The Adventures of Japanese tea exports to Muslim markets (1918-1959)

In an earlier article, we saw how sencha in fact developed during the second half of the nineteenth century essentially as a product for export to the United States, and how it was the second economic engine of Japan’s growth, after silk. That golden age gradually came to an end in the nineteenth century owing to quality issues and changes in western eating habits, which led consumers to switch to black tea. Japan’s attempts to produce black tea did not pay off.

While the paralysis of exports from India and Ceylon during World War I resulted in a sharp upswing in Japan’s exports in 1917, with exports of 301,002 tons, the rebound was short-lived. When Ceylon and India were able to ship their products again, Japan’s tea exports plunged to 7138 tons in 1921.

New horizons…

It was thus of utmost importance to Japan to find new markets for the sencha that played such a major role in its industrial sector, even though it was a product much too luxurious to be consumed by the Japanese themselves.

Attention was turned to countries that were traditionally major tea consumers: the Soviet Union and Muslim countries in the Middle East.

However, those countries drank Chinese green tea, which was prepared using woks (in other words, by direct heat). In Japanese, this type of tea is referred to as “kama-iri” (釜炒), and it is notable for the fact that the leaves are curved, not uniformly straight like those of sencha. All of the equipment was designed to make steamed green tea, so it was impossible to shift to industrial production of kama-iri cha. Instead, mushi-sei tamaryoku-cha 蒸し製玉緑茶 also known as guri-cha ぐり茶 or yonkon ヨンコン was created for the export market. One of the mixing phases (the one called seiju 精揉) in the sencha manufacturing process was skipped so that the leaves were not rolled into long needles. This produced a steamed tea with a shape similar to that of Chinese green teas, and so it could be blended with them without any difficulty.

The origin of the term “guri-cha” seems to be “guri,” a distortion of “guriin” (グリーン, in other words, the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “green,” It has been suggested that yonkon is a distortion of Yôkô, the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese town in the Shanghai region that was the centre for tea 甬江, but it has also been suggested that Yôkô is the distortion of a Chinese term designating foreign international trading companies, which is also pronounced “yôkô” in Japanese, and means “for the West”: 洋行.

This undertaking was quite successful.

… A new crisis

World War II paralysed all international trade.

From 23,000 tons in 1939, the quantity of Japanese tea exported had dropped to 1500 tons by 1945. During the war, foreign traders left the country, and the few who wanted to stay were expelled. Moreover, owing to Japan’s lack of food at the time, it became increasingly difficult to maintain tea plantations, and many were transformed into fields for growing vegetables.

Towards reconstruction?

1946 was the most difficult year in terms of food scarcity. The Allies provided Japan with aid, partly for free and partly in exchange for various products. Tea was chosen as one of the products that was to be exchanged for food and fuel, and this breathed fresh air into the plantations and factories.

During the immediate post-war period, the United States became once again the new primary destination for Japanese green tea, but then it very quickly began to be exported to North Africa, in particular to Morocco and Algeria, through the intervention of the French government. Since those countries traditionally imported green tea from China, they were naturally supplied with guri-cha.

Tea was still exported mainly through the port of Shimizu, in Shizuoka, to which a certain number of foreign traders returned. While only 3370 tons were exported in 1946, by 1954 this had grown to 17,179 tons.

Unfortunately, 1954 was a peak year, and in the following years tea exports declined. There were two reasons for this.

The first was the emergence of competition, initially from Taiwan, which began selling green tea even to France, and then China’s return. Both countries produced kama-iri green tea, which is what was traditionally drunk in North Africa, and the competition was much too harsh for Japan’s steamed  tamaryoku-cha.

The second reason was internal to Japan. 1956 was the beginning of a period of strong economic growth, which increased labour demand in cities and led to a rural exodus, and thus a labour scarcity in the countryside. The result was that farm labour costs rose, as did the price of tea.

Efforts to maintain international trade in Japanese tea included that by a Japanese trader who opened a Japanese tea boutique in Casablanca in 1958. It closed three years later.

In 1959, there were celebrations for “100 years of Japanese tea exports,” but they felt more like a death watch for the trade.

The pressing need for a new market was being felt more strongly than ever before, but it was finally found: Japan itself!

Source: 日本茶輸出の150年 Vol. 2 & 3 (“150 Years of Japanese Tea Exports, Vol. 2 & 3”) by Takau Masamitsu, in 茶論 Saron No. 39 & 40

Categories: History

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