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.