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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.)
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 the 60s to combat the problem of harder tea leaves due to the 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.
Arahataen’s newest and biggest challenge now is the problem every industry is facing in Japan: Age. With young people leaving tea drinking and the tea culture, what can a company do to solve the problem which is getting more serious every year?
Mr. Arahata’s idea was very simple. “Let’s ask the young people about it.”
Although much of the population of Japan is aging, there are young kids who are full of energy for a better and brighter future. Mr. Arahata’s idea was to get help from the “future” of Japan.
Unlike other countries, Japan has many high schools and junior high schools that specialize in a specific industry. Many kids study to get into the high school of their dreams, which usually leads them into a university specializing in the industry. If a kid knows what they want to do in the future, Japan is a very good place for them because they get exposure to that industry from a very early age. (Side note: In fact, I also went to an architect-specialized school (Shibaura Institute of Technology Junior and Senior High School) for my junior high school and part of high school before I came to the USA.)
Arahataen approached the local high school specializing in business industry, Shizuoka Commercial High School (静岡商業高等学校). The school had 844 students in 2017 and is well connected to the local farming industry from a commercial perspective.
Students from Shizuoka Commercial High School
With a partnership with Shizuoka Commercial High School, Arahataen Tea Farm became the teacher of a course for the 8th-grade students for a period of one year.
Arahataen’s job as a teacher is to teach kids the basics of tea farming, harvesting, and production. Students were exposed to the real everyday life of the tea industry for one year. As noted above, Arahataen is one of the oldest tea farms of the region, and they handle not only farming but also packaging, distribution, and marketing. Kids were very excited to get hands-on experience in growing tea and distributing into the mass market of the world.
As part of Curriculum, the goal of the year-long course was to find a way to market the tea to the youth.
After a number of brainstorming sessions, a student came up with the idea to add “something” to the tea so that young people will like it. Their idea was to look for ingredients by learning from drinks popular among students. They listed drinks they usually drink. The list included drinks such as Cokes, fruit juice, Calpis (popular Japanese soft drink) and cocoa drinks. What was common among all the products were “sweet” and often “sour.”
After the brainstorming sessions, with help from actual production facilities, students prototyped a number of different drinks and snacks. They shared the prototyped products and surveyed the entire region’s high schools to see which ones they liked the most.
The result of this one-year journey was: Green tea with Lemon.
With help from Arahataen’s wide and strong connections with local farms, students were able to source local lemon to add to the tea. Arahataen decided to use one of the most premium teas grown by the Chagusaba method (see above about this method) with sugar cane. They have powdered the premium tea so that it is easier to mix and drink with cold or hot water, as the kids suggested, since most of them don’t have tea kettles at home.
Powdered tea (Konacha粉茶) is usually made with the non-prime part of green tea. It is usually the result of using the “leftover” tea so that all parts of tea can be sold. Arahataen did not want to go with low-quality tea. Therefore, they powdered the most premium crops to preserve the healthiest and best part of the tea.
They have also partnered with a local orange farm of Japanese Orange Mikan to come up with the second product of the line called Green tea with Japanese Orange. Mikan is also known as Japanese Citrus which is very similar to mandarin.
Since the introduction of the product, both products have been catching boom in Japan now and are featured by national TV shows as well.
You can also try this in the India from the Japanese Green Tea Company here:
Green Tea with Lemon:
Green Tea with Japanese Orange (Mikan):