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The Age of Sail: Tokyo Bay | Sakoku & Sencha Tea

It may make up 80% of tea production in Japan today, but did you know that sencha didn’t even exist until 1738? In exploration of our 2022 Age of Sail collection, we’re diving deep into the intertwined histories of maritime trade, sakoku, and sencha.

The Tea Centre’s brand-new Age of Sail wooden tea box boasts a dozen teas that made an impact on the world through the advent of maritime trading. One is these teas is the unassuming Japanese sencha.

Sencha’s global popularity and trade dominance in contrast to the formerly preeminent matcha—though this brew has experienced its own renaissance in recent years—is a direct reflection of sakoku (1603-1867). Sakoku was a time when Japan was isolated from the rest of the world. The trade discrepancy between matcha and sencha is also reflective of sakoku’s eventual end at the hands of gunboat diplomacy. 

This 200-year period saw unprecedented economic growth in Japan under the protectionist Tokugawa shogunate. However, it was also a time equally dogged by social unrest and political upheaval. All of which was catalysed by an unexpected visit from the West. 

The forced reintroduction of maritime trade—otherwise known as the Perry Expedition (1853-54)—into this historical period of Japanese isolation was a momentous one. 

And its story can be read in the tea leaves made to brew sencha.

1603 | The start of the Tokugawa period & sakoku 鎖国

At the beginning of the Tokugawa period, matcha was the only tea worth drinking in Japan. Thanks to the monks who first brought in tea, the act of drinking matcha was heavily wrapped up in ideas of ceremony and puritanism. 

The cultural and elitist emphasis placed on the Japanese tea ceremony during this time meant that it was only accessible to the most influential classes in society. Since Japan was ruled by a shogun (a kind of military dictator) called Tokugawa Ieyasu, only members of the military (samurai) and land-owning (daimyo) classes could afford to enjoy matcha.

After much war and bloodshed, Tokugawa Ieyasu felt that the only way to achieve peace was to rid Japan of outside influences and strictly control all classes, which led to sakoku (鎖国). From 1633 onward, Japanese people were forbidden to travel overseas and the only contact that Japan had with the Western world was trade with the Dutch from one approved port in Nagasaki.

What does sakoku have to do with tea?

Tokugawa somewhat achieved his vision of peace. Though Japanese people were not free to travel or partake in foreign trade, the first hundred years of sakoku did foster a huge period of growth within the agricultural and domestic trade sectors of Japan’s economy (read: the tea industry).

What did this mean for the price of the tea? Matcha was still on the up but now there were means and resources to innovate a new kind of tea…sencha! 

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The dichotomy of tea: Baisao hawking sencha vs. matcha used in Japanese tea ceremony. Image from Umi Tea Sets.

However, what Tokugawa didn’t foresee was how this peace period would create massive contradictions between the social classes whose immobility the shogunate heavily policed. 

Namely, poor farmers and merchant classes became fiscally and resource-rich while the formerly esteemed samurai became obsolete. Moreover, the farmer and merchant class were increasingly resentful of having to pay samurai fixed stipends for a protection service that was no longer required during this time of peace. 

In the same way that the exclusive and expensive matcha fell out of favour among the Japanese public in preference for the more accessible and affordable sencha, the samurai class and feudalism became increasingly outdated within the new thriving domestic economy. 

1730s-38 | The birth of sencha

After sakoku began but prior to the Perry Expedition, social conditions in the 1730s were ripe for the birth of a new Japanese tea

Before sencha as we know it came to be, a monk called Baisao popularised brewing tea ‘sencha’ style. Back then, ‘sencha’ was the term used to describe simmering tea in hot water as opposed to the ceremonial way (i.e. whisking powdered tea).

As an ascetic monk, Baisao saw first-hand the exclusionary means through which the ruling class would horde matcha and disliked the practice, seeing it as indulgent and unfair. As a result, Baisao used his considerable cultural influence to sell and actively popularise the sencha style of brewing tea.

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Image of Nagatani Soen, the original cultivator of sencha. From nagatanisouen.com

While it was Baisao who laid the social foundations for a new green tea to flourish, it was a farmer named Nagatani Soen who actually invented the tea in 1738.

If you’ve read our green tea blog here, you’ll know that one of the reasons why premium Japanese teas like gyokuro and matcha are so expensive is because they are shaded green teas. 

Shading teas is a laborious process that not all farmers—Nagatani included—had the resources to do. During this time, other green tea types either underwent steaming or drying processes. 

Long story short, Nagatani created sencha when experimenting with combining all these tea-making methods together.

Using younger steamed tea leaves, Nagatani came up with an efficient and affordable method of rolling and drying tea at the same time, resulting in the birth of sencha teas!

1853 | Gunboat diplomacy globalises sencha

Instead of making sencha a trade secret, Nagatani was truly altruistic in sharing his manufacturing methods, to the point where it became a pillar of tea processing in Japan by the time 1853 rolled around.

Why is the year 1853 so important? On a global scale, the Industrial Revolution saw the advent of steamships that allowed for goods to be transported further than ever before. A fairly young republic called the United States was also hungry to compete with the trade monopoly that Britain and other imperial powers had over the Asia-Pacific, as cemented by the ongoing Opium Wars. 

The US saw an untapped market in Japan and, in an unannounced show of aggression and audacity, decided to break the Tokugawa shogunate’s sakoku policy.

Despite knowing it was forbidden, fully-armed US navy ships sailed into Japan’s Tokyo Bay on 8 July 1853 and ordered the Tokugawa Shogunate to open trade with America. 

This expedition was run by American commodore Matthew Perry, which is why this show of force is known as the Perry Expedition. 

This expedition is also infamous internationally for coining the term ‘gunboat diplomacy’: when a powerful country subversively threatens a weaker nation into signing its foreign treaties with a show of naval power or warfare.

Japan had previously traded tea in small quantities with China and the Dutch, but the Perry Expedition and its subsequent revisits saw sencha now become available across the world. 

The first documented major shipment of sencha was 5.9 tons loaded onto an English 

Matthew C. Perry as perceived by a Japanese artist. On woodblock print circa 1854.

merchant vessel at Nagasaki Port in 1856 bound for Europe and the United States. This was just three years after the Perry Expedition.

The global shipment of sencha was formally secured with the historic Ansei Treaties (1858), and soon cemented sencha’s status as Japan’s biggest export after sakoku along with silk. 

Another consequence of the Perry Expedition was that it cemented for Japanese society how technologically and politically inept the Tokugawa empire had become over 200 years of isolation. The shogun’s powerlessness against the United State’s ships created much civil unrest among the lower classes. As a result, the imperial faction of Japan’s daimyo felt they had no choice but to overthrow the Tokugawa government in the Boshin War (1868-9). 

This new period saw the power in Japan conferred to the emperor Meiji (now a constitutional monarchy), which is why this event became known as the Meiji Restoration.

Did sencha spell the end of the Tokugawa clan?

Politically, yes. However, after Tokugawa Yoshinobu (the direct descendant of Tokugawa Ieyasu) retired from power in 1868, the whole family moved to the city of Sunpu and became…tea farmers!

Not just any tea farmers either. The Tokugawa clan grew and manufactured sencha on the Makinohara Plateau and the city of Sunpu soon became Shizuoka. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Shizuoka is now the largest tea-producing region in Japan.

Moreover, the main international trade harbour of Shizuoka is Shimizu port, which inspired the name of The Tea Centre’s premium Shimizu Sencha. This premium-grade sencha also hails from the Shizuoka prefecture!  

The Tea Centre’s revisit into the Age of Sail doesn’t stop there. Read our introductory Tea Journal entry here or go back even further in time with our Silk Road collection

Cover image: ‘American warship’ woodblock print, ca. 1854 from the Nagasaki prefecture. Artist unknown.

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