History and issues for the export of Japanese tea

The history of tea export
 The production and export of tea has been promoted actively as a national policy since the early Meiji Era. The exported quantity during the Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods were between 10,000 to 20,000 tons, and most of the export was directed towards the United States. In the Showa period, the competition with coffee on the international market in combination with the spread of Chinese tea resulted in a decrease in exports. A rising domestic demand also shifted the focus from the international arena to Japan itself, and in 1991 (Heisei 3) only 253 tons where shipped overseas, the lowest figure ever recorded. Since then export figures have risen gradually over the years and in 2005 (Heisei 17) 1,000 tons were sent overseas. This figure doubled over the next 5 years to reach 2000 tons in 2010 (Heisei 22).

Background and issues regarding the rising export value
The export value of Japanese tea rose from 2.1 billion yen in 2005 to 6.6 billion yen in 2014. During the last 10 years, there has been a decrease in domestic consumption. On the other hand, although both the export value and quantity is still relatively small, the number of countries subject to export has risen. 50% of the export is still directed towards the United States but the number of destination countries has increased from 39 in 2004 to 49 in 2013.

Behind the rising figures, one finds an increasing appreciation of the high quality and beneficial properties of Japanese tea across the globe. However, although being a product of excellent quality Japanese tea is often more expensive than teas from other competing countries such as China. Also, the export establishment in Japan has to undergo structural reforms to be able to adjust the products to fit the respective destination countries, and in this sense there are many issues that remain to be solved hereafter.

Improving the export market for Japanese tea

The strong point of Japanese tea is not its price, but rather its high quality and the culture surrounding it. The cultural background and the stories behind Japanese tea have to be promoted actively to attract foreign consumers and purchasers. Here it is important to emphasise tea and the tea culture as a part of Washoku (Japanese food), that is registered as a world cultural heritage, when promoting Japanese tea overseas. Seminars, tea tasting events and similar activities may be effective ways of conveying such information. This combined with the transmission of information on Japanese tea may have a positive effect on the export figures.

By performing such activities, a rising consumption can be expected in promising markets where there is already a staple demand such as the United States, Hong Kong and Singapore as well as in upcoming markets such as the EU and Russia. Showing the excellent quality and introducing the cultural aspects of Japanese tea may prove to be effective tools when marketing it overseas.

Optimising the effects of marketing

Characteristics of Japanese tea
One characteristic of Japanese tea is the steaming process, a part of the production method where the fresh leaves are steamed, thereby preventing them from oxidising. By steaming the leaves, one is able to maintain the natural beauty of the tea leaves while also keeping a good quality. The result is a perfect balance of colour, flavour and taste, produced only in Japan. It is important that the high quality as well as the beneficial properties of substances like catechins, and the intimate connection to Washoku (Japanese food) is used to appeal to foreign consumers.

How to spread Japanese tea even further
To further expand the consumption of Japanese tea abroad, it is important that various measures are taken actively at many different levels. Surveys regarding taste preferences in the respective destination countries and development of products designed for export as well as introducing good ways to prepare tea are of great importance. Other uses of tea, such as high quality Matcha as an ingredient in various beverages and sweets should also be promoted actively.

There is also a need to overlook the way that tea is sold. The most basic way to enjoy Japanese tea is to use a Kyusu (Japanese teapot), and this is also the best way to bring out the most of the leaves. If this way of preparing tea could be spread overseas too, the appreciation for tea utensils and Japanese culture might grow at the same time.

However, it is also important to introduce easier ways of enjoying Japanese tea and in this case, tea bags might be useful. Different countries may have different preferences, and to adjust the products according to the respective markets is one of the most important tasks to face.

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