The Japanese tea industry is facing a huge problem.
This problem is hitting many of the respected tea farmers who have been in the industry for decades or even centuries.
The problem is: Japanese people are getting old.
In particular, tea drinkers in Japan are getting old. This article will show you why the green tea industry is facing the problem and a story of how one tea farmer is trying to combat the problem today.
Japanese tea drinkers are getting old
The average age of a Japanese green tea drinker is said to be 55 years old. In 2018, the Japanese population had the second highest median age in the world next to Monaco. Based on 2014 estimates, 33% of the Japanese population is above the age of 60.
Green tea is typically enjoyed by the older generation in Japan, and younger populations tend to be favoring other kinds of drinks such as coffee, soda and other sweet drinks, including fruit juice.
If you stop on any corner in Tokyo, the self-serving vending machines show you the truth of this favoring. Although green tea is still the most common beverage in Japan, when you stop at stations such as Harajuku where the younger generation tends to hang out more, you see lines of “sweet drinks” in the vending machines. (I wrote a comprehensive article about vending machine culture and green tea trend in Japan here.)
There is even a word for this in Japan now. Ochabanare (お茶離れ), which literally means “leaving tea trend,” which describes young people leaving the culture and drinking of tea.
Japanese tea farmers are getting hit by the aging problem
Due to the younger generation not drinking green tea, consumption of green tea in Japan has been decreasing year after year.
As of 2018, Japan is the eighth largest tea producer in the world (88900 tons/year); however, tea farming itself has unfortunately decreased in recent years.
According to statistics released by the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry in 2016, the area used for tea farming has decreased from 46200 hectares in 2011 to 43100 hectares in 2016. That is a 7% decrease in just 5 years. This is said to be due to multiple reasons:
- Imports of tea from other countries such as China is increasing, reducing the price of tea.
- Also, farming in general is lacking young labor forces. Farming is viewed as not “trendy” among the young population, causing a reduction in the labor force.
- The younger generation not drinking green tea is surely another main reason for this decline.
How Japan is losing its culture and tradition
Since tea was introduced to Japan from China in the 7th century, a unique tea culture has evolved in Japan. (Read more about unique Japanese tea culture in my other article.) Tea was initially valued as medicine due to its health benefits and was only available to the rich. Because tea was valued so highly and such a novel product, a unique culture evolved around tea in Japan; a good example is tea ceremonies which were practiced initially among high-class and rich people.
Because of this novel status, tea farmers have been one of the most respected farmers in Japan for a very long time. Anywhere or any time in history where there are more resources, more inventions happen. A variety of different cultivation methods have evolved in tea industries in Japan over time to get the best tea available to the consumers. One of the most well-known examples of this is Matcha.
Matcha is cultivated by shading tea before harvesting, which increases many health-beneficial chemicals by basically “hungering” the tea plant to crave more sunlight. (Read more about matcha trivia here.)
Another example of such cultivation method is the Chagusaba method( 茶草場). This is a labor-intensive cultivation method commonly practiced over centuries in Shizuoka prefecture where dirt around tea leaves is covered by shrubs of different plants to protect roots from freezing in winter and making the tea taste sweeter. (Try green tea grown by Chagusaba method.)
Though this cultivation method is being designated as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the United Nations, due to the above-mentioned reasons, farmers are not able to sustain the method. (Read more about Chagusaba method.)
Meet the Innovator of Japan’s Tea Industry
Though faced with many challenges, Japanese tea farmers are finding new ways to survive and thrive. Arahataen Green Tea Farms has been one of the most innovative leaders of tea farms in Japan, and very well respected by peer tea farmers.
Arahataen has always been the first brave tea farm to try out new systems in the tea industry. For example, they were the first farm to use a deep steaming method (Fukamushi 深蒸し茶) back in 60s to combat the problem of harder tea leaves due to excessive sun in the region. By successfully steaming tea for longer durations, they were able to introduce better tasting tea which was exposed to more sunlight. (Read more about deep steaming here.)
Arahataen was one of the first ones in Japan to adopt “mail subscription” services when TV shopping became popular in Japan, and of course one of the first to utilize the “online subscription” system. This made them the tea company with the highest online sales in Japan in 2016.
Images provided by author.