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Japanese Tea Culture
Green Tea
- vol 3 -
< Ryokucha Senso - The Green Tea War >
Green tea market has been showing a dramatic move in the country of green tea recently. Today, 30 percent of all generations and 70 percent of men in their fifties drink green tea refreshments* regularly. The consumption of tealeaves for Japanese tea rose up to 30 billion yen a year, and the growth rate has been showing a double digit for two consecutive years. Companies and companies of refreshments release versions after versions of green tea refreshments creating a fierce competition that knows no end. This entire movement of the sudden increase of green tea refreshments demand and therefore the rapid expansion of the market is called the “Green Tea War”, starting in year 2000 and boosting up in years 2004 – 2005.
Background : Canned and Bottled Drinks
The first form of green tea as a drink to enjoy away from the dining table was released two decades ago by ITO EN as canned tea. For green tea is a very delicate drink which its quality can easily be spoiled and affected by the slightest difference in the preservation conditions, it took a full decade to develop a satisfactory product that did not ruin and maintained the quality of the tea even days after it has been made. Back then, green tea was commonly understood as a drink to enjoy at home with one’s family, yet together with the rapid changes in the lifestyle especially among the labor force due to the economic growth, canned tea quickly spread across the Japanese society.

For a decade green tea alongside of other drinks and refreshments such as coffee and Oolong tea were enjoyed among a wide generation, though more on the older side, in the forms of cans and small cartons.
Green tea started to spread among the younger generations with the beginning of the sales of drinks bottled in plastic bottles, known more commonly in Japan as PET bottles in 1996. The emergence of PET bottles brought an enormous impact on the refreshment drinks market due to its convenience. Unlike cartons and cans, you can carry around your drink without having to have to finish it every time, and the drinks can be preserved for a longer time. From business people who move around a lot, to children who can’t drink a lot at once but want to carry a drink, PET bottles quickly spread among people of all generations.

The boomsetter for bottled green tea too was ITO EN, who was and still is the leader of the green tea market. Its green tea series O'i Ocha (pronounced: o(h)y-ocha) continues to hold its established position as the king of green tea refreshments* starting with the first release as canned green tea back in 1985 until its latest version in PET bottles. Like this, ITO EN created and expanded the green tea market pretty much alone until just recently.

Although the boomsetter was O'i Ocha, the trigger of the Green Tea War is KIRIN BEVERAGE's Namacha (pronounced: nam–ah–cha) making its debut in 2000. Until then, green tea was considered more as refreshments for adults because of the bitter taste and of the custom to drink it without adding sweetness or other ingredients. But by bringing out even more the mildness and umami that the tealeaves originally contain, Namacha succeeded in removing the preconceptions of green tea as a bitter drink and obtaining popularity from the younger (teenage) generation.

A number of green tea refreshments have been released in the following year gradually expanding the Green Tea War, but the leading share-holding brands continued to be O'i Ocha and Namacha. The revolutionary actor that completely flipped over this dominance was Suntory’s Iemon (pronounced: ee–eh–mon, not the fruit lemon) striking into the market in 2004. Even though Iemon was by no means advertised so much when it first came out, it was so popular that the supplied could not catch up with the demand and had to temporarily stop selling it in only 3 days from its release.

Now let us go over the details of the three brands of green tea refreshments that all together dominate more than 60% of the green tea refreshment market in 21st century Japan.

*green tea refreshments: ready-to-drink green tea drinks such as canned and bottled tea.
O'i Ocha – The All-time King
O'i Ocha first came out as the world’s first canned green tea in 1985, and ever since its first release two decades ago the brand has been keeping its position as the all-time king of the Japanese green tea refreshment industry. The manufacturer ITO EN is a rather young green tea company of a history of less than half a century, yet like its product O’i Ocha the company has established itself as the leading tea brand in the Japanese soft drink business.

Adhering to the company’s policy of providing products that are natural, healthy and safe, O’i Ocha uses tealeaves grown 100% in Japan mostly in Shizuoka for the original tea farm of the company was in Shizuoka. The pioneer of portable tea focuses on providing “good tea” – canned/bottled tea that tastes as good as tea freshly brewed in a teapot. As compared to other green tea refreshments, O’i Ocha has a firm taste but by no means astringent nor bitter, and leaves a rich savory and aftertaste.

By being engaged in every process of tea manufacturing from planting the tea plants, ITO EN continues to supply O’i Ocha with consistent quality that has not changed for over two decades.
Namacha – The Trigger of the Green Tea War
Namacha came out from a major Japanese drink maker KIRIN BEVERAGE (soft drink branch of liquor company KIRIN) in 2000, as an innovator of the green tea refreshment industry like mentioned in the previous page. Whilst canned and bottled green tea back then was considered more of an adult’s drink because of its particular bitterness and astringency, Namacha succeeded in removing this general perception and played a significant role in spreading green tea refreshments to a wider generation.

The characteristic and slogan of Namacha is the use of “raw tealeaves extract” which also shows in its very name namacha (“raw tea”). This raw tealeaves extract contains rich amount of teanin (internal link to teanin details), the component that gives mildness and the unique unsugary sweetness to green tea. In order to fully bring out the teanin flavor and benefits, Namacha only uses the tealeaves of Gyokuro, Kabuse-cha and Fukamushi-cha and brews the leaves at very low heat, straining it only roughly.

By spreading a new sense of green tea refreshments with the taste and also marketing skills which I will mention later, Namacha strode into the green tea refreshment industry and set off the 21st Century Green Tea War.
Iemon – The Challenger
Another major refreshment drink maker in Japan SUNTORY FOODS (soft drink and foods branch of the liquor company SUNTORY) struck the green tea refreshment industry in 2004, not just joining the Green Tea War but heating it up at once. Iemon, the company’s long-awaited counter-product against O’i Ocha, is a collaboration project with the traditional tea manufacturer and merchant Fukujuen (est. 1790) of Kyoto, and a finished product of after 4 years of research and development.

The tealeaves carefully selected by the tea masters of Fukujen, the brewing using two kinds of water – “pure water” and natural water from Yamazaki (Kyoto)” – and the addition of a hint of stone-ground high quality tealeaves enabled Iemon to have aroma and richness of freshly brewed tea even as a bottled drink.

In terms of its strict persistence to the use of 100% domestically grown and selected tealeaves, Iemon does not make much difference from the preceding leaders of the industry O’i Ocha and Namacha. The key factors for its huge success lie in the strict persistence not only to the selection of high quality ingredients and branding, but also to the marketing skills focusing on the concept of “traditional Japaneseness”. This too, I will write about in the later part.

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Made in Japan Contents
  • Green Tea 1 / 2 / 3 / 4
    Spirited Away (2001)
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Yasunari Kawabata
  • Banana Yoshimoto
  • Yukio Mishima
  • Inazo Nitobe
  • Japanese Tea
  • Bonsai
  • VAIO
  • Canon

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