Japanese Tea Exports at the Time of Okakura Kakuzo
Yokohama Tasting Room c.1890
Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” opened the port of Yokohama in 1859 for the benefit of the United States whaling industry but, within a few years, Pennsylvania kerosene, rather than whale oil, was lighting American homes. The great hunting ships were idle and rotting in harbors across the eastern seaboard. Sailors who once went to sea to battle the great leviathans of the Pacific were now employed to man ships that carried a more docile commodity: Japanese green tea. In the first year of legal trade, 400,000 tons of Japanese teas were exported.
As soon as Japan’s gates were pried open, the United States became her best tea customer. This was due to the direct transpacific shipping routes to Seattle and San Francisco, and to America’s insatiable thirst for green tea.
In 1860, American merchants were importing ten percent of their tea from Japan. By 1870, the number had grown to twenty-five percent, and by 1880, Japanese tea accounted for forty-seven percent of America’s tea imports while China supplied most of the balance. By 1890, the per capita consumption of tea in America was 1.3 pounds (compared to 7.8 pounds of coffee).
Yokohama traders brought experienced Chinese tea workers from Canton and Shanghai to introduce proper tea making techniques, along with the new practice of artificial coloring. Almost all early Japanese export teas were colored using secret Chinese methods. Graphite and Prussian blue were just two of the ingredients used to enhance the appearance of both Chinese and Japanese teas. Even the Sun-Dried teas were treated with a yellow substance that gave them a more convincing sun color.
Yokohama Tea Vendor, by Beato c.1880
Just as American consumers had no knowledge of the authentic color of real tea, Japanese tea traders had no knowledge of American currency. It was a new experience to barter with foreign firms. Once again, they hired Chinese intermediaries and quickly overcame their naiveté of foreign languages and customs. Their Chinese counterparts understood both Japanese and English, were adept at negotiating deals, and were familiar with buying and weighing out coin in settling accounts. Mexican silver pesos had been the coin of choice for many years in Chinese foreign trade so it became the recognized standard for Japanese trade during the earliest years of buying. American traders eventually used lines of credit, often established with London banks, to pay their invoices, known as “chops.”
One great difficulty that had to be overcome was the problem of improperly fired teas, which tended to mold in the damp holds of trading ships. This problem was solved in 1861 when well-dried, Pan-Fired teas were packed in large porcelain jars holding up to 83 pounds of leaf. These teas were known as “porcelain teas” to distinguish them from tea packed in wooden chests.
Japanese tea brokers promoted their craft at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Alongside the showcases of tea and silk, the arts and artisans of Japan were on display as well. It was, for most American fairgoers, their first exposure to the culture of the mysterious island nation. Americans became enamored of “things Japanese.”
The exhibit had a profound effect upon several visiting Boston personalities who would later become friends of Okakura Kakuzo (fifteen years old at that time). Their names were Sturgis Bigelow, John La Farge, and Henry Adams.
Also in attendance at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was Wisconsin resident Anna Lloyd Jones, the mother of a young boy who would one day read Okakura’s Book of Tea and become one of America’s greatest architects. That boy’s name was Frank Wright.
This article is an excerpt from the 2011 edition of The Book of Tea, edited by Bruce Richardson (theteamaestro) and available through Benjamin Press.