A brief history of Japanese black tea

After the introduction of Izumi black tea from Sashima, I would like to enlight with more details the history of Japanese black tea.
For a dozen years, the production of Japanese black tea seems to take a new breath. After first putting this phenomenon aside in my work for Thés du Japon, I started presenting these teas more widely in recent months. It must be said that if the quality was still very bad 10 years ago, the level seems to increase year after year. Thus, we now find very delectable Japanese black teas, that I enjoy very much.
Above, I used the phrase “take a new breath”. Because yes, Japan is par excellence a country of green tea (mainly steamed), but the production of black tea is actually not something new.

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Izumi black tea from Sashima

It cannot be overemphasized that Japan’s tea industry really grew between the end of the Edo era and the opening of the country in the 1850s, and even more during the Meiji Era (1868-1912). It was mainly the sencha that then experienced a phenomenal industrial development, not for domestic consumption, but as an export product. Tea was then after silk the second source of foreign currency. Thus, the government has spent a lot of energy and money for the promotion and development of the tea industry. This green tea, sencha essentially, despite many quality problems (fake teas, colored teas, etc.) managed to be exported, mainly in the United States, until the end of the  World War I. After many adventures and attempts to find new markets, this Japanese tea ended up completely losing all foreign markets in the early sixties, but then sencha became a product accessible to a large number of Japanese.

At the same time, from the beginning of the Meiji era, the authorities were aware that green tea was not an ideal product for western countries and planned starting black tea production in Japan.
The first step was, in 1874, when Japanese learned black tea production techniques from Chinese artisans working with Western traders based on the Yokohama and Kobe ports. This first attempt was unsatisfactory and the teas produced failed to convince foreign partners.
1875 is a very important year. The government sends Tada Motokichi, a former loord during the Tokugawa era who has become a merchant, to China and India to study the techniques of making black tea. He was the first Japanese to visit Assam and Darjeeling. He returned to Japan after two years with accurate information, machine plans, but also (and most importantly?) seeds of Indian tea plants.
In 1877, he moved to Mariko (now Suruga District in Shizuoka city), where he planted many of these seeds. This is how we still see many Assam hybrids in Mariko today (this is where Muramatsu Niroku works today, who is one of the pioneers of the Japanese black tea revival). But these seeds were also planted in Kyôto, Mie, Kôchi (Shikoku), Kagoshima or in the former Naitô-chô research center (Tokyo). Then in these places production and studies of black tea started, as well as hybrid selections from the tea seeds, to preserve those that seem adapted to the Japanese climate.
Thus, in 1908, the first Japanese black tea cultivar, “Koku-cha No. C8”, later called “Benihomare” was selected in Shizuoka. It must be understood that it is a tea plant grown from a seed from India, in short, a “foreigner” born on Japanese soil. Benihomare is the ancestor of most other “beni” cultivars.

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A rare plantation of Benihomare in Kameyama

However, the results of the research of Tada and the government were not accompanied by success. On the one hand, it was still too early for the cultivars, and above all on the other hand, the producers of the time could not afford to equip themselves with the expensive machines needed to implement the techniques taught by those responsible for the development of black tea. In this way, although the authorities continued to encourage black tea production until the late 1960s, efforts were never really successful.
However, there are brief bursts in production and imports.
From 1935 to the beginning of the 1940s, negligible production increased sharply with a peak of more than 4,000 tons per year (exports: 5,500 tons, probably including exports of tea produced in Taiwan occupied by Japan). After a quick decline, further increase in 1953, with a peak in 1955 with more than 8,000 tons produced, and nearly 6,000 exported. In both cases, the cause is the cessation of production in India and Ceylon.
After that, exports stop quickly, and production gradually decreases.

After the World War II, the government continues to encourage the production of black tea, understanding that it will be increasingly difficult to export green tea. A system for the least singular is then set up in a Japan that begins to experience significant interior economic growth, and a domestic need for black tea. A company that wants to import foreign black tea, cheaper and better quality, must buy an equivalent amount of black tea produced in Japan. Thus, in the 50s and 60s, Japan produces black tea, mainly from 2nd harvests I guess.
In 1971, the liberalization of international trade put an end to this system. In 1969, the production of black tea amounts to 2000 tons, in 1975 it is only 3 tons!
This is how sadly, with no result, nearly a century of history of black tea in Japan seems to end.

However, while the 60s and 70s are a golden age in Japan for the production and consumption of Japanese tea, mainly sencha, in the 1980s difficulties started. Indeed, the consumption of Japanese tea in Japan begins a descent that seems to have no end, and we see today gradually disappearing a quality production, in favor of foreign tea, coffee, or simply bottled tea, etc.
It was then that towards the end of the 90’s, the idea of ​​producing black tea came back here, to make up for the drop in demand for green tea. From a production almost zero in 1990, it is 250 tons in 2015. We are certainly far from the 2000 tons of before the liberalization of the international trade of tea, but it must be understood that this remains in general the fact of small producers aiming at a very local consumption.
If ten years ago Japanese quality black tea was rather rare, in recent years we have begun to find excellent teas, whose production is certainly limited to a few kilos.
Far from the idea of ​​black tea by default because there is no longer needs for green tea, we see now producers making black tea seriously, with interest to this kind of tea, by dedicating plantations separate from those dedicated to green tea. Thus there are now various competitions and events dedicated to this new trend. The “Nihon-cha Award” includes for example a black tea category, which receives more candidates than the category “kama-iri cha” (it is difficult to say that this is a good thing, I mean this is sad to see so few kama-iri cha in competition).

This movement is also accompanied by a small effervescence around cultivars.
Let’s go back in time. Made from an Indian tea seed, Benihomare, Japan’s first black tea cultivar, was selected in 1908. Japan, on several occasions, continued to collect foreign tea seeds (India, China, and even from the Caucasus). The most famous example is in the 20s Manipuri 15, coming from Assam, who crossed with a local variety gave birth to Inzatsu 131, himself parent of Sôfû, Fuji-kaori or Kondô-wase, in short cultivars with very strong aromatic potential.
The Oku-hikari cultivar, quite widespread in the mountains of Shizuoka, comes from the cross of Yabukita and a tea tree from a seed from the Hubei in China. Directly selected from seeds from Hubei, we had in the 60s, Yamanami in Miyazaki for kama-iri cha, and in Shizuoka a black tea cultivar called karabeni (唐紅 the “Tang red”, the character “kara” corresponds to that of the Tang dynasty which by extension designate China), very rare, not officially registered, but nevertheless extremely interesting (see you in December …).

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Benifûki in Takachiho

Nevertheless, it is indeed the filiation of Benihomare (therefore Indian varieties) that will dominate the development of Japanese black tea cultivars.
Interestingly, the official registration system for cultivars began in 1953, with a first list of 15 cultivars, and among them are 5 black tea cultivars! I remember that at that time, the government is still trying to export tea, especially black. Benihomare is the number 1 of the official list of cultivars! Amazing isn’t it, in Japan “country of green tea”.
The last registered black tea cultivar is the heavyweight, the undisputed leader of this type, Benifûki, in 1993, that is to say that its development began in the 60’s, and since then there is no more research in this field (the production and demand for Japanese black tea is currently too insufficient to justify a research and development budget in research centers). Benifûki is a cross between Benihomare and a variety from Darjeeling. The majority of Japanese black teas made with a black tea cultivar are with this Benifûki. However, although Benifûki first spread quickly, it was not because of its quality for black tea, but because of its high content of catechin methyl, that is said to have an effect on allergies and hay fever. It was then mostly used for green tea powder. It is more recently, that it becomes the basis for black tea in Japan (with domination even too strong some think, with a risk of standardization, a bit like Yabukita for green tea).

Thus, cultivar registered before are also starting to be enlighten. This includes Benihikari (1969), held in high esteem but could not develop with the end of black tea production in the early 70s. We can note for example Benifuji, Benitachiwase, Hatsumomiji, etc. All remain marginal enough.
Although it was registered as a kama-iri cha cultivar, Izumi comes from a Benihomare seed.
Finally, there are many attempts, some very successful with green tea cultivars, like Kôshun for example.

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To conclude, I think that Japanese black tea has become a very interesting genre, on which everything remains to be done, but which nevertheless already shows qualities of its own, typically Japanese, thanks in particular to cultivars. Nevertheless, I think it’s also important to keep in mind that Japan must not, and will not become, an important black tea country anyway. This production of quality black tea will remain very limited and therefore intended for connoisseurs and enthusiasts. This production must also allow talented producers to be put under the spot-light, and can also put forward their green teas. Because Japan is above all the country of steamed green teas, which are typically Japanese, and which, in terms of quality, can only be produced in Japan.
It’s up to us to enjoy all the possibilities offered by “Japanese teas”.

A selection of Japanese black teas on Thés du Japon.

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Categories: History, Types of tea

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1 reply

  1. Nice to read about my friend Niroku san of Mariko! You are so right. In the past 10-12 years the quality has really improved. I have had some really good 和紅茶 Wakōcha in the past few years. One was even made from Yume Wakaba cultivar. Goto san in Toyosahi comes to mind when I think of good Wakōcha but I understand that Wakōcha from Mie prefecture is getting better and better. I am sure there are many others like Benifuki from Okinawa of all places. All very exciting for Japan and tea people around the world.

    For us, as exporters of tea to Japan, it has already had an impact because the tea buyers are now comparing our teas to the locally made excellent 紅茶 koucha teas. So we have to somehow improve our quality.

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