Tea has a rich and flavourful history. It is one of the most important objects throughout history, with a strong association to religion, power, conquest, espionage, war and rebellion. It is something that transcends just a casual warm drink in a cup through its connection to politics, spirituality, art and cultural developments.
The origin story of tea is steeped in legend and its spread through Japan and Japanese culture is no exception. Tea reached Japan initially in the 6th century when monks returned from China. Along with Buddhism and academic scholarship, the monks brought back tea seeds from the Tang Dynasty, these seeds are believed to be the origins of tea growing in Japan. Its initial consumption was for medicinal and spiritual purposes.
The first reference to tea drinking in Japanese literature is from around 815 CE in the Nihon Koki or the Later Chronicles of Japan. The record describes how Emperor Saga was invited by the monk Eichu to visit the Bonshakakuji temple where he was served tea. Emperor Saga encouraged the drinking and cultivation of tea in Japan during the Heian period. It is important to note that during these years, tea like with its origins in China and other countries, was deeply intertwined with spiritual practices and the nobility of the imperial court.
Although tea’s history in Japan began as a predominantly luxury or spiritual item, tea continued to influence Japanese culture. By the 12th century, Japan had its own “father of tea culture” – Myoan Eisai whose book on tea, Kissa yojoki, helped popularize tea amongst the masses in Japan beyond nobles and monks. Eisai introduced Japan to powdered green teas from China which Zen Buddhists would later evolve into the famous tea ceremonies of Japan. Despite some belief that wild tea grew in remote mountain areas of japan, Eisai is also believed to have planted the first tea plants in Seburisan, Saga prefecture and shared these seeds with a friend in Kyoto. Eisai’s book popularized tea and its growth expanded throughout Japan,
Tea was particularly popular during this Kamakura period with the Samurai class especially after Eisai is said to have rescued the shogun Minamoto Sanetomo from a horrible hangover. The samurai believed tea saved his life and Sanetomo became one of many samurai tea converts. The growing popularity of tea amongst the Samurai class along with the rising popularity of the newly developed Wabicha tea ceremony created by Murata Juko, which was a more accessible tea ceremony for the masses, are some of the core reasons tea began to spread across Japan during the Edo period.
The connection between tea and culture in Japan is very significant. The ceremonies that developed around teas during the Edo period and beyond shows how tea was more than just a drink. The various ceremonies that developed represented different values in Japanese culture including purity, tranquility, the transient nature of moments, respect, and harmony. As such tea ceremonies continued to evolve, they became quite involved and formalized important events.
Tea grown in Japan was predominantly for internal use until the export of tea outside of Japan began in 1610 with the Dutch East India Company. This initial era of export was short lived however as the Shogunite closed Japan to outside influence and trade in the 1630s and these borders stayed closed as japan became a Sakoku or closed country.
Within Japan however, tea continued to be produced and consumed. Early tea production widely varied and around 1738, early sencha production developed. Around 1835, the uji method for making Gyokuro, shade grown teas, emerged and spread throughout Japan. Tea further expanded in this Edo period when the government granted permission for tea merchants to trade in tea. This dramatically expanded access to teas across Japan.
Tea exports from Japan only re-emerged when the United States basically forced a reluctant Japan to open back up to trade in the 1850s with the signing of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. However, once trade opened up, Japan took advantage of the new opportunities and quickly grew trade relationships with other countries including the Netherlands, Russia, Great Britain and France. Tea export was part of this trade expansion with a focus on the United States. This is one of the reasons that the American tea palate often prefers green teas to the Black teas, that also symbolized their colonizers and conflict. However, this growing export market in the 19th century also saw the development of Japan’s black tea market.
This new tea trade also saw the expansion of tea growth from what was traditionally the mountain regions to flatter territories. Initially these plantations were started by former Samurai families but they were quickly sold off to farmers as they did not prove to be lucrative.
In the late 20th century the urbanization of Japan resulted in plunging farm workers which lead to the development of new technologies to support the health of the tea industry. Despite the reduction in farm work, interest in tea did not wane significantly but it did shift so developments in tea continued. For, example the development of Japanese Oolongs grew in the 1980s.
Overall when we look at tea in Japan, we can see how important tea is to everyday life in Japan and in the diaspora. Although much of its cultural significance is observed during tea ceremonies, its importance is not just limited to these rituals. It is readily available in restaurants, convenience stores and even on street vending machines, demonstrating that tea is not just part of Japan’s history but it is part of Japanese contemporary life and culture.