Do consumers exist just to drink tea? Continuing to lower the threshold for consumers [Japanese Tea Ambassador Association / Yoko Mitsuki]

Tea consumption is decreasing.

This is an urgent issue for those involved in tea, including producers and sellers. However, in the end, it is the consumers who will have to solve this problem.

Established in 2015, the Japan Tea Ambassadors Association was created to help tea fans (consumers) support those involved in the tea industry.

With a loose network, they continue their activities to broaden their base while placing importance on keywords such as low threshold and moderate price. Their activities, such as the “Bancha Festival” at Matsuya Ginza and the “Ginza Tea Project” to grow tea on its rooftops, also go far beyond the scope of ordinary consumers.

It is hard to find a group of tea fans (consumers) who are active in such a visible way as the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association, but the groups that carry out these activities begin with tea-drinking friends and exist in tangible and intangible ways.

For those involved in tea, collaboration with such gatherings will undoubtedly lead directly to increased tea consumption.

What kind of people become “active consumers” and what triggers them? We spoke with Yoko Miki, representative director of the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association, who continues to grow and nurture tea fans.

Yoko Mitsuki

Yoko Mitsuki is the representative director of Neko Punch Co., Ltd. as well as the representative director of the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association. She was born in Kobe, and raised in Kagoshima. After graduating from Rikkyo University, Mitsuki-san worked at several companies before establishing Neko Punch Co., Ltd. in 2011. Through assistance in product development and sales promotion, she supports people, products, and things that have not yet reached their full potential. Shape your passion!

Increasing the number of good consumers. The Japanese Tea Ambassador Association runs Japan’s lowest threshold tea festival.

Q: What kind of association is the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association (hereinafter referred to as the association)?

Mitsuki: It is a loose association. We do not charge any annual membership fees or force anyone to do any activities. It is an association where members are organically connected to each other, and when the feeling and timing are right, they are willing to work together.

Japanese tea ambassadors and exhibitors who organized the Bancha Festival.

We are inviting those who are interested to participate in our activities by showing where to gather. I would like to create more opportunities for as many Japanese tea ambassadors as possible to be involved in the promotion of Japanese tea.

Q: Why did you choose the name Japanese Tea Ambassador Association?

Yoko Mitsuki, representative director of the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association.

Mitsuki: When I thought about expanding the base of Japanese tea fans, I wondered what form and method would be best.

It is difficult for everyone to become a teacher. It takes time and experience. That is what I thought.

An ordinary consumer can usually forget about tea, but the moment they see tea in a souvenir shop during a trip, they may suddenly think, “I am a Japanese tea ambassador! I should buy some tea to bring home!”. I think it would be great to increase the number of such people. I named the association Japanese Tea Ambassadors Association because it is not about teaching, but about conveying.

Q: What are the activities of the association?

Mitsuki: There are three main points. The first is to create opportunities to experience Japanese tea, such as the Ginza Tea Project.

The second is to appoint Japanese tea ambassadors and to support the development of their activities.

The third and final goal is to promote the use of Japanese tea by local governments and companies.

Japanese tea ambassadors are appointed after attending a course that provides them with the minimum necessary knowledge and experience, unless they have experience or achievements in the Japanese tea industry already.

Many of our tea ambassadors attend the Japanese Tea Ambassador Training Course, which is held in a group format at the tea-producing regions, not because they have a great interest in Japanese tea, but because it looks interesting or they are invited by a friend who is a Japanese tea ambassador.

On the other hand, those who are knowledgeable or quite active, such as Japanese tea instructors, sometimes join us because it looks like a fun meeting. 

Both are welcome.

We are working through trial and error to create an entrance to tea where ordinary people can come and enjoy tea in a relaxed atmosphere.

Mitsuki is a playful person who even chose a catchy and friendly company name – Neko Punch.

The Bancha Festival is the most popular event for the general public to come into contact with tea.

There is a secret theme behind the Bancha Festival (laugh): “The lowest threshold tea event in Japan”.

We want those who already love tea to be able to enjoy it, of course, but there are many events for tea lovers, so we are conscious of creating low threshold, fun tea events where people who happen to stumble upon an event can think, “I kind of like tea”.

For Japanese tea ambassadors, becoming a supporter of the event is also an opportunity to study and to become involved in ambassador activities.

Q: What is the mission of your association?

Mitsuki: Our mission is to create many contact points with Japanese tea.

Events and courses are important, but it is also important to involve tea in everyday life, such as at home and at work.

The number of people who have not drunk Japanese tea brewed in a teapot for a long time or who no longer drink it at all is increasing. So I think that by creating an encounter with a cup of delicious Japanese tea, we can continue to increase the number of Japanese tea fans.

To this end, it is necessary to increase the number of active consumers = Japanese tea ambassadors. In other words, this means raising good consumers.

Q:Where does the motivation for continuing the association activities come from?

Mitsuki: Although the motivation is the same as when we founded the company, we want to reward the producers who are seriously working on making tea.

Even if you spend a lot of time and effort to make high-quality tea, it is difficult to see it clearly reflected in your income. Even if you work hard, it is hard to get rewarded.

In addition to the difficulties of the industry, the number of consumers is decreasing and it is difficult to raise prices, and yet the cost of fertilizers, electricity, and other expenses are rising.

It is sad, isn’t it? I would like to see a world where those who work hard are rewarded. I feel that in order for us consumers to continue drinking good tea, the people who work hard to produce it should be rewarded.

Inside the Bancha Festival.

For example, at the Bancha Festival, I am very happy when I see the exhibitors leave with more energy than when they came in the morning, even though they must be tired from standing and talking all day.

I think there are days when people in the countryside are feeling down, thinking that they cannot sell their tea or that it is not worth it.

When they exhibit at the Bancha Festival, they have friends and meet many customers whose eyes light up seeing how delicious their products are. There are people who support them.

Another secret theme is for exhibitors to be charged with confidence and energy and take it back to their production areas. I think we need to continue doing things like this.

I think the reward is to sell the tea well and to be able to push forward with tea production. To achieve this, I am always thinking from the consumer’s point of view about how tea can be sold and what tea should be like.

Q: What activities does the association focus on?

Mitsuki: The Ginza Tea Project is one of the activities you are focusing on. I think it is a good activity and I would like to expand it further.

We will also be putting a lot of effort into supporting the activities of Japanese tea ambassadors.

There are people who are holding Rakugo humor and Japanese tea events, and there are even people who are launching Japanese tea brands. Some are active overseas.

Tea in English – a learning circle for communicating Japanese tea in English, was launched last year and is the first circle officially recognized by the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association. It is a very soft and Japanese tea ambassador-like activity to learn together, rather than being a teacher and a student. I am very happy about it and I hope they will continue to do even more.

Japanese Tea in English – the first circle authorized by the association. At the center in the back is Masayo Sakurai, a Japanese tea ambassador.

We are also working with a yoga instructor to build and promote Japanese tea yoga.

There are many active people, so we hope to increase the number of Japanese tea fans by providing support to help them succeed. Sometimes they are able to do these things because they have the friendly support of the Japan Tea Ambassadors Association.

Recently, the association has been managing a ceramics exhibition.

We made the association to do what we could not do alone, and although it has been a challenge, I am truly glad that we started it. We have received quite a few inquiries, so we are planning more opportunities to welcome more Japanese tea ambassadors.

The impetus for establishing the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association was a farmer’s suggestion to do something with cats.

Q: What made you decide to work in the tea industry in the first place?

Mitsuki: My family has always been a tea-loving family. When I was a child, oolong and herbal teas were not yet common, but my mother really loved tea and we had many different kinds of tea at home.

Q: So, you have been a tea lover since childhood, and this has led you to where you are today, right?

Mitsuki: Not really. It is true that I have always loved tea and drank it often, but there were times when I was so busy with work that I did not drink much. So, I can understand the feelings of people who feel that brewing tea in a teapot is a hassle and are disconnected from tea.

It was much later that I became involved in the tea business.

I met the master – iemoto, of Senchado. We happened to share a bullet train on our way back from an event in Niigata. The iemoto made tea for us on a tiny table attached to our seats on the bullet train. We only had bottled water and paper cups. The tea was surprisingly delicious.

He did not put much effort into it, and just made a quick cup of tea and welcomed us. That worldview. That deliciousness. I was so moved by how wonderful it was.

From that experience, I began attending lectures given by the iemoto. It was interesting to hear his story, not because I wanted to do a tea ceremony, but because I wanted to know what tea actually was.

Mitsuki-san making tea. You cannot believe that she had no choice but to start being involved in tea.

However, I realized that there were many things I could not understand until I tried it myself, so I had no choice but to start learning the tea ceremony as well (laughs).

Q: So this encounter with the Iemoto is what got you interested in the tea business?

Mitsuki: No, to tell the truth, even when I started the tea ceremony, it was always just a hobby. I still had a long way to go to get a job related to tea.

I was working with Takanashi Tea Garden in Hadano for the trial introduction of agricultural materials. As we worked together, we gradually got to know each other and began to talk. I heard that the tea industry was actually in a steady decline, and that there were many people who quit their jobs or did not want their children to succeed them.

I was told at a tea farm that if I was going to do marketing work, I should do something with cats. Until then, I had never thought about doing anything with tea or turning it into a career. I did some research and talked to tea businesses to see if there was anything I could do. Those words actually led me to the Japanese Tea Ambassador Association.

Bring tea making closer to you. Ginza Tea Project makes tea on a rooftops of a big city

Q: What kind of activities are behind the Ginza Tea Project?

Mitsuki: In 2014, while preparing for the establishment of the association, we started the project at the Hakutsuru Ginza Tenku Nouen by Hakutsuru Sake Brewery, and then in 2018 we moved to Matsuya Ginza and started a new Ginza Tea Project. In addition, Mimasaka City joined the project in 2022, and the three-entity system has continued to the present day.

The reason Mimasaka City joined us was because we were supervising the project for a movie set in Mimasaka Hacchaya.

It has been a famous historical production area, but the number of producers has been decreasing, and in order to end this trend, the objective has been to communicate the value of Mimasaka’s tea to the Tokyo metropolitan area, where there are many consumers.

The tree-planting event that was held with Director Kentaro Otani when Mimasaka City joined the project in 2022.

Q: Why are you continuing the Ginza Tea Project on the rooftop of Matsuya Ginza?

Mitsuki: Even if you want people to know about tea, it is a bit of a hurdle to suddenly say, “Let’s go to a tea farm in Shizuoka”. But if you say, “You can see tea on a rooftop in Ginza”, people are more likely to come on a day trip.

Ginza Tea Project, current view of the rooftop of Matsuya Ginza

We have continued our efforts to reach out to and make more contacts with the general public, who do not have a strong interest in tea. It took some time, but now that the project is working well as a place to make contact with tea and we have accumulated know-how, I am glad that we have continued to do it.

Q: It seems very difficult to make tea on a city rooftop…

Mitsuki: Lately, we have been seeing a great number of caecilian beetles (a type of tea pest). It is a big problem.

Of course, we cannot spray pesticides, so we all scrub them with toothbrushes. We even post the photos on our Facebook page.

Children of the project members also helped remove harmful insects. (photo by Mitsuki-san)

Q: So you are not just promoting the elegant tea cultivation on the rooftops of Ginza?

Mitsuki: Actually, I would like to make this project a little more beautiful… (laughs)

We deliberately keep everything open to the public while growing the tea. Through our communication, we hope to let people know how hard it is to make tea, and the tremendous effort that goes into making the tea that we take for granted.

Q: Did you make tea from the tea leaves you worked so hard to grow?

Ginza Black Tea is the fruit of the efforts of the project members, including the members of the association.

We created Ginza Kocha – Ginza black tea. During the second flush we harvested the tea leaves five times and produced about 75 g of black tea, which we were able to sell in a Matsuya Ginza gift bag, although only three pieces were available.

After picking the tea leaves, we sent them via cool delivery to Umidenen Kurosaka Seicha in Mimasaka, Okayama, where they were repeatedly hand-rolled and made into tea.

This was a precious black tea made in a prime location of Ginza. I wonder how much it would cost if land prices were reflected… (laughs)

It is very emotional for me because the project members, Matsuya, Mimasaka City, and Kurosaka have all worked together to nurture this project.

Aiming for 100 million Japanese tea ambassadors. What the Japan Tea Ambassadors Association can do to pass on the good tea to the future.

Q: What do you think the future holds for the Japanese tea industry?

Mitsuki: Except for tea most food and non-food items are either expensive or cheap. That is what is happening in the world. It is becoming more difficult for businesses that are neither making unique products, nor mass-produced products.

I would like to see companies that are in the middle of the two, those that make good tea at a moderate price, continue to do well. Otherwise, people will no longer be able to drink tea casually. I always wonder what I should do for that purpose.

Q: What does the association hope to do in the future?

Mitsuki: To speak very broadly, I would like to see 100 million Japanese tea ambassadors, and I would like everyone in Japan to become a Japanese tea ambassador (laughs).

I would like everyone’s antenna for interest in Japanese tea, even if short, to straighten up. It is important to spread the word overseas, but I would like to first cultivate a strong consumer base in Japan.

More and more places are selling their own products, now that they can be purchased online. There are many events, and we are able to see the faces of the makers. 

Consumers also want to do something to help the makers. This is what is called push activism. But they do not know what to do. I hope that the Japan Tea Ambassadors Association will be the place that responds to such feelings.

I think the looseness of the association is its appeal, so we have not set a clear numerical goal like reaching this number or that number by the end of the year.

Q: Do you find Japanese tea difficult to handle?

Mitsuki: Japanese tea has a long history and has been integrated into Japanese life, so the difficulty is that everyone already has an image of it.

I think Japanese consumers today are not interested in knowing more about Japanese tea because it is so familiar to them, or they think they know more about it than they really do. They think they know what they are talking about. But no, no, no, it is much more than that!

I feel that a strong experience or a little bit of enthusiasm is needed to change that. I am so happy and smile when people are surprised at how good it tastes.

When you get to Gen Z or even Alpha Generation, whose parents did not grow up with tea made in a kyusu, their perception of tea will be closer to that of people from abroad. So the approach will change again.

Q: How do you think the tea industry should change in the future?

Mitsuki: It is difficult to discuss the tea industry as a whole.

Circumstances differ depending on the type of business, scale of business, type of tea handled, and price range. And interests do not necessarily align. It is quite difficult to form a monolith in a region.

It is inevitable that times will change and consumption trends will change, as they always have and always will. There is a strong need for each company to clearly envision what they want to become and steer the company that way. Well, that is normal for a regular company.

It is difficult to see the right answer to the question of how to restructure the business, but perhaps the key to survival is to continue to worry.

I may have said something grandiose, but the role of Japanese tea ambassadors is to help tea businesses transcend the trends of the times. We will try our best to do what we can.

“For some reason I always end up in this pose whenever I stand in a tea field”. Mitsuki-san showed her usual (?) pose.