Japanese Culture and Daily Life

In Japan, to call something "nichijō-sahanji" (literally "daily tea and rice") is to say it is an ordinary occurrence, as unremarkable as sipping green tea or eating a meal. From this we can infer that green tea is an essential part of everyday Japanese life. Japanese restaurants serve free green tea as a matter of course, along with the usual glass of water.

As you probably know, people in Japan do not ordinarily go through an elaborate ceremony just to drink a cup of green tea. "Japanese Culture and Daily Life" in this issue takes a look at the history and background of ocha (green tea) and explores its central place in the lives of Japanese both young and old.

The history of ocha
Tea is thought to have its origins in the mountainous region that stretches from northeastern India to Yünnan in southwest China. Different processing techniques can turn the tea leaves into a variety of products--green tea, oolong tea, or black tea--and the brewed liquid rivals coffee in worldwide popularity.

Tea makes its first historical appearance in third-century Chinese literature. Originally used for medicinal purposes, its popularity grew along with the spread of Buddhist teachings, which prohibited alcohol. Because of the expense, however, tea was drunk only among the upper classes; not until the seventh century did the consumption of tea become widespread.

The influx of Europeans and Christian missionaries in the sixteenth century made tea one of the major trading commodities. In the early seventeenth century the Dutch East Indies Company was particularly instrumental in bringing tea to the worldwide community.

The history of tea in Japan begins in the Nara period (710-794) when Buddhist monks and students studying in Tang-dynasty China brought seeds back with them. When monks took their teachings to other parts of Japan, they brought their tea with them, and by the Kamakura period (1185-1333) tea had become a nationwide phenomenon. Tea became an everyday drink by the Edo period (1603-1868).

Currently, over half of Japan's green tea is produced in Shizuoka Prefecture, with cultivation spreading as far north as Fukushima and Niigata Prefectures. Sadō, literally "the way of tea", developed gradually into a ceremony in which a host invited guests to converse and connect with one another over a pot of tea. The tea ceremony, perfected by Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), is now practiced by several different schools. The related arts of tearoom architecture, tea ceremony utensils and pottery, and flower arrangement embody an aesthetic that has both influenced and transcended subsequent generations to the present. The tea ceremony focuses on how the host processes and offers the tea, and on how the guest accepts it. By embodying and observing the prescribed etiquette, participants come to an understanding of themselves and one another.

Everyday tea
The tea ceremony is not a part of the ordinary person's daily routine, but the flavor and fragrance of tea permeates most people's daily lives. People look forward to May, when the new crop of tea, shincha, is harvested. Water too--of which Japan is blessed with an abundance--is important in bringing out the delicate fragrance and flavor of the new leaves.

Green tea is divided into grades depending on the time of harvest, the portion of the leaf used and the processing method. One typical tea, sencha, priced between 500 yen and 2,500 yen per 100 grams, is made by steaming and then drying and rubbing the tea leaves. Bancha and hōjicha are popular inexpensive teas, selling for about 400 yen per 100 grams. Matcha, the tea used in tea ceremony, is made by steaming, drying, and then powdering the tea leaves.

To drink tea, a family typically places the tea leaves in a tea pot (kyūsu), adds hot water, and without steeping pours the hot liquid into each person's own tea cup. The tea cup has no handle, and no one would dream of adding sugar or milk. Serving tea involves paying attention to the season, the kind of tea, the pottery, and the recipient. Guests are served a higher grade of tea. Summer tea is served cold in a cool-looking cup. High-grade tea contains a lot of caffeine, so a child's portion may be watered down or made from tea with less caffeine.
Like the tea ceremony, the more casual, everyday sharing of tea is meant to make guests feel at home. Tea is a kind of glue of family togetherness, particularly after dinner. Following the meal, it is often drunk by all members as they relax together and perhaps watch TV in the living room.

Nowadays black tea and coffee are challenging the ascendency of green tea. Sports and nutritional drinks are also quite popular among the young set. Still, the variety of canned tea now being sold in vending machines is testimony to tea's enduring popularity.

Green tea is a pick-me-upper having caffeine and vitamins C and B2. It kills bacteria, reduces pain, alleviates fever (with tannic acid), helps adjust the appetite, and is low in calories. As young people discover these healthy properties, many of them are throwing away their newfangled refreshments in favor of green tea and Chinese tea. This back-to-basics trend is also evident in innovative deserts such as matcha ice cream and cake.

The origins of "cha"
Words for "tea" in all parts of the world generally derive from Chinese, either the Cantonese "cha" or the Fujian "te." Here is a list of words for "tea" in several languages:

Cantonese cha
Hindi chae
Japanese cha, sa
Korean cha
Mandarin cha
Mongolian tsai
Persian chai
Russian chai
Swahili chai
Tibetan cha
Turkish chay
Fujian te
Dutch thee
English tea
Finnish tee
French thé
German tee

Hashimoto Minoru, ocha no bunka: Sono sogoteki kenkyu dai ichi bu (The culture of tea: General study, part 1), Tankosha, 1981; Talking with Asian Friends, edited by Asian Cultural Centre for UNESCO,1984

Consumption of tea and coffee in Japan between 1986 and 1994


Chakankei shiryo (Resources related to tea), Nihon chagyo chuokai, 1996

Guide to ocha on the Internet
(Please note that all explanations are in Japanese.)

Green site (http://www.inh.co.jp/maru7/index.html)
Pictures and explanations of products. Art gallery.

ocha no ma

The living and dining space of a Japanese-style house where the family comes together to eat meals and relax;  ocha no ma literally means "tearoom"

Pour this and tea or hot water over rice to make instant ochazuke

Canned tea

Vending machines offer a wide variety of tea-in-a-can for 110 yen each. Paying money for tea is a recent phenomenon

1 "Shall we have some tea?"
Ocha not means green tea, but also "something to drink" and "a relaxing break." If someone suggests having tea (Ocha ni shimashō ka?), they usually are simply suggesting a break, and ofteh you end up drinking coffee or other refreshments. At some companies the "three o'clock tea break" (sanji no ocha) is still a tradition. Tea also comes in handy as a way of asking someone out: "Won't you have some tea with me?" (Chotto ocha demo shimasen ka?). For a time, a fashionable pick-up line among students was "How about some tea?" (ocha shinai?).

2 "Would you like some tea?"
Here ocha means "something to drink," and this question will likely be followed by "What will you have?" (Nani ga ii desu ka?).

3 ochazuke
Pouring tea over rice was originally developed as a way of making a warm meal from leftovers. Now many people also add nori (seaweed), salted salmon, and umeboshi (pickled plum), among other spices. It's an easy-to-make light meal or a late-night snack.

Illustrations: Iizuka Yoshiteru

Original text : The Japan Forum Newsletter no.7 "A Day in the Life" August 1996.

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