Tea farming, like agriculture in general, is typically thought of as a male-dominated world, probably because men tend to own the land, businesses and equipment. Nevertheless, in Japan, women have historically and are currently involved in the labor, management and marketing of agricultural products, including tea. In fact, today, women make up just over 50% of the agricultural workforce in Japan. It would not be an overstatement to say they have an invaluable presence in the Japanese tea industry. Women’s roles in all aspects of tea production and business, including the highly skilled task of hand picking, as well as in maintaining tea culture, have been overlooked and undervalued. While any type of agricultural work, and tea farming in particular is difficult, women that own and operate their own tea business and/or farm tend to face additional challenges due to commonly held attitudes and expectations from their male counterparts. Women have and are still doing meaningful work innovating tea cultivation and processing, as well as making farming more sustainable through organic farming, nutrient cycling and new management strategies.
Yunomi’s founder Ian Chun launched the Women in Tea Collection back in October 2021 (Please refer to his blogpost, Thoughts on the Women in Tea Program) in efforts to spotlight and encourage the women who have taken on leading roles in their businesses. Perhaps you are already familiar with this collection page and/or have even sampled some of the teas. We wanted to again shine the light on these passionate women, and to help connect you to some of these amazing women (Yunomi’s “people-to-people” philosophy). With this special Women in Tea Sampler set, we hope that our customers will be able to enjoy teas from women who are working hard on a day-to-day basis in the Japanese tea industry. We also highlight the important roles women play in the tea community, recognize their diverse experiences, and endeavor to support them and encourage future women in tea.
Below, we share experiences of what we heard from recent interviews about some of their stories and contributions (please note that these are only a few women from the Women in Tea Collection) and we hope to continue supporting women and sharing their stories in the future!
Ayumi Kinezuka, tea farmer at Cyittorattu.
A farmer all year round and a mother of three young children, Ayumi-san established her farm Cyittorattu (a.k.a. Ayumi Farms on Yunomi) in the year 2019 branching away from NaturaliTea (Hito to No, Shizen wo Tsunagu Kai; 人と農、自然をつなぐ会) established by her father. Her decision to become independent stemmed from her desire to practice a system of farming that was even more gentle to the Earth, enabling regeneration and revitalization of relationships - all of the way from the soil, to how nutrients cycle within their community, to the relationships among people and between people and the land that supports them (if this intrigues you, please refer to our previous interviews with her!)
Currently in her 4th year as an independent farmer, Ayumi-san shared that being a tea farmer in a male-dominated society like Japan can feel quite burdensome. Not because the work is dull or difficult per se, but because often, the judgment she receives as a tea farmer can be based on gender (i.e., whether the tea farmer is a man or woman) instead of the product itself or who she is as a whole person. This can lead to frustration.
Importantly, Ayumi-san’s approach to farming goes far beyond being a female tea farmer. The type of organic farming based upon traditional farming systems and nutrient cycling is what makes her tea stand apart. Before becoming independent at her father’s well respected organic farm (which was actually one of the first pioneers of organic practices in Japan), she observed that while organic, many of the organic fertilizers were actually imported from overseas. This led her to question whether organic farming was truly a sustainable way of farming in terms of the local cycling of nutrients and now utilizes local resources starting from her own farm (e.g., rice straw, chicken manure, weeds fed to chickens) and the surrounding area, such as the local sake and soy sauce businesses.
Ayumi-san believes that the products farmers make reflect their philosophies. It is similar to an artist where the art/product is a creation of the artist’s way of thinking and being in the world. With this in mind, when you go to drink her tea, make sure to listen not just to the flavor, but also the beauty of the mountain tea fields, the care and resources it received by the local communities, and the amazing female farmer who made your tea with passion.
Ayumi-san with her three children back in February 2023 before the upcoming shincha season. While there is always some sort of farm-related work that needs to be addressed, spending time with all of her children is also treasured time.
Kazumi Nakatani, Brand Representative of Kuma Tea Gardens
Kazumi Nakatani manages Kuma Tea Gardens as a brand which includes her tea farmer uncles and cousins. She is a tea instructor with an expert palette which she uses to process and blend exquisite sencha and gyokuro teas (not to mention, some of them are award-winning!) from the leaves cultivated and harvested by her extended family.
Left; Kazumi-san gracefully preparing matcha at a recent tea event, right; Kuma Tea Gardens and Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture is well respected for their shaded Japanese green tea, gyokuro.
Kazumi-san shared that being a woman, everyone appreciates all of the hard work that she has gone through. Throughout her experiences however, she has never felt gender to be constraining and it is actually not something that she has been very conscious about. Although, she did note the fact that around her are generally men, which becomes particularly noticeable at drinking parties. She insists that the work at Kuma Tea Garden is all about professionalism and team play where both men and women from all walks of life have contributed for over 100 years. That being said, Kazumi-san would like people to enjoy tea from Kuma Tea Gardens to one’s hearts content, keeping in mind that their tea is condensed with diverse skills and feelings from various people.
She places particular emphasis on the “enjoyment of tea”, rather than simply on “selling tea”. In order for people to fully experience and enjoy tea time and space, she will steep the tea herself and then explain a specific tea’s characteristics. She also tries to identify creative ways in which anyone can easily access the pleasure, beauty and freedom of tea in its simplicity so that they may think to themselves, “I want to try brewing tea!”. In fact, this is exactly how Kazumi-san made me curious to try ice-steeping tea at home when I encountered her at a tea event in Tokyo. While we did not have much time to chat that day, at the Kuma Tea Gardens booth, she was happily making and serving various teas from their garden enthusiastically and with a sense of ease, which left an imprint on me.
Sisters Yurie and Akane Kawaguchi, tea farmers at Koukien Tea Garden
It was a happy coincidence to discover Koukien Tea Garden on a trip to Kagoshima Prefecture back last spring in March. I was planning to go through the Kirishima region to visit friends and was in search of potential tea farmers to visit in-person around the surrounding area. This is when I realized Yunomi had tea from the Kawaguchi sisters and I did not know them! Even more strangely, at the time there wasn’t a description about their farm, their products, or who these tea farmers were. To my pleasant surprise, tea farmers Yurie and Akane Kawaguchi at Koukien kindly welcomed our short-notice visit before their busy shincha 2023 season. They are a small family-operated farm and they made time for us in the midst of their shitake mushroom work.
Yurie and Akane Kawaguchi from Koukien Tea Garden in Kirishima, Kagoshima Prefecture. The sisters showed us around their tea factory in mid March remarking that in about one month they will be very busy harvesting and processing their shincha.
Perhaps, the youngest tea farmers I have met, Yurie and Akane are particularly putting their efforts into wakocha (Japanese black tea) making and coming up with creative ideas for their tea packaging. The two are constantly going through a trial and error process in order to make exquisitely enjoyable tea with a pleasant aroma.
Yurie feels that both men and women stand in the same field when it comes to having a strong intention of “wanting to make tea” and then going towards that objective with diligence and care. That being said, she shared that she would like to bring forth something that only she can do, and to add her own personal contribution into the world of tea. One aspect that she does find to be challenging is the physical labor of the tea work. While certain tasks that require skill and machine work can be done without any noticeable differences to men, there are particular aspects of work such as carrying 10~15kg of fertilizer or putting the completed tea into bags (30kg) that she finds to be physically challenging.
With respect to the tea package design, the two brainstorm ideas thinking about how consumers may want to delight in their teas. When making tea or designing their tea packages, Akane has been told, “A woman can do this type of work very well!”. This made her a bit frustrated because she believes it is not women per se that can make delicious tea or come up with cute designs. Everything comes with effort, regardless of one’s gender. She feels she was able to do what she has done because of hard work, not because of some innate female characteristic. A neat fact about Akane is that in addition to making tea, during her studies in Shizuoka Prefecture, she learned the art of hand-rolling tea and continues to compete in hand-rolling tea competitions!
During our visit, the Kawaguchi sisters welcomed us with a pleasant cup of their asamushi-sencha, Yabukita cultivar. Tea creates a comforting atmosphere. After tea, the conversation flowed and they showed us around their tea fields and factory.
Celebrating, encouraging, and supporting women in tea
Women in the Japanese tea industry face a wide-array of experiences and challenges. Some have been told that they cannot succeed because they are women and some have been told they can succeed at certain tasks because they are women. Some have felt the labor is challenging because they are women while others have mentioned there is very little work that men can do and women cannot. Some have never felt their tea industry experiences to be gender-specific, while some have felt attacked or judged because of being women.
The differences in their stories may be due to their role(s) in the tea industry (e.g., tea farmer, tea merchant, tea connoisseur), their age, where they are from, and their individual personalities and philosophies. It may also simply illustrate the fact that each of their stories are valuable and deserve to be heard. Despite the diversity in their stories, perhaps, they share one common beautiful thread. And that is their love for Japanese tea and their sincere desire to share this love of tea with others. At Yunomi, we created the Women in Tea Sampler Gift Set in hopes to cultivate new connections and to encourage more support for these inspiring women. Please join us in cheering them on. Ganbare!
Photos by Kiroku Tea Garden, the three women tea farmers in Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture.
- Thoughts on the Women in Tea Program from tea merchant Ian Chun
- Ayumi Kinezuka (Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu) Interview Part 1
- Ayumi Kinezuka (Ayumi Farms, Cyittorattu) Interview Part 2
- Kiroku Tea Garden Interview