With a couple of Starbucks and at least one other big-name coffee shop within easy walking distance, not long ago Tomohiro Tsuchiya would have been better off opening his little cafe somewhere else.
But he’s got a trendy product to offer — tea.
Thanks to a major media advertising blitz by big tea companies, Tsuchiya is attracting a broad range of customers to his little teahouse and reaping a share of the huge swell in Japanese tea consumption.
“We are seeing a steady increase in customers each year,” he said.
Japan has long been the bastion of coffee-drinking in Asia, but shops are popping up all over to specialize in tea, from the trendy green variety to various Chinese brews. Bottled and canned tea is also now taking up considerable shelf space in supermarkets, and pushing its carbonated competition out of the country’s ubiquitous vending machines.
The sale of Japanese tea increased almost threefold from 1997 to 2001, going from 505,000 kiloliters to 1.421 million, according to a survey by the National Soft Drink Industry Association.
As tea boomed, big-name competitors slowed or simply held their own.
Sales of Coca-Cola, the most popular brand of soft drink, increased only 1.6 percent over those five years, from 1.152 million kiloliters to 1.17 million.
The trend for coffee was similar, growing just 4.7 percent, from 2.568 million kiloliters to 2.688 million.
Starbucks Coffee Japan Ltd. said recently it expects to lose 500 million yen in the business year that ends March 31 — a sharp reversal from an earlier prediction of a 950 million yen profit. The firm, which runs more than 416 coffee shops in Japan, also said it has cut back planned store openings this year to 115 from 120 because of the “challenging” economy.
But tea is thriving.
O-i, Ocha by Itoen, the nation’s biggest tea company, is the most popular Japanese tea. Itoen has focused its pitch on purity: Its drink is straight, old-fashioned green tea with no sweeteners or additives.
Other popular teas blend well-known Chinese varieties or feature such unusual ingredients as barley, soybean or sesame.
Advertisements generally play up tea’s healthy image. It is generally very low in calories and does not cause tooth decay, obesity or diabetes. Some studies even indicate it can suppress the development of certain kinds of cancer, although the scientific community has not completely embraced tea’s supposed medicinal value.
Also to tea’s advantage is its long history in Japan.
Tea has been consumed here for 1,200 years or so and is served as everything from a simple meal accompaniment to the semisacred object of the famous tea ceremony.
“Other drinks have some limitations. They don’t go with Japanese food, for example,” said Sachiko Ine, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola of Japan, which also produces several tea-based beverages.
Perhaps the key factor in the growth of tea sales, however, has been the move by Itoen, Coca-Cola and other companies to flood the market with dozens of new tea brands that are heavily advertised on television.
“When we first started selling tea in a can in 1985, we were worried about whether people would buy it,” said Yuka Kawamura, spokeswoman for Itoen. “But over the past several years, the major producers have started advertising their tea products, and it’s changed the way consumers look at tea — which has given the market a boost.”
Though some ads emphasize tea’s tradition — one, for example, features a young kabuki actor drinking green tea — most rely heavily on popular actresses or models to reinforce the idea that tea is cool, so young people need not be embarrassed about drinking it in public.
Itoen, for instance, once used a 96-year-old man in its TV spots. It switched in 1995 to Miki Nakatani, a popular actress in her mid-20s.
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