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Brief History of Japanese Green Tea: A Cup Full of History and Mystery

Since around the 9th century, when tea was first introduced to the people of Japan by traders who sipped the beverage in China, green tea has evolved into a national obsession and become part of the country’s culture. Keep reading to learn more about the history of this magical drink.

A Plant grown in China crosses The Sea of Japan 

Long before Genghis Khan and Mongol hordes began expansive explorations into China, its people had developed a tea-drinking culture. Green tea, specifically, was given magical powers. Those who drank it expected health and welfare benefits. In some parts of 8th-century China, green tea was called "an elixir of youth."

China wasn't going to keep this healthy beverage all to itself. After the first seed of tea was brought to Japan by Saicho in 815, traders began transporting leaves and plants the short distance to Japan.

Japan was one of the first to be introduced to tea in world history. The below chart shows how tea was spread out to the world from its origins in India and China (there is a debate about whether China or India is the origin of tea).

History of Tea in the World

Despite rudimentary communications systems, it took next to no time for the people of Japan to fall in love and make drinking green tea more than a pleasurable habit but a ceremonial one as well.

Green Tea set

From herbal medicine to everyday drink 

As tea preparation and consumption became commonplace in Japan, its reputation for having medicinal purposes grew to the point where the growing process was often shrouded in mystery, so cultivation methods could be limited to the rich and entitled. But during China’s Tang Dynasty, green tea had gone mainstream, and while this transformation took longer to reach Japan, a declaration by Emperor Saga, who ruled from 786 to 842, made tea-drinking available to even the lowest class of society.

Tea was trendy drink

Perhaps the most enthusiastic proponents of drinking green tea were Buddhist monks, some of whom had become tea drinkers during pilgrimages to China. Eventually, green tea cultivation and propagation attracted two leading proponents of Japanese tea consumption: Kukai and Saicho, Buddhist monks who became legends thanks to the huge numbers of tea seeds they brought home each time they visited China.

green tea cultivation and tea drinkers

A green tea empire! 

Having become the most popular drink in Japan thanks to the efforts of these two monks, tea growing became commonplace as the 9th century came to a close. By this time, it was grown in so many places that visitors to Japan’s imperial palace found themselves walking between rows of tea plants on their way to see the emperor. Zen Buddhist monks, meanwhile, used green tea to help them stay alert longer during lengthy meditation practices, and only droughts brought this flourishing agricultural movement to an occasional stop.

By the 12th century,  thanks to Zen master Eisai, called the father of the Japanese tea culture, this steeped beverage had become the nation’s most-favored beverage. Eisai recognized tea as a plant with the potential to do more than just quench thirst. He began to attribute myriad powers to green tea, which prompted poets to publish tributes to green tea’s ability to be a transformative beverage.

Tea is a transformative beverage

From beverage to cultural icon 

Green tea’s importance to Japanese culture can’t be understated. Used ceremoniously by monks, healers and even employed in matters of justice during Kugatachi divination ceremonies staged to determine whether someone was guilty or innocent, the accused was required to remove stones from pots filled with boiling tea or water.

Not every ritual associated with tea was draconian: tea competitions became a major part of samurai warrior training and students drank it before going into battle, too. Ornate tea houses built by wealthy homeowners to stage lavish ceremonies became status symbols. By the 16th Century, cups crafted explicitly for green tea ceremonies were brought from China to Japan, helping to launch the nation's ceramics industry.

green tea ceremonies

The inevitability of worldwide acceptance 

Anthropologists with deep understanding of Japanese cultural practices often point to the nation’s propensity for remaining a closed society for centuries, but green tea helped introduce the nation to the world once Japan’s Edo Period dawned. Between 1600 and the mid-1800s, exports of green tea flourished and helped introduce the rest of the world to Japan.

Green tea is now the most consumed beverage in Japan, next to water. Japan ranks as the 10th country exporting tea to the world, with 1.7% of the total global tea export by volume.

This article was originally published as a guest blog on Air Kitchen.

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