From Japan’s boom to today

The rapid decline in tea exports led once again to the need to open new markets. However, in the late 1950s, Japan entered a period of very high growth. A large proportion of the Japanese population was then able to afford tea, and the most popular kind was sencha.

Until then, sencha, tamaryoku-cha, and of course gyokuro had been very costly teas that were beyond the means of most Japanese. However, towards the end of the 1950s, and increasingly from 1960 on, economic growth considerably augmented the buying power of Japanese people. At the same time, there was a vast rural exodus, the consequence of which was that in the city store-bought, not homemade, tea was consumed.

Naturally, this was a boon to the tea industry, which continued to perfect its techniques and improve the quality of its products. However, the other side of the coin was the gradual disappearance of the wide range of traditional banchas from the countryside. Today it has become extremely rare, and most banchas are made by very elderly people who have not managed to find young people to whom they can pass on the tradition.

At the time, supply could no longer meet demand, and in the end green tea, produced using sencha techniques, had to be imported from Taiwan.

Production peaked in 1975, with 105,500 tons!

However, the dream soon came to an end. Westernization of eating habits and popularization of coffee, soft drinks, etc. led to a drop in consumption of green tea.

In 1980, cans of Oolong tea were sold for the first time, and then in 1985 bottled Japanese green tea entered the market. These bottled products were extremely successful and their consumption continued to grow, but sales of tea leaves for brewing in teapots tended to decline. Today, many households do not even own a teapot. It is frightening to see that some children do not even know what a teapot is: they have never seen one!

Japanese people’s move away from fine Japanese tea (in general sencha) prepared in a teapot is thus blamed on changes in eating habits and the introduction of convenient products. However, if we look more closely at the behaviour of the Japanese tea industry as a whole during the sencha boom in the 1960s and 1970s, and even in the 1980s, the phenomenon is not so simple, and competition from new products seems to be a very weak excuse.
Let’s go back a little way, to before Japan’s economic growth took off. Sencha and mushisei-tamaryokucha were costly products intended for export, and most Japanese people drank only teas produced in the countryside for personal consumption. Those teas were very lightly rolled, or not rolled at all, and simply dried in the sun. They thus infused very little, and they were also left in the kettle all day. When you felt like a cup, you poured one, and then added boiling water when there was no liquid left in the kettle. In the 1960s, tea became a product that was bought in a store, and everyone was able to drink sencha. However,
– It is a tea that should be brewed in a small teapot (!)
– You should not use water that is too hot (!!)
– It should be infused for a very short time (!!!)
– You have to empty all of the liquid each time (!!!!)
No one had the slightest idea of all that! Moreover, since at the time everything on the shelves sold, the tea industry took it easy, forgetting that there was a lot of educating to be done. Japanese people were using sencha as if it were their old bancha from yesteryear. The result: horribly astringent, bitter tea. Prepared this way, sencha‘s charm was very difficult to understand, and when new products came on the market, people flocked to them.
In addition, preservation techniques were still very poor at the time, and it was not until the 1990s that efficient packing techniques appeared.
It is thus easier to understand why Japanese tea is now in a rather delicate position.

In 1999, the Japanese Tea Instructor Association (日本茶インストラクター協会 – Nihon-cha Instructor Association) was created. Its purpose is to train people with good knowledge of tea in general so that they can participate in promoting it and ensuring that Japanese people themselves gain a better understanding of it. Each type of tea has to be prepared in a special way, but the great majority of the population knows nothing about this. In these conditions, it is impossible to enjoy tea to its fullest, to take full advantage of its incredible wealth of flavours and fragrances.

Attentive readers will have understood that the Japanese tea that is on the market, of which nearly 70 percent is sencha, is in the end a relatively recent product that has been available to all only since the 1960s. “Education” is thus necessary.

Today, the area of land that is cultivated remains relatively stable, after a decline from the mid-1970s to early 1990s, but the number of plantations continues to drop, which of course means that it is the small producers of high quality products who are suffering, while enormous farms for making cheap tea, bottled products, are growing. Once again, the future of Japanese tea is worrisome, at least with respect to Japanese tea of very high quality.

After this rather pessimistic note, and to finish, I think that the history of Japanese tea is passionately interesting, and that its changes and revolutions mirror those of Japanese society itself. Tea is a very important part of Japanese culture, and it is now more important than ever to support it so that its history will continue for many more centuries. As a Japanese Tea Instructor, I hope I will be able to make a contribution, as small as it may be.

Categories: History

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4 replies

  1. Merci beaucoup pour ces précisions historiques, et à venir.
    Ca fait un peu froid dans le dos pour l’avenir, comme d’ailleurs pour toutes les productions agro alimentaires de qualité qui résistenet encore et toujours (à l’envahisseur ?).

    Comment vois-tu la suite des choses ?
    Un bas de gamme toujours plus présent et accessible et un haut de gamme de qualité de plus en plus rare et cher ?

    • Bonjour,
      J’avoue avoir du mal à imaginer le futur du thé au Japon. Mon travail à plein temps étant toujours pour une société de chaine de boutiques specialisées ici, je pense avoir une bonne image du marché intérieur, et celui ci n’est pas réjouissant. 3 ans en boutique, aujourd’hui en interne, la clientèle ne porte pas d’intérêt réel au produit, elle ne le connait absolument pas. Et les industriels eux même sont frileux, refuse le changement et voient avec désastre les ventes baisser d’année en année.
      La bas de gamme tel qu’il existe aujourd’hui devra disparaître, il n’est pas rentable et pourra très bien être produit en Chine par exemple (aujourd’hui on produit en Chine plus de sencha que dans le département de Mie, 3ème producteur du Japon, mais ce sencha chinois plus bas que le bas de gamme reste destiné à l’occident pour l’instant, mais si le besoin existait, les chinois pourraient très bien monter un le niveau), et le marché des thés (verts japonais) parfumés pourrait s’élargir pour la grande consommation, vers un public large. Puis, le haut de gamme : bref, la qualité plutôt que le volume. C’est selon moi la seule voie possible. S’entêter éternellement dans le bas/moyen gamme ne permettra pas d’atteindre un nouveau public.

  2. It is horrible to think that some people don’t even know what a tea pot is! The best way around the problem that you have highlighted is to educate the young on Japanese tea (culture). And indeed other teas and tea cultures. Perhaps using the media that they are most familiar with would be most effective.

    • Hello Lochan,

      There was an article few days ago in Asahi Shinbun about this incredible thing that a lot of japanese kids don’t even know what a teapot is.
      Close to 50% of a class do not know !
      Of course there is an education to do. Some Japanese Tea Instructor are doing this in school. But it is very important to understand tea history and sociology in Japan : historically, beside an elite there were no “tea for tea” (the tea for itself, for its taste, the tea to enjoy) culture for common people in Japan. That’s mean no tea brewed in teapot, but just very rough country side bancha (not in the today bancha meaning, i’ll ask for an article i wrote about that for the french blog will be translate next, its very interesting), which were boiled in kettle all day long, used instead of drinking water or in order in cook.
      So there were a boom of sencha in the interior market as the economy of Japan grown dramatically in the 60s.
      But now, sencha there is an image problem : green tea is a drink for old people. We have to show that japanese tea can be as cool as wine, whiskey, coffee, or even….. chinese or Indian tea. Yes, media are the key. But medias themselves absolutely don’t have any interest for tea… because its image is bad. Vicious circle isn’t it ?
      As the first non asia born Japanese Tea Instructor i get interviewed by TV (TBS), no question about tea itself, just stupid and common question about foreigner in Japan, and why tea ?

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