchants as middlemen and the Port of Yokohama

This historical deal took place before the Ansei Treaties (安政条約) were signed in 1858, thereby officially opening various Japanese ports, including Hakodate, Kobe and Yokohama. Japan thus entered into the era of international commerce, even though trade remained in the hands of westerners, since the Japanese had neither the knowledge nor the experience required to take case of all aspects, from A to Z. Many western companies, mostly from Great Britain and the United States, set up operations in the Port of Yokohama, which became the centre of international trade in Japanese tea. Thus, most tea began to be shipped through Yokohama, to the detriment of Edo (the future Tokyo), and traditional wholesalers lost the advantages that went with having a virtual monopoly.

One after the next, companies built tea processing factories in the port. The women working in them gave the tea a final drying so that it would keep well during the long voyage ahead. The technique employed was a kind of roasting that corresponds to what is still done today: “hi-ire” (火入れ). Many English tea labels of the period say “pan-fired” or “basket-fired,” which indicates the roasting method. The former was the most common, and involved roasting in a metal basin or wok, whereas the latter involved heating the tea in a basket over a brazier. It was reserved for the highest quality teas.

Another very important thing was that the factories removed the stems, since American consumers did not like them.

Westerners brought their habits with them, and did not negotiate directly with producers, but went through brokers, as they were used to doing in China.

Foreign merchants also introduced a method for examining tea samples. There were two trends at the time: the English method, in which teas were prepared in porcelain teapots, and the American method, in which teas were prepared directly in white porcelain bowls. The latter method was the one introduced, and it is still used today in Japan, no matter what kind of tea. However, the English tendency prevailed in tea leaf evaluation, where teas are placed on a long black table. (The American method involved a round white turntable.) Even today, at competitions, in markets and at the wholesaler’s, teas are displayed on black plates (whereas it seems to me that white plates are used elsewhere).

The foundations of Japanese international trade were quickly established. The main imports were furs and cotton fabric, and the major exports were silk and tea. Both the expiring Tokugawa government and the rising Meiji government were perfectly aware of the importance of the tea trade.

Indeed, after their fall in 1868, the Tokugawas and their relatives took refuge in Sunpu (駿府, the future city of Shizuoka), and began producing tea on the Makinohara Plateau (where the cities of Makinohara, Shimada and Kikugawa are now located). This gave birth to what is now the largest tea-producing area in Japan.

In 1881, 2609 tons of tea were produced in what is today Shizuoka Prefecture, in other words, 12.4 percent of the total, but in 1895, 10,856 tons were produced: 34.1 percent of the total. This sharp increase, combined with large-scale production in the Tokyo area, favoured the Port of Yokohama, which was in the ideal geographical location, halfway between two major production areas.

Yet, in 1899, the Port of Shimizu (in today’s Shimizu Borough of the City of Shizuoka) was designated an international port, and gradually became the new centre for exports of Japanese tea. Major western companies also moved there.

The modernization of Japan and boom in tea exports

The authorities could only encourage tea production, but the tea had to please Americans, who were almost the only consumers. They liked sencha, steamed green tea. It was therefore sencha that was developed, to the detriment of green tea heated in woks according to the Chinese method (kama-iri cha), which had been by far the most common until then.

In 1870, Japan presented tea in a fair abroad for the first time, at the Industrial Exhibition in San Francisco.

In 1879, the Meiji government held the first Tea Fair (製茶共進会), where products were exhibited and awards distributed in the hope of improving the level of technical skill and quality of tea production. It was the ancestor of today’s competitions.

From his travels in China and India, where he had been sent by the government, Tada Motokichi (多田元吉, 1829–1896) brought back plans for a machine for stirring tea, thereby laying the foundations for mechanization of tea production.

Next, Takabayashi Kenzô (高林謙三, 1832–1901) perfected the machine for rough stirring (sojû-ki 粗揉機). All the other machines, including the one for steaming and those for the various stirring stages, saw the light of day in the last part of the Meiji Era. Some of the machines ran on oil, but others were powered by water wheels!

Harvesting was not modernized until the Taishô Era (1912–1926), when tea shears began to be used.

In 1870, 7388 tons of tea were exported, in other words, 94.7 percent of Japan’s domestic production. In 1899, 20,839 tons were exported: 73.9 percent of the total.

Towards the end of the Meiji Era, mechanization principles and competition criteria, the foundations of Japan’s tea industry today, were already set.

The ups and (bitter) downs: the inexorable decline in exports

Despite all efforts, products that were of very dubious quality began to appear. Some teas were dried improperly and therefore were of low quality, some teas were mixed with other leaves, some teas were dyed. These defects and spurious practices led the United States to create “anti-fake tea” legislation in 1883. The Japanese government also took action, and passed a law in 1884 requiring all tea producers (aside from those producing tea for their own personal consumption) to belong to an association that would regulate production standards.

However, this was not sufficient. By the turn of the century, Americans were drinking more and more black tea from India. In fact, aside from changes in food habits, they were forsaking Japanese tea for the same reasons that they had abandoned Chinese tea more than 50 years before: unstable quality and prices. The tea industry in Japan was based on the work of small independent producers, who could not all have access to the same knowledge and technology. In India, the English had established large-scale monoculture tea plantations, which of course made it impossible to create the very highest quality teas, but did deliver large quantities of tea of reliable quality at stable prices.

The Meiji government had indeed tried to set up black tea production, initially without success under the direction of Chinese experts, and then with the support of experts from India and on the basis of knowledge brought back by Tada Motokichi. Nonetheless, the quality of Japanese black tea was not excellent, and production costs were too high compared with what was being done in India

In short, tea exports declined. There was an upswing to 23,142 tons in 1918, but that was due to the stoppage of exports from India following World War I. In 1928, it fell to 10,802 tons.

After World War I, Japanese tea had to find new markets (which it was more or less successful in doing in the Middle East and North Africa). What should be noted about all these ups and downs, which occurred a little more than half a century ago, is that sencha, steamed Japanese green tea, which was perfected in the eighteenth century, was not a major tea and is in no way the traditional drink of the Japanese people. Sencha was developed and became what it is today in order to be sold to Americans, in accordance with their tastes. Moreover, during that crucial time when Japan was modernizing, tea was the second engine of the country’s economic growth, after silk. These two facts are of course completely unknown to the Japanese…

All aspects of the history of tea in Japan are fascinating because they reveal glimpses of Japan’s history and allow us to understand it. However, I think these few decades are the most surprising and have the greatest implications, especially when we look at all the difficulties that Japanese tea has experienced since the earlier 1990s. That a product that raised Japan onto the international economic and commercial stage is in a crisis that could lead to its disappearance within 20 to 30 years can only leave a bitter taste in the mouth.


– 日本茶輸出の150年 Vol. 1 & 2 (“150 Years of Japanese Tea Exports, Vol. 1 & 2”) by Takau Masamitsu, in 茶論 Saron No. 38 & 39

– Japanese Tea Instructor textbook vol. 1 (Nihon-cha Instructor Association)

Categories: History


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