The global pandemic continues to impact our day-to-day lives and supply chains as varied as bicycles and computer chips but, have you reflected on how it has impacted Japanese tea production and consumption both nationally and internationally? Perhaps, if you are an avid tea drinker like myself, being at home more has simply increased opportunities to enjoy Japanese tea. Today, I would like to touch a bit on the effects Covid-19 has had and how it is still impacting the tea industry in Japan. We’ll highlight some of the major trends at the national and international levels and then provide you with some snapshots of how a few of our tea farmers are doing this autumn 2021. Speaking of autumn, it is getting to be the time to really enjoy a warm cup of tea!
Photo from Tomizawa Tea Garden's Tea Shop, Green Tea Lab; October 10th, 2021.
Pause for Cha-no-ma spaces
If you read our interview with tea farmer Uejima-san from Wazuka, Kyoto prefecture, you may already be familiar with the Japanese concept of cha-no-ma (in Japanese: 茶の間). As he shared with us, “Cha-no-ma is the process of preparing, steeping, presenting and drinking tea. There is the word, ma in Japanese (間；spaciousness). The “ma” of steeping tea. The “ma” of communication… So cha-no-ma is a specific way of inviting guests to one’s house and making the tea in front of them.”
Perhaps, simply stated, it captures a type of hospitality that creates a relaxed space for interaction. That being said, tea plays a major role as a central communication tool in Japan. Although with the pandemic, tea may have actually been enjoyed more in certain households due to social distancing and stay at home initiatives, the drastic decline of social settings and gatherings have reduced tea consumption in other spaces. Additionally, the amount of tea being served by companies and businesses to guests as well as tea bought to be given as gifts have plumetted, which has had major consequences on the tea industry.
While this may take you by surprise, one of the major services in Japan that has impacted the tea industry is the funeral services. During pre-pandemic times, high quality tea from major tea producing regions would often be bought as a ceremonial thank you gift. In Japan, gifts from the bereaved families are presented to the people attending as a way to express gratitude in return for funeral offerings. Tea happens to be one of these common gifts. Yet, with the pandemic, funeral services have curtailed, thus diminishing tea sales for these gifts.
Still, not everything tea-related seems to be on a decline. Surveys have revealed that in particular the young generation (18-29 year olds) reported a 26% increase in consumption of whole leaf tea as a result of the pandemic, which is somewhat comforting given the unfortunate reliance of plastic-bottled tea in Japan these days (i.e., instead of enjoying tea served in kyusu; Japanese tea pots)! So, perhaps cha-no-ma spaces have reduced outside the home context but they were/are being more enjoyed at home especially amongst young adults!?
Decline of Tea Production in Japan
These influences from the pandemic on the tea industry and tea farming in general are reflected by statistics gathered from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) in Japan. In comparison to the year 2019, the production of aracha (unrefined tea) fell by 15% at the national level in 2020. In general, declining trends were observed across the different harvest periods (see figure below). Further, a more recent survey taken this year by MAFF demonstrated that these numbers have not recovered in the year 2021.
Of course, we must also recognize that certain pandemic related factors are occurring within the context of more general trends for the Japanese tea industry. That is, the aging of tea farmers which has been touched on in a few of our tea farmer interviews, is clearly a topic of major concern. In the year 2000, the percentage of tea farmers over the age of 65 was already at 49%. Two decades later (2020), this percentage has increased to 62%. In parallel with the aging tea farmers, land dedicated to tea farming continues to decline and tea fields continue to be abandoned.
Owing to this uncertain future of the fragile tea industry, local governments and organizations have been coming up with a range of support measures in hopes to stimulate more demand and interest in Japanese tea. To illustrate an example, in Wazuka (Kyoto prefecture), an iconic tea growing region frequented by both national and international tourists, this past February 2021, a local association called En-TRANCE Wazuka (Japanese: 一般社団法人「えん―ＴＲＡＮＣＥわづか」) bought 1,750 tea bags of sencha that had been put into storage by the Wazuka tea farmers due to the pandemic related dip in sales and distributed it free of charge to local residents. This same organization used money from a MAFF grant to purchase 5,800 kg of aracha. Since their purchase, they have been distributing this tea nationwide to promote their own Wazuka-cha. Similar initiatives have been occurring across the major tea producing regions that have been challenged by the sudden reduction of both national and international tourists (which have also led to the loss of souvenir and tea-related tour sales). For example, in Shizuoka, perhaps the most famous tea growing region, the prefectural government initiated a subsidy system which offered producers five million yen to develop new products and three million yen to develop new sales channels. As a result, 26 products had been selected for sponsorship under the scheme, ranging from sparkling beverages made with tea leaves to tea aroma items (as of this past September 6th).
Hopeful International Trends
The export of Japanese tea has been on slowly but steadily rising since 2016 and with the pandemic, the amount of exported tea has continued to rise (in general, across a period of 10 years, the amount of exported tea has doubled). This trend is mainly due to the popularity of Japanese food which is known to be good for one’s health (Note: Out of the top 5 countries where Japanese tea is exported, 37% is being exported to the United States).
In order to continue this upward trend however, many initiatives are currently in the works so that Japanese tea can continue to be promoted even post-Covid times. For instance, some of these projects include making tea-related educational events available in multiple languages through online platforms as well as developing products that may be more suited and in-demand for the foreign market, such as single origin and organic teas.
Inspiring Tea Farmers
So, that’s an overall picture of how the pandemic has been impacting the tea industry in Japan. Although events of the past two years may serve to remind us that not every day can be bright and sunny, when you zoom into some of the tea farmers on Yunomi, they seem to all be dancing well with their tea bushes that continue to cycle across the seasons. Here is a snapshot of what some of our tea farmers are up to recently!
Obubu Tea Farms (Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture)
While it seems that most of the restaurants in Wazuka, a tea growing region in Kyoto prefecture had been closed due to the Japanese government’s State of Emergency Calls, Obubu Tea Farms recently had a small autumn tea harvesting event for the fall equinox (The full report can be found here on their Obubu blog!). The participants not only got to practice harvesting tea leaves, they enjoyed a delicious autumn bento (lunch box), made tempura with the hand-picked tea leaves, and got to experience making tea with the harvested tea leaves. Pretty neat!!
Right to left; (1) Tempura made from freshly hand-picked tea leaves; (2) Process of hand rubbing tea leaves. Photos by Kyoto Obubu Tea Farms (posted October 7th, 2021).
With the recent removal of the state of emergency calls in Japan on September 30th, restaurants are starting to reopen, including the Wazuka-cha cafe. Hopefully, that will gradually bring energy back to Wazuka but it is comforting to know that one will always find Obubu’s Akki-san in good spirits in the tea fields.
On the Obubu blog, one is sure to be encouraged by scenes of tea farmer Akki-san working hard but with a sense of joy; Photo from Obubu Tea Farms (March 2021).
Bizenya (Hidaka City, Saitama Prefecture)
Bizenya's Shimizu-san who specialises in the ichoka process (withering) of tea has recently been busy participating in evaluating teas at competitions! A recent event he joined was the 66th Sayamacha contest. He notes that in the 2nd part of the event, there were 12 entries that were evaluated for the hand-rolled tea category. It appears they were all hand-rolled from the same tea leaves (strictly harvested in the same manner), so it was rather like a skill competition for rolling tea. And only one was to be awarded the Governer's Award from Saitama Prefecture...
What were Shimizu-san's overall impressions? He notes that even when hand-rolled with the same raw leaves, there were notable differences not just in the appearance but also in the quality. While all of the presented tea leaves were harvested with scissors (i.e., not hand-picked), he also noticed that the leaves had a thicker, larger more elegant appearance in comparison to tea that is presented in a typical sencha. An impressive shape that is impossible to achieve when tea leaves are harvested by a machine.
Snapshot of the 66th Sayamacha contest; photo by Bizenya (September 26th, 2021).
Kajihara Tea Garden (Ashikita, Kumamoto Prefecture)
Kajihara-san, whose kamairicha is a must try, recently reported damage to his tea fields due to wild boar but the people at his tea garden are continuing to work hard. They just brought in a fall harvest of their Benifuuki cultivar. In addition to tea, Kajihara-san also grows rice at his home base in Ashikita, Kumamoto prefecture so he is extra busy now harvesting rice.
Top to bottom: 1) Autumn Benifuuki harvest; 2) Rice harvest scene under beautiful fall skies. In addition to tea harvesting, rice harvesting is also a wonderful farming experience in Japan. Photos by Kajihara Tea Garden (October 4th, 2021).
Azuma Tea Gardens (Wazuka, Kyoto Prefecture)
Also, located in Wazuka, the Azuma Tea Garden specializes in tench production. Fall is generally the time for the last tea harvest season, but it is also a time when the flowers on the tea bushes bloom - in fact, they are quite fragrant! It appears that they recently had a tea flower harvest. Hmm, what will they use these beautiful flowers for!?
Top and bottom: Tea flower harvest photos from Azuma Tea Garden's fields. It looks like Wazuka has been fortunate with some beautiful sunny autumn days! Photos by Azuma Tea Garden (October 7th, 2021).
To bring closure to this post, dips are inevitable, tea farmers especially know this because of unexpected events like storms, a late frost, and wild boars looking for grubs in the field… But the farmers continue forward, perhaps more resilient than the rest of us! They recover, continue pursuing their passion in tea, become more creative and find new ways to find small everyday delights. Oh, and they bring us good quality tea! Let us all take inspiration from them. Autumn is a beautiful time of transitions and transformations so I hope that you all are enjoying this time of year in your own unique ways.
Featured image; Kanpai (cheers) with Japanese tea with the Kinezuka family appreciating the fact that everyday is a good day; photo by NaturaliTea in Fujieda, Shizuoka Prefecture.