tea tastingThe holiday rush behind us, we recently resumed our monthly series of tea tastings and events at our shop. Among the first tasting workshops of the new year was an overview of different teas from around the world. In preparing the teas and the collateral materials, we found that everything came together until we contemplated including a tea from Japan as part of the event. What was there new to say about the safety of tea from Japan and about the ground conditions for tea farmers? Would there be any bright spots for teas from Japan once the time for the 2012 harvest arrives?

Suddenly, an introductory tea tasting and learning experience began to veer off into a research and current affairs project. Like many tea companies, we had participated in events to raise funds and support for Japan relief after the events of March 2011, yet once the media spotlight moved on, finding out how the longer recovery process was going required actively searching for new information, particularly as it related to the tea industry.

The first find was a recent NPR report just before Christmas on how radiation fears in Japan continue to reshape lives. Simple daily routines are no longer so simple: “There’s a never-ending series of warnings about radioactive cesium in beef, tea, rice, even baby formula. There simply aren’t enough radiation-detection machines to check every cargo of fish, every rice harvest, the contents of every school lunch.” It’s a natural desire after unfortunate circumstances to want things to return to normal, but what few can appreciate, outside those who continue to live through the aftermath, is that “normal” in the sense of turning the clock back to March 10, 2011 (the day before the tsunami) is no longer possible.

map of JapanIf consumers in Japan have this level of concern for the safety of food within their own country, what is reasonable to expect of tea consumers outside of Japan and what can be done to change perceptions if tea harvests in parts of Japan are safe and will continue to be so in 2012? We posed the question to the World Tea News Group on LinkedIn and got an informative reply from Dan Bolton, who reasonably states that “…the re-emergence of the fine teas of Japan will depend on marketing with a science-based certificate at origin in the supply chain attesting to the safety of the leaves.”

What does science currently have to say about which agricultural regions across Japan have been exposed to radiation fallout from the Fukushima reactors? A July 2011 study by six American and Japanese researchers provides some answers about the levels of Cesium 137 that may have contaminated Japanese soils. How will this kind of information be communicated to the consumer outside of Japan? How successful will the power of reason be at overcoming lingering emotional fears about food safety and of mistrust in the Japanese government inside the country? Is the passage of time the only real answer to this situation? Does “normal” return only when we have forgotten the problem?

All of the information combined presented us with a very nuanced appreciation of the challenges the people of Japan are still going through today. With regard to tea, there seems to be positive news for tea farmers in southern Japan heading into 2012. If handled the right way domestically and internationally by the tea industry, at least portions of the tea industry in Japan could make an amazing comeback this year. The question remained how to present this information to our tasting group in a relatively short amount of time in a way that allows each person to decide for him- or herself how to approach teas from Japan. As it turned out, a picture really is worth a thousands words. By merging one of the Cesium 137 maps from the research study with a map of Japan, we were able to provide a graphic that provided a visual reference of the relative safety of the tea-growing regions of southern Japan. For those who enjoy Japanese teas, all hope is not lost.