Ivings on Hellyer, 'Green with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups'

Robert I. Hellyer. Green with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021. 304 pp. $32.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-19910-0

Reviewed by Steven Ivings (Kyoto University)
Published on H-Japan (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Martha Chaiklin

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58413

Green Tea with Milk and Sugar provides readers with an impressive and wide-ranging account of the development and decline of Japanese tea exports to the US market, as well as the long-term effects of that trade on both American and Japanese "teaways." Infused with a level of detail hitherto unseen in commodity histories of Japan's trade in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and peopled with human actors, Hellyer's account is both enjoyable and informative and will appeal to readers with an interest in both Japanese and American history, as well as social, economic, cultural, and food historians.

In the brief preface Hellyer reveals his own deep family connections with the subject of the book, recalling childhood summertime memories of drinking his grandmother's tea in the garden, when she often reminisced about her time in Japan as a tea merchant's wife. In this sense Hellyer's book is in part a personal indulgence spurred by a "desire to delve beyond the anecdotes from those summer days" (p. xii). But readers need not fear—these personal elements do not detract from the academic contribution of the work; if anything they enrich the study by adding a layer of detail to the history of the trade in Japanese tea that is not possible from archival materials alone. Hellyer & Co., after all, was one of the most prominent and long-standing tea trading companies operating in Japan, both in the treaty ports and eventually running a processing plant in Shizuoka Prefecture. Though Hellyer explores the history of tea as a commodity rather than pursuing a business history of his ancestors' firm, the work is enriched with inside information from Hellyer & Co.'s experience. Indeed, Hellyer's grandmother's tea servings indicate the central themes of the book: the somewhat forgotten American preference for Japanese green tea in the second half of the nineteenth century and the eventual shift in preferences toward black teas—the young Hellyer was served black tea by his grandmother, who kept green tea for more sophisticated guests.

In the introduction Hellyer outlines the book's main themes, including how Japanese consumption switched from brown to green tea and US from green to black, promising an approach that looks at both sides of the trade and across the whole commodity chain. This latter approach makes for a more human story of the Japan tea trade as Hellyer is able to follow those involved in both the making and marketing of the product, encompassing tea-producing hinterlands, trading ports, and dispersed communities of consumers. It is an approach that also stresses the mutual influence of teaways across the Pacific as "the now forgotten American penchant for green tea helped shape today's Japanese national preference for sencha" (p. 7).

Chapter 1 provides an outline of Japanese tea consumption over the last millennium or so, stressing the social and cultural significance of the beverage. Much of this will be familiar to readers here, but the chapter still contained information that was new to this reader at least, such as the prominence of the Shogun's tea procession from Uji to Edo. The chapter highlights the fact that many Japanese grew their own tea and would dry bundles of leaves before roasting them. As they were usually brown (not green!) when brewed, the bancha this method produced has left us the "linguistic vestige" chairo (lit. tea color) to denote the color brown in Japanese, after the color of tea that was most widely consumed in Japan even in the late nineteenth century. The chapter also introduces the American import of Chinese tea, an important part of the move toward independence and a prominent part of consumer culture in the United States. Growing demand for tea in the US and occasional difficulties in sourcing Chinese tea meant that US tea merchants were quick to establish a presence in Japan as the country was brought into global trade networks in the 1850s and 1860s.

In chapter 2 Hellyer charts the emergence of the Japan tea trade amid civil wars in China, the US, and Japan. Firmly based in the treaty ports, the trade "included an international mix of British, American, Japanese and Chinese participants" (p. 36). Here Hellyer introduces one of his ancestors, William Alt, a figure well known in the history of treaty port Nagasaki, who came from Britain to Japan having gained a few years of experience in the tea trade in China. The Taiping rebellion in China disrupted the trade in Chinese tea, which created an opportunity for Japanese tea in the green tea-dominated US market. Besides Alt, Hellyer also details some of the Japanese merchants who rose to newfound prominence by procuring Japanese tea for Western traders, and introduces the essential role played by Chinese experts employed by Western firms to oversee tea-firing operations in the treaty ports. The chapter also stresses the importance of green tea as a military supply good during the US Civil War and discusses the early stages of the emergence of "Japan tea as the first 'national' tea brand on the U.S. market," a theme explored in more detail in later chapters (p. 52).

Chapter 3, entitled "Making Japan Tea," explores the contribution of the tea export industry to the stabilization of the Meiji regime as it provided an outlet for re-employing former Tokugawa samurai, who were among the strongest potential opponents of the Meiji regime. Opportunities in tea cultivation in places like Makinohara, Shizuoka Prefecture, Hellyer argues, were a factor "helping salve the socioeconomic and political wounds of the war" (p. 54). Hellyer also focuses on the refining and packing of Japanese tea at Kobe and Yokohama, which was conducted by Japanese labor but overseen by Western firms, often with Chinese experts in their employ. Across the Pacific, Hellyer shows, rising anti-Chinese prejudice in the US and a parallel fascination with "things Japanese" saw "Japan Tea" emerge as a "distinct and durable category on the U.S. tea market" (p. 54). Japan Tea's rise also coincided with the spread of mail order in the post-Civil War US and active tea branding on the part of US tea companies, with Japanese tea reasonably priced and with a better reputation than Chinese varieties—though just like Chinese tea, Japanese tea was prepared with the addition of coloring agents.

For me as a Japan historian, chapter 4 had the most content that was entirely new. Here Hellyer locates the spread of green tea to Mid-America as part of the massive and relentless transformation of the region as US industrialization, railway expansion, and inward migration progressed. Here the operations of Hellyer & Co. provide several insights into the organization of production, transportation, and sales. But Hellyer does not limit himself to a discussion of his ancestors; he also details efforts from the Japanese government, tea merchants, and producers to advance the trade. Some space is also given to Meiji tea consumption patterns and the profile of the tea ceremony as cultural practice with prominent business elites as patrons. Yet despite this cultural profile, bancha still dominated domestic consumption and the vast majority of (green) sencha was exported well into the twentieth century. As concerns about the quality of Japanese tea emerged in the US, which Hellyer describes as "part of the zeitgeist" of American discussions of food and beverages (p. 110), an intensified Japanese government effort to ensure or enhance the quality of Japanese tea developed.

The Japan Central Tea Association formed in 1887 was in part a response to US regulatory legislation (against adulteration for example) and growing competition from South Asian teas. Competition with black tea is the main theme of chapter 5. Here Hellyer charts the shift in US consumer preferences from green teas to black teas from India and Ceylon, mirroring the trend that had occurred in the UK earlier. In this shift, negative advertising campaigns utilizing "racial prejudices and images played a central role" as Japanese tea was increasingly lumped together with what was portrayed as "dirty and fraudulent" Chinese tea and contrasted with black tea produced under European management (pp. 124-125). Parallel calls for increased federal regulation of tea imports and new tariffs provided further challenges, resulting in increased efforts from the Japanese government and tea merchants to reverse the decline. Interestingly, considering earlier efforts from the Japanese government to wrestle the trade away from foreign merchants, the new challenges produced a "commitment" by the Japan Central Tea Association "to work closely with the U.S. trading houses like Hellyer & Company that maintained a hold over the distribution and sale of Japanese tea in the United States" (p. 135). These efforts included attempts to educate US consumers about "authentic" Japanese tea, mechanize tea refining, conduct print advertising campaigns, and use exhibitions and fairs to promote and showcase Japanese tea. Ultimately this was a losing battle, with the economies of scale possible in colonial South Asia’s plantations coming to bear.

Chapter 6 continues the theme of the preceding chapter through the interwar and early postwar period. The chapter includes post-Meiji efforts to promote Japanese tea via its alleged health benefits and by presenting it as a refined product. While black tea became increasingly embedded in US teaways (with the Pacific War essentially ending any lingering prospects), the efforts to counter the black tea wave in the US filtered back to Japan itself. Rapid urbanization in Japan saw the number of households making their own tea plummet and green tea took over the market as a more sophisticated product, which urbanites increasingly purchased as branded products aimed at individual households. In this way sencha emerged as the dominant tea in postwar Japan and now accounts for close to 90 percent of tea consumption in Japan (p. 195), whereas in the US market it is now more of a novelty tea—albeit one with enthusiastic advocates.

The concluding chapter sees an unexpected cameo by Michael Jackson and his chimpanzee, Bubbles, not to mention Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the latter a reported matcha devotee. Here Hellyer speculates that green tea might make a comeback and while it is difficult to read much into this gazing into the future, the reader is left convinced by Hellyer's claim that "the American cup of green tea is emblematic of the international connections that shaped the American experience and simultaneously the course of modern Japan as well" (p. 203).

If minor quibbles have to be offered (and it is the custom after all), then there were a few surprising omissions from Hellyer's reading (Taka Oshikiri's excellent 2018 book Gathering for Tea in Modern Japan for example). Furthermore, the book gives a somewhat false sense that the tea trade remained central to Japan's development when in truth the position of tea in Japan's overall trade steadily declined from the mid-Meiji period onward. Hellyer knows this and so this false sense is, I assume, unintentional. In any case, it could have been easily alleviated with a single statistical table showing tea exports in terms of volume and value, and also tea's share in overall exports. These small grumbles aside, Hellyer's thoroughly researched account of the tea trade is as engaging a commodity history as you will find, and one that provides plenty of opportunity to rethink and connect American and Japanese history. The quality of Hellyer's work is surely affirmed by the rapidity with which it was translated into Japanese (published as Umi o koeta japan tii in 2022), an edition which might interest some of the readers here.

Citation: Steven Ivings. Review of Hellyer, Robert I., Green with Milk and Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups. H-Japan, H-Net Reviews. May, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58413

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