Florilegium on Japanese tea

Tea and Japan…

A lot has been written about it and a lot could still be written on this subject but I decided to focus on a really small topic, the early Japanese tea exports.

As it happens quite often, this is merely an introduction as I am lacking access to proper sources*, either Japanese (language problems) or American ones (although I looked for long series of foreign trade statistics, I couldn’t find the detailed ones that I needed).

Why American sources? Because it seems that the USA were the main export markets for Japanese teas.

However, let’s not hurry and let’s get back to the beginning.

With the arrival of the Dutch and the VOC (Dutch East India Company) on the Japanese shores in 1609 came the first exports of Japanese teas to Europe (some post-roasted ones from Ureshino).

Things went slowly until Commodore Perry opened trade with Japan with his ships in 1854.

This event was the trigger for many things in Japan, including the move at great speed towards modernisation and the restoration of the imperial power under Emperor Meiji.

But what impact did these events had on tea exports? The first and obvious one was the opening of trade with foreigners (which is always easier to do when you are not in an isolationist mood).

This led to 181 tons of tea being exported in 1859 with 1868 and the Meiji restoration leading to more exports and active support to create national (ie Japanese) companies that would be able to deal with the whole sale chain but also with a peculiar focus on the USA for the tea exports (probably because Great Britain had already access to all the black tea it needed).

This emphasis can be seen in different things.

For example, in 1874, some samples of black tea from 12 different Prefectures were sent to Italy (why Italy?) and in 1875 other sales samples of tea were sent to the USA and other countries (China, India, Europe, America) .

Protection and encouragement were given to traders with for example, the Yokohama Kocha Shokai (a company focusing on black tea in Yokohama) being founded in 1881 or the Japanese government taking steps when branch offices of Mitsui Bussan and Okuragumi were established in London to commission them for the export of black tea and other products manufactured by the governmental factories.

The first port opened to foreigners for trade was Yokohama, followed by Kobe much later in 1868. Each port had its own hinterland (a German word meaning here the area from which products are delivered to a port for shipping elsewhere) with Uji of Yamashiro and Asamiya of Goshu going through Kobe while teas from Kawane, Honyam or Sakura from Shiuka going through Yokohama.

A “funny” thing I found out is that at first, Japanese were somehow alien to Westerners preferences, customs, money or languages and so they used Chinese experts to introduce tea-making techniques (including the artificial colouring of tea leaves with dangerous products).

Another “strange” (at least for us nowadays) thing was that Japanese teas were categorized by method of production as Basket-Fired, Sun-Dried or Pan-Fired (and not by place of production) leading to some problems during transportation as fired teas could sometimes mold.

Problem with fired teas was during the transport where it could mould in the ships but a man named Kahei Otani found a solution in 1861 by buying only well-dried Pan-fired teas and storing around 40 kg of it in large porcelain jars (leading to what was called porcelain teas)

In 1875, in an attempt to diversify their production output, more Chinese experts were hired to begin working on black teas (remember the name of these society founded in 1881. However, it was never popular in the USA and ended up representing only a small percent of their imports.

Why do I keep on talking about the USA? It is because for a long time, they were the primary customers for the Japanese tea exports with these last one becoming an important part of the American tea imports.

In 1860, 10% of tea imported to the US came from Japan becoming 25% in 1870 and 47% in 1880.

Let’s not be carried away too quickly as in 1890, only 1.3 pounds of tea were consumed per capita in the USA (a little more than today), which with a population of 62,979,766 should make the American tea consumption around 37,140 tons for that year.

But what about the production? Did it rise? Decrease?

The figures I could find out are not really complete but will give us an overview.


Production (in Kan)

Production (in tons)

Exports (in Kan)

Exports (in tons)

Local consumption (in tons)

























Tea production, exportation and consumption in Japan between 1880 and 1935

The production did rise and quite a lot while at same time, the exports were decreasing and the local price for tea (in real price, which allows us to compare the 1880 and the 1930 prices) was divided by 2 in just 50 years (the basic law of supply and demand). Because of the wage rise in Japan at that time, this led to an increased mechanisation in the Japanese tea fields and in the whole tea making, leading to whole new processes.

* For this post, my main sources were:

– Foreign Trade Policy in the Early Meiji Era by Yasuzo Horie in Kyoto University Economic Review, Volume XXII, Number 2, October 1952 published by the Faculty of Economics, Kyoto University

– Technical Progress in the Tea Manufacturing Industry in Japan by Masahiko Sintani in Hitotsubashi Journal of Economics, 32(1), 1991-06

– Japanese Tea Exports in the late 1800s by Bruce Richardson in The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, Benjamin Press, 2011


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