America’s Taste for Tea Turns to Japan

Whaling Ship in the early 1800sThe East India Company tea tossed overboard in Boston Harbor was all grown in China. But a century later, America’s tea of choice originated in Japan. This interesting turn-of-events would never have come about had it not been for the whaling industry.

Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships” opened the Japanese port of Yokohama in 1859 for the benefit of United States whaling ships who needed a port-of-call far from home. But within a few years, Pennsylvania kerosene, rather than whale oil, was lighting American homes. The great hunting ships were idled 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.

Thomas Melville

 

One of the participants in the 1773 Boston Tea Rebellion was Thomas Melville, grandfather of Herman Melville, author of the epic whaling adventure “Moby Dick”.

 

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 fresh green tea.

Loading Tea Chest in Japan c.1870

Workers loading chests of Japanese green tea in Yokohama c.1870

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. The US government eventually established a tea inspection board that eliminated this colorful – and unhealthy – practice.

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.”

Okakura Kakuzo, author of The Book of Tea 1906

Okakura Kakuzo, Boston Museum of Fine Arts Asian Arts Curator 1904-1913

The exhibit had a profound effect upon several visiting Bostonians who later became friends of Okakura Kakuzo, author of The Book of Tea and Curator of Asian Arts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. Their names were Sturgis Bigelow, John La Farge, and Henry Adams (grandson of John 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 go on to become one of America’s greatest architects.

That boy’s name was Frank Wright.

Read more about the Boston/Japanese Tea connection in the 2011 edition of THE BOOK OF TEA, edited by Bruce Richardson.