Japanese green tea, known for its health benefits and centuries-old brewing and serving rituals, has won the hearts and taste buds of people around the world.
But with the dramatic aging of its society, Japan is seeing a fall in its tea farmer population that is putting the industry’s survival at risk.
Enter Suil Hong, a 31-year-old third-generation Korean resident and founder of Tokyo-based marketing company Rebirth. Hong has made it his mission to support small Japanese tea farmers and help them reach markets in and outside the country to preserve the tradition of ocha and spread it around the world.
“Tea drinks sold in plastic bottles are the top sellers nowadays, and I thought it was a waste” that the quality and variety of the tea was getting lost in the process of mass production, Hong told The Japan Times in an interview in Tokyo last month.
Hong said the idea for starting his company came from his longtime desire to share his passion for Japanese culture.
During one of his trips in Japan, he met the family of Yoshimitsu Masuda, who has run a tea farm in Shimada, Shizuoka Prefecture, for about 20 years.
Amazed by the quality of Masuda’s tea and the farmers’ struggles, Hong decided to start his own business to help them secure a more stable source of income.
Masuda is one of the few tea farmers who transformed his fields to start organic cultivation. He looks after his crops with the help of his daughters and takes utmost care to avoid the use of pesticides. This often requires that the family remove insects by hand — one by one.
Despite the great effort put into their products, many farmers in Japan don’t know how to sell them, Hong said.
“Many farmers don’t have access to the internet. They’re not even aware that green tea is well received overseas.”
In May 2016, Hong launched a brand of tea powder called Nodoka, which consists of four types of Japanese green tea: sencha (steamed tea), hojicha (roasted tea), genmaicha (tea combined with roasted popped brown rice) and the popular matcha (made from destemmed high-quality leaves).
Nodoka in Japanese translates as calmness or tranquility, which is often used to depict the landscape of Japanese tea farms.
He chose to work with Masuda’s farm in the belief that organic tea has more health benefits than tea produced with chemicals. With Hong’s advice, Masuda now provides his tea in powder form to ensure it retains all of its nutrients and can even be used as a dietary supplement.
“We’re using only organic products, which is our strength,” Hong said.
According to the agriculture ministry, only 2.78 percent of the tea produced in fiscal 2015, about 83,000 tons, was certified as organic under the Japanese Agricultural Standard.
The ministry’s latest data also suggest that of the 80,000 or so tons of tea produced last year, only around 4,000 tons, or 5 percent, was exported.
But Rebirth is just one of many tea companies competing for new customers overseas.
“We struggle daily to reach customers who are still unfamiliar with the traditional taste of Japanese tea,” said Mitsutoshi Sugimoto, director-general of Tokyo-based Japan Tea Export Council, which provides support for tea producers.
According to the council, demand for leaf tea is declining in the shadow of cheaper and more accessible bottled tea products.
“In the past, freshly brewed green tea was a necessity in the daily lives of Japanese people,” but that has changed, Sugimoto said.
He said the downtrend can be associated with the shift in focus to quantity over quality, with the soft drink industry diversifying to offer a wider variety of beverages.
Hong said that tea production has become unprofitable for many farmers, which often leads them to abandon their businesses. But he believes that with help, Japan’s tea farmers can succeed overseas.
“I think many of them have never even thought about it,” he said.
Before he focused on tea, Hong worked in fields that had nothing to do with Japanese culture or agriculture, including accounting and information technology.
He grew interested in becoming a bridge from Japan to the rest of the world in 2011, after he started working with Japan Expo, a U.S. corporation that promotes Japan’s culture and tourism through cultural events and exhibitions.
Then, in 2012, he joined a nonprofit volunteer effort to help victims of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, taking junior high school students from the Tohoku region to Los Angeles for cultural exchanges.
“I wanted to do the same thing (promoting Japanese culture), but on my own,” he said of his decision to launch Rebirth in 2012 and move to New York in 2013. He launched Nodoka last year while he was in New York, and returned to Japan in November.
Hong’s firm is small. He started out with ¥5 million in capital and raised about $7,000 through crowdfunding. He only has one employee in New York, but a network of professionals in Japan and abroad who can assist him with design and promotion.
“We haven’t invested that much . . . and didn’t want to put too much money on advertising, as we wanted to sell tea along with the story behind it, enabling people to see who is producing it,” he said.
Hong added, however, that he is now seeking venture capital funding in Singapore and South Korea and might even apply for government subsidies earmarked for private-sector businesses that promote Japanese culture.
Nodoka tea is available mainly online through its English-language website, giving it global reach. It is also sold at farmers’ markets or gourmet events, and offered as samples or ingredients in desserts or other dishes at certain coffee shops in New York and in Vancouver, British Columbia.
But for Hong it’s just the beginning.
He said his goal is to transform Nodoka into a larger platform offering Japanese organic food and products. He also wants to expand his business in Japan, adding fermented foods and beverages such as amazake (a sweet, fermented rice drink) from Miyagi Prefecture to his product line.
Toward this end, he is preparing to launch cooking classes to share ideas on how to use organic tea products and eventually offer such services in collaboration with Airbnb hosts in Tokyo and other cities.
“I’d like people to visit the tea farms, too,” he said.
“I’d like to introduce new tastes people don’t know yet. Now you can easily get tea from vending machines … but I want to share the stories of the people who make the effort to produce a tradition we shouldn’t forget. I want people to learn about farmers like Mr. Masuda.”
“Generational Change” is a series of interviews that appear on the first Monday of each month, profiling people in various fields who are taking a leading role in bringing about changes in society. Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key events in Suil Hong’s life
2008 — Graduates from the Faculty of Business Management at Korea University in Tokyo.
2012 — Joins nonprofit organization Play for Japan to support March 2011 disaster victims; starts working with Japan Expo; establishes Rebirth Inc.
2013 — Moves to New York to look for opportunities to market Japanese products to the world.
2016 — Launches Japanese tea brand Nodoka; brand makes shortlist of finalists at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas for best new product category.