In 2010, I had written on the French blog an article evoking the situation of tea in Japan and in the world. It’s 2022 and the article is bound to be a little dated, although the numbers themselves are still relevant to their time. So here is a new article about the situation in 2022.
In 2010, the image of Japan as the country of tea, where this drink is a sacred element of everyday life, was already very broken. It must be said that this particular image has never been a reality anyway, and has never been more than a mirage in the eyes of Westerners in search of a dreamed Orient. Nevertheless, Japanese tea has been a widely consumed product since the 1960s. If he never obtained a great value in the eyes of the Japanese, his presence was nevertheless important in homes. In 1970, after a considerable increase in the 1960s, the annual consumption of Japanese tea per household was 2,097 g (per person 527 g). In constant decline, these numbers in 2020 were 791 g / household (266 g / pers.). Nevertheless, in 2021 we observe an increase with 827 g / household (280 g / person). This sounds like good news, but this figure is most likely supported by more time spent at home due to the covid-19 pandemic. (For reference, in 2020 the annual consumption of coffee in Japan per person was 3,400g! this was a steady increase since the 1960s although it appears to have plateaued since the mid-1960s. 2010.)
In fact, as I have already mentioned on numerous occasions, sencha, the most representative Japanese green tea, only became a common consumer product, that is to say accessible to the greatest number, since the period of high economic growth in the 1960s. Previously, sencha had, let us recall, developed during the second half of the 19th century as an export product, the second source of growth after silk at the time. The domestic market was very small and limited to the elites and a certain urban bourgeoisie, in a country that was still essentially rural. Not that tea was not consumed in the countryside, but simpler teas were consumed there, traditional regional bancha, as a daily drink or part of the meal. In the 1960s, the export markets for sencha were lost, but with the rural exodus a whole section of the population no longer had access to their daily bancha, with the rise in the standard of living, the new market for sencha has been found. Tea merchants had a great time, everything was easy to sell, no need for explanation or education, until the beginning of the 80s, it was a new golden age for the tea industry. But the sencha becomes in the eyes of all a vulgar product, without interest, without value. Foreign teas and coffee become the stars of taste. For the older generations in particular, while tea is often present in everyday life, it is a very cheap tea, sencha not being considered something worth spending money on (imagine the same goes for teapots). Today, the Japanese do not know their tea, they are not interested in it and many households do not even own a teapot. Obviously, no one has the slightest notion of how to infuse a sencha. Of course, no one has any idea of the existence of, for example, cultivars for tea, while everyone knows this notion for rice, grapes, apples, sweet potatoes, etc. Everyone has heard the word Yabukita before, but no one really knows what it is… That said, I wonder what level of knowledge is there on the question of grape variety for wine in France?
Faced with this situation, some blame bottled products. I think this analysis is wrong, because this simple, practical aspect, to drink in large quantities, make them the direct descendants of traditional bancha. Bottled teas therefore fill the void left by the virtual disappearance of traditional bancha, and not endanger sencha, gyokuro and matcha, traditionally products of taste, objects of pleasure and distraction. It is not having taken the trouble to present them as such that has kept the Japanese away from these teas, which are nevertheless so rich.
The position of Japanese tea in catering and restaurant is also significant. While there are cafes on every street corner in Japan, none offer sencha on the menu. Sometimes we will find matcha latte. To find sencha on a menu, you will have to go to a very rare tea room specializing in Japanese tea. In the restaurants, the menus offer coffee and black tea at the end of the meal, never sencha. Some restaurants offer hoji-cha, but it is only a replacement for water, free of charge. Again, Japanese tea struggles to gain equal status with foreign coffee and teas.
Many tourists in Japan are surprised at how difficult it is to find tea there.
Moreover, the older (those over 60, let’s say), attached as we have seen to buying very cheap tea, are quick to say that young people are moving away from tea… but whose fault is it? Who has not made these young people drink good quality teas? and then I always answer to these old people that no, today, the customers who are really interested in tea, who are ready to invest in a correct teapot, are precisely the young people (I would say the 30-40 years old).
Finally, it should be added that if one does not spend on tea for oneself, it has long been a gift of choice. During funerals on the one hand (the historical link with Buddhism is obvious), but also as gifts of oseibo at the end of the year or of ochûgen in summer. These are often sets of several teas, not necessarily always of very high quality, but always in very luxurious boxes and packaging. This practice was very important, some shops could make the most important part of their sales at the end of the year. These habits tend to be lost, and when they persist, tea is replaced by other products.
The cultivated area of tea in Japan reached its peak in 1980 with 61,000 ha. In 2021, this figure is only 39,000 ha. As for production, with a peak in 1975 with 105,446 t, in 2020 the figure is 81,700 t. In 2021, there is a very significant drop with only 69,800 t, but seems to be explained by a certain reluctance due to the covid-19 crisis. In view of the relative increase in tea consumption in 2021, this bet may have been a mistake.
Regarding the ratio of cultivated area / quantity of production, two things should be noted.
On the one hand, these two data are not proportionally linked. In fact, on a given surface, sometimes only one harvest will be made, while elsewhere, four may be harvested. Thus, the quantity produced per area varies greatly from one place to another.
On the other hand, if the production seems to fall less quickly than the surface, this production is boosted from the 80s by harvesting coarse leaves for the production of bottled tea.
Thus, we understand that if the number of producers also naturally decreases, the area cultivated per producer tends to increase.
Many producers give up tea production, or at least retire without a successor. The reason is obvious. This job does not allow you to earn a decent living. This situation is not the same everywhere, but it is particularly worrying in mountain areas. A walk in the mountains of Hon.yama area in Shizuoka, for example, makes it possible to see very clearly the malaise, as the number of abandoned plantations is so high. In these areas, the working conditions are more difficult, and the teas are often less expensive than those in the plains. In the spring, at the time of the first harvests, it is the teas that arrive on the market the fastest that sell the most expensive.
In this respect, it is Kyushu teas, very standardized, shading, fukamushi, strong roasting, which come out best, responding to the most common tastes of consumers, Japanese and foreign alike, for sencha without depth of course, but with a lot of umami, a sweet fragrance and a beautiful opaque green color.
The average price per kilo of sencha (aracha) all harvests combined was in 2004 was 2,000 JPY / kg (just under 3,000 for the 1st harvests only), in 2021 it drops to 1,088 JPY / kg (1,710 for the 1st harvests). In a context of constant inflation in Japan, things are obviously no longer tenable. While this obviously primarily concerns producers, it also affects the entire industry, we sell less and at lower prices. That is understandable that the shops goes also fewer and fewer.
However, a new phenomenon is the return of tea exports.
In 2001, Japan exported 599 t of tea, in 2021, 5,274 t, the highest number ever recorded. The most important destinations are, in order, the USA, Taiwan, Germany (distribution hub to the EU), Singapore, Canada.
It should be kept in mind that these figures are still largely dominated by cheap matcha and other powdered teas. In 2020, 45% of the total volume was powdered tea (matcha, funmatsucha), and if we only look at the volume exported to the United States, this proportion rises to 71%. On the other hand, only 34% in the EU, 7% in Taiwan, Japanese loose leaf teas, sencha, gyokuro, but also probably genmaicha, hoji-cha are appreciated there (we should not have too many illusions about Japanese tea in Taiwan, the average price remains very low, with many low-end sencha intended for local production of bottled products).
If the exported quantities increase, the average price per kilo of these teas also increases slowly, which is a very good thing (even if we remain generally at the bottom of the range).
To conclude, it is true that during all these years, the players in the sector have always remained on their anonymous blends, on a sales model based on price ranges and not on specific tastes. Even today umami and astringency are most of the time the only words used to describe a tea. When we offer a tea with aromatic characteristics listed on the price card in the shop, the Japanese think that it is a flavored tea. Basically, the idea is that all teas are the same with some variation in umami. To illustrate this problem of the lack of variety, the lack of effort of so-called specialized sellers, the evolution of the place of purchase of tea is also significant.
In 1999, 38% of Japanese tea was bought in specialized shops, and 29% in supermarkets, in 2016, 26% in shops against 35% in supermarkets, and in 2021, only 15.7% in shops against 48.7% in supermarkets.
The first thing we can say is that many people do not see the difference between a tea bought in a supermarket and one bought in a specialized shop. It is true that faced with the anonymous blends of old players in the retail industry, supermarket teas often have nothing to envy. Some high-end supermarkets even offer quality single origins that the old specialist shops do not dare to offer, for fear, understandably, of not being able to sell them.
There are, of course, a few very specialized old shops, but they are frankly rare, or else are rather new passionate actors who are most often tea rooms, very popular since the end of the 2000s, and not retailers.
Selling tea is difficult. But we can still observe an embryo of new interest from the younger generations for tea, for tea as a gourmet product, a product of passion. This seems to me notorious since around 2015, with a greater media presence, concentrated around single origin, cultivars, the unknown richness of perfumes, which changes the eternal so-called health virtues of tea.
The small craze around Japanese black tea is also an extremely important vector of dynamism. This makes it possible to promote the richness of Japanese production to consumers who are completely oriented towards foreign teas, mainly through events.
This situation, which remains very dark, of course finds a logical echo with what is happening in the small worlds of kyûsu-shokunin, artisans specializing in teapots, Tokoname-yaki and Banko-yaki. With a very high average age, few Tokoname craftsmen have successors, even if the arrival of a few young people in recent years gives some freshness. Banko-yaki is in an even more critical situation, with almost no working artisans, and only one really young person. The difficulty of the technique needed to make a teapot worthy of the name, combined with very low prices, means that few young potters want to embark on this path.
It is difficult for me to end on a truly positive note. I think that all the difficulties come first from historical and cultural conditions, and from the too rapid evolution of a society that has not been able to integrate tea as a gourmet product. Of course, nothing is too late. I also believe that the drop in production is not a problem in itself. The problem is the drop in prices and the lack of effort to promote high end teas. Producing less but better is the only solution in a country like Japan where the standard of living and production costs are among the highest in the world. Market education, as well as a smarter export policy, are two essential elements in my opinion.