From tea plantations to tearooms, the ambition and action to take on everything from industry to culture. The culture planner’s efforts to restart the tea industry and tea culture. [TeaRoom CEO Ryo Iwamoto]

Picasso and Van Gogh.

These two great artists are in stark contrast.

Van Gogh left 2,000 works during his lifetime, but only one painting was sold while he was alive. The price was 400 francs (converted to today’s price, more than 100,000 yen), and he was poor for the rest of his life. In contrast, Picasso left more than 150,000 works and became financially successful as an artist, amassing assets of more than 750 billion yen in his later years.

This anecdote is often cited in the context of art and economics, value and monetization.

The tea industry, which has been calling for demand to grow, is still in a situation where the value of the entire industry, from the production sites to the tea houses, is not fully realized, just like in the story of Van Gogh and Picasso.

In other words, the entire tea industry, from the tea fields to the tea ceremony, and by extension, Japanese culture as a whole, holds a lot of value, but remains undervalued and continues to behave like samurai with toothpicks (samurai used toothpicks to pretend they have eaten, even if they did not have enough food).

Concerned about this current situation, Ryo Iwamoto, the CEO of TeaRoom Co., Ltd., started his own company. Iwamoto-san became fascinated with the tea ceremony at the age of 9, and started his own tea business in 2018 while still attending university. He is currently based in Tokyo, but has a tea farm and factory in Shizuoka. Iwamoto-san has also expanded the base of activities to include Kyoto and Kanazawa, and he often travels around the world.

The ambitions, thinking, and actions of Iwamoto-san and his colleagues are far beyond the comprehension of ordinary people and, to be honest, are difficult to understand. However, their ambitions and thoughts are gradually taking shape, and the expectations of and appreciation for Iwamoto-san and his team are growing. We spoke with Iwamoto-san, who continues to travel the world today as a culturepreneur (a term coined by combining the words culture and entrepreneur).

Ryo Iwamoto

Ryo Iwamoto was born in 1997. He was appointed as Iwamoto Souryou (associate professor) at the Urasenke school of tea ceremony and founded TeaRoom at the age of 21. Iwamoto-san took over a Japanese tea factory in Shizuoka Prefecture and entered the primary industry. He is an external director of Nakagawa Masashichi Shoten, and is the president of the Cultural Capital Research Institute. In 2023 he was even selected for 30 Under 30 Asia.

The tea ceremony and the tea room are tools to experience what people have accumulated to live fulfilling lives.

Q: First of all, could you tell us about yourself?

Iwamoto: Currently, I am the representative director of TeaRoom and an associate professor of Urasenke tea ceremony.

Iwamoto-san made us tea when we visited the TeaRoom office.

I myself am a person who does my best to face what I can do, or have the potential to do, in the context of what society demands. My strengths are abstraction and concreteness, understanding social phenomena and connecting two completely different dimensions through context.

Q: We have heard that you (an associate professor of Urasenke tea ceremony) have been learning the tea ceremony since you were 9 years old. What kind of place was the tea room where tea was prepared for you?

Iwamoto: It was a comfortable and gentle place. One of the etiquettes of the tea ceremony is for the host to make a bowl of tea, and for the guest to receive it saying “I am going to drink the tea you have made”. In that exchange, and by extension, within the tea room, titles and positions of the outside world become irrelevant.

Iwamoto-san as a child. (photo by TeaRoom)

No matter what happens in the outside world, in the tearoom you are expected to behave as a human being, and the point of contention is how much you care for the other person. I think this is why I felt so comfortable in a tea room.

Q: Many people think that the tea ceremony is something that is difficult to enter. But for you it is rather a comfortable place. Why do you think people find it difficult?

Iwamoto: I think the reason is that I had been learning tea ceremony since childhood, and I had also studied karate, so I had no sense of discomfort with routine – kata (型), in the first place. I started learning both the tea ceremony and karate from a young age, so I think I was able to accept them flexibly without the need to rationalize them.

Q: Why do you think the tea ceremony is so difficult for many people?

Iwamoto: I think one of the reasons is that it has become difficult for people to enter the tea ceremony world or take on new initiatives.

(photo by TeaRoom)

Q: What specifically do you think can be done to lower the barrier for entering a tea room and to make more people feel a sense of kindness and belonging in the tea room?

Iwamoto: I think three things are necessary.

First. Tea industry, and Japanese culture needs a place that conveys ideas rather than forms. This place needs to be like a coaching school that conveys ideas, rather than an etiquette course that only conveys etiquette and manners. There needs to be a change in the provided value.

Second. We need to be able to choose a better practice venue aligning to the interests of those who are starting the tea ceremony. This is not only due to changes in the provided value, but also because the interests of those who are just starting out vary from person to person. There is a need to increase the number of forms that accommodate these diverse needs.

Third. We need to increase the number of contacts with tea ceremonies and tea gatherings, and have potential students experience it before starting to practice it. I believe it is necessary to convey the sense of purpose with those who are interested in joining, and to go through the flow of experience → practice, so that they can see the purpose of why they are practicing it.

I believe that if these three things are in place, it will be easier to have contact with tea rooms and tea ceremonies.

Q: Looking at the tea ceremony from its beginnings to its development and up to the present, it seems there is a characteristic of authority and privilege in the tea ceremony. What do you think about it?

Iwamoto: I think that privilege is important, and it is always created whenever people come together. But I do not think that is the only thing.

I believe that we are now in a time when we should consider tea as a philosophy, rather than as a hobby or a form of education.

Iwamoto-san making tea during the tea ceremony. (photo by TeaRoom)

At TeaRoom, we view culture as something that people have accumulated in order to live fulfilling lives.

With the theme of living fulfilling lives, including the well-being, it is necessary to create experiences and tools that allow one to feel this, even if it is not necessarily in the form of practice. And we have established the Cultural Capital Research Institute as a company to conduct such research.

Eliminating the boundary between culture and industry to create a new and prosperous society.

Q: Please tell us about the initiatives and actual business of TeaRoom, of which you are the president.

(photo by TeaRoom)

Iwamoto: TeaRoom is a company that takes on the challenge of fostering a prosperous society through culture and Japanese tea, based on the philosophy of creating a kind world without conflict.

Our mission is to eliminate conflicts, especially those between culture and industry. We are focusing on creating a new industry by seamlessly connecting the cultural industry, which creates experiences, and the Japanese tea industry, which creates products.

Specifically, we vertically integrate the supply chain from production to cultural creation, and design the value we provide to our customers in an integrated manner from R&D, product development, distribution, space creation, experience creation, and operation developemnt, so that our philosophy is conveyed to the end user.

We have three business divisions, which include a tea division (manufacturing and wholesale division), co-creation division, and culture division.

Q: Assuming the TeaRoom as a symbol of the world without conflict, what aspects of the tea room do you think lead to a world without conflict?

Iwamoto: One of the requirements for eliminating conflict at TeaRoom is facing  and giving.

If there is a cycle of facing ourselves, others, and the environment; and giving with a spirit of respect, we can reduce, if not eliminate, all conflicts in the world.

This is a hypothesis within the TeaRoom, and I do not know if it is true in society in general. On this basis, I believe that a tea room can generate the mentality of facing each other by properly arranging two things: spatial structure and mode of behavior.

Spatial structure includes the structure of the space itself, such as the nijiriguchi (the lowered entrance to the tea room), as well as the air that flows through the space. The mode of behavior refers to the patterns that the host and the guest follow.

I believe that if we could implement these two elements in society by combining them, we would be able to get people to face each other. If there is a mechanism that can make people have the mindset that they want to give beyond that, then the confrontation should gradually disappear.

Q: In 2019, TeaRoom took over a former communal tea factory in Shizuoka, and you began growing, harvesting, and making tea. Are there any good things about joining the tea industry as a new farmer?

Iwamoto: I think the great value we received was that we were able to notice the issues as people inside the project. I am glad that I had the opportunity to experience for myself the extent to which the tea industry had fallen into decline and the deterioration of business succession. I was also able to notice issues that cannot be seen through statistics alone.

(photo by TeaRoom)

I think that people generally have the impression that agriculture is something that can be inherited, or something that can be purchased if you pay for it. However, in reality, it took us two years to register our agricultural corporation, which made us realize how strict the regulations are for new farmers.

I think it was extremely important for us to be able to recognize these issues and to be able to talk about them from our own perspective.

(photo by TeaRoom)

Currently, the traditional culture industry (culture) and the tea industry (industry) are in a position where they are not in contact with each other, but they respect each other. For example, the cultural people understand that if they dismiss the tea industry, they will not be able to use tea. And the tea industry also understands that it is the cultural groundwork that has fostered the tea industry as it exists today.

Although there is mutual respect and a desire to learn and be involved with each other, the reality is that they are not in contact with each other. I think it is significant that we entered the industry from the upstream, so that we can play a role in connecting both sides of the industry, which are still separated.

Having a sense of discomfort with the fact that it has not been made into a social issue.

Q: What do you think is at the core of how TeaRoom has been able to advance its business so far in the six years since its founding?

Iwamoto: I think this is because talented people have joined TeaRoom, and because they feel uncomfortable about the fact that it has not been identified as a social issue.

For example, social business has become a hot word in the general public, and businesses in the fields of welfare and the environment are booming.

On the other hand, TeaRoom also deals with things that have not yet been recognized as social issues.

If the majority of the society does not consider it an issue, it will not be treated as a social issue and will not be included in the policy. Most of the ventures that are currently being launched in society are working on social issues within the social business field.

However, some people say that there is no point in dealing with something that has become a social issue. The reason is that things that have become social issues have already been institutionalized. The question becomes whether it is necessary for a start-up to go to the trouble of developing a methodology that has been clearly defined.

Q: Are there any issues that you see as not being addressed by society?

Iwamoto: I also think that the lack of cultural and regional issues in the SDGs is an issue. Although there are many discussions about the return of local and human characteristics, they have not been made into a social issue. 

Recently, we have seen that more and more people, who are involved in or have joined TeaRoom, have already found a sense of discomfort in that society has not yet recognized it as a social issue. I also think that this point can be connected to the topic of impact, which has been talked about a lot in society in recent years.

What is needed for the future of the tea industry is recognition from society and the creation of an environment that makes people want to invest in the industry.

Q: What do you feel are the difficulties in working with Japanese tea?

Iwamoto:I would be lying if I said that I personally do not feel any difficulty at all. However, I do feel that the tea industry is structured in such a way that it is difficult to make a profit. This is the challenge and difficulty of the industry.

In short, I believe that the fundamental causes of the challenges faced by the tea industry that I mentioned earlier are the rigidity of demand, the decline in the number of upstream players, and the absence of an ecosystem for new markets.

Q: You mentioned that one of the challenges facing the tea industry is the rigidity of demand and the decline in the number of upstream players. Could you tell us more about this?

Iwamoto: I believe the rigidity of demand as one of the tea industry challenges, is that most of the demand is for plastic bottled beverages. The industry structure is collapsing due to a decrease in the number of upstream players who are Japanese tea producers.

Q: What is a healthy industry structure?

Iwamoto: I believe that a healthy industry structure is one in which there are basically few upstream players and many downstream players who are cultivating that demand.

We often use semiconductors as an analogy. Once semiconductors are made, they can be used in many ways downstream (i.e., suppliers), such as in personal computers, smartphones, projectors, and cars. This is why upstream (in this case, the semiconductor manufacturer) is more valuable and competitive in its research and development.

If there is demand downstream, what is made upstream will be valued and invested in. On the other hand, in the case of Japanese tea, the current situation is the exact opposite of the semiconductor industry structure I mentioned earlier, which I described as rigidity of demand.

Furthermore, although this is unavoidable due to the structure of the tea industry, the ability to develop downstream demand has declined, and tea prices have also fallen.

Let me talk about this in the field of the tea industry. Compared to overseas tea companies, the Japanese tea industry in principle deals only with Japanese tea. On the other hand, in the world, the tea industry has seen a lot of investment and innovation from the coffee, wine, and whiskey industries within the tea category.

In Japan, the only discussion going on is how to sell Japanese tea, especially green tea, and the current situation is that demand has not been fully developed.

Q: What kind of thinking is necessary to properly develop demand? 

Iwamoto: Previously, when the non-alcohol movement took place, our company also partnered with various alcohol companies.

When you want a non-alcoholic product, there are clearly two markets.

One is those who cannot drink alcohol. This is my opinion, but we have to create non-alcoholic products based on the assumption that the only drinks available on the menu for those who cannot drink alcohol are cola and oolong tea. In this case, a sweet and tasty flavor like Kahlua milk on an alcoholic menu would be one of the options for non-alcoholic products.

The other is those who do drink alcohol. When they make the transition to non-alcoholic beverages, they are looking for a complex taste. Those who had previously been drinking beverages with complexity would find it insufficient if they were suddenly offered a non-alcoholic soft drink with no complexity.

With this in mind, let’s turn our focus back to the tea industry. 

The tea industry sought to introduce green tea as a non-alcoholic beverage when the non-alcoholic movement emerged.

However, what the market is looking for is not just green tea. Considering that alcohol is a nighttime drink, perhaps something without caffeine. For example, a sweet matcha latte, like Kahlua milk. Or a beverage with complexity, inspired by the distillation and fermentation techniques used by sake breweries.

In order to create these products, and from the perspective of the tea industry, I feel it is important to focus on the needs of our customers and the ability to develop demand.

Additionally, if you want to develop the non-alcoholic field, you need to understand what kind of tastes the alcohol providers and consumers were originally looking for. In the tea industry, even if tea farmers, trading companies, and sellers are vertically connected, if they do not understand the needs and preferences of people who drink alcohol, it will be difficult to get them to drink Japanese tea.

Q: Do you think that understanding market needs and preferences is necessary to eliminate demand rigidity?

Iwamoto: The most important point is that we should create an environment where society values tea and wants to invest in tea. If there is no money in the tea industry, we should create an environment where society as a whole appreciates Japanese tea and wants to invest in it. Then money will flow to the tea industry.

Q: Does this mean that TeaRoom’s clients value Japanese tea and want to invest in it?

Iwamoto: We have about 400 clients. Markets that attract attention and money will not decline. It will be reborn as an industry that will surely grow and develop.

Q: Based on this idea, TeaRoom is structured in three divisions: tea division (manufacturing/wholesale division), co-creation division, and culture division, right?

Iwamoto: Exactly.

The co-creation division’s main business is consulting, in which we work with people in society to evaluate and invest in Japanese tea and create businesses together.

The tea division does not only manufacture and wholesale Japanese tea. This is a business division that supplies Japanese tea to outside industries, thinking of ways to have tea evaluated and incorporated into other industries, and developing the spirit of acting as a bridge between other industries.

The cultural division evaluates Japanese tea and culture from a cultural perspective, and works with people who sympathize with it and want to get involved.

We have been searching for ways to build a business based on the premise of getting society to value tea and invest in it.

Earn through culture. The challenge is to universalize the value hidden in cultural capital and implement it in society.

(photo by TeaRoom)

Q: It seems that TeaRoom has been focusing more on culture recently with the launch of the Cultural Capital Research Institute. What specific initiatives is the cultural division taking?

Iwamoto: Our cultural division explores culture at the Cultural Capital Research Institute and works with companies to widely utilize cultural activities.

The Cultural Capital Research Institute is conducting research to extract the usefulness and universality that lies in traditional culture, and is also working to promote the appreciation of local characteristics and humanity in society through the lens of culture.

The premise is that the future is unpredictable, but since the Meiji period, traditional culture such as the tea ceremony has been reduced to a lecture on manners and etiquette.

On the other hand, we believe that traditional culture is extremely valuable. Traditional culture incorporates everything such as the Japanese spirit of harmony and the spirit of Yaoyorozu God, and is also influenced by religions such as Zen Buddhism. There is no doubt that it is a good way to learn about various Japanese ways of thinking.

But on the other hand, can the essence of the way of thinking be found in the manners, etiquette, and style that have been made into a course? I do not think so.

What is important, I believe, is not so much to convey manners and styles, but to convey the ideas behind them. Japanese people who go out into the world may not need to learn the manners and style of Japanese tea ceremony, which is a traditional culture. On the other hand, I think it is very important for those who go out into the world to go out clad in Japanese culture.

Although people at universities around the world are interested in Zen Buddhism, Japanese thought, and Eastern thought, they are not unified as knowledge. This is because the people involved in each traditional culture have passed down the traditions through their physical knowledge without verbalizing them, but if you leave them without verbalizing them, it will end up like Japanese cuisine.

Q: What does it mean to end up like Japanese cuisine?

Iwamoto: Up until now, Japanese food has been the most popular and healthy cuisine in the world, but now we can see a shift towards Nordic cuisine such as Scandinavian cuisine. The reason is that there are a lot of papers written in English on Nordic cuisine in English-speaking countries.

In the end, no matter how many papers on Japanese food are written and published in Japanese, they do not reach researchers around the world. On the other hand, in the case of Scandinavian cuisine, for which a large number of academic papers have been published in English, people begin to think about it and summarize it, and more papers are written, increasing its authority.

Unless we are able to verbalize it, study it, and communicate how traditional culture can become the wisdom needed for the next generation, that culture will decline. When I think about Japanese food from this perspective, I think that Japanese food is also a theme that should be treated with a great sense of urgency.

When I thought that verbalization, usefulness, and universality were necessary I wanted to try to extract ideas from traditional culture. The Cultural Capital Research Institute was established to make this happen.

Q: What are your specific initiatives about generating income through culture?

Iwamoto: The premise is to create a system that can generate income through culture. We think it is a shame to think that because it is a culture, it should not generate income, or it should not produce innovation. We are operating based on this idea.At the cultural division, we believe it is very important to create a platform to explore the possibilities from both perspectives: culture and production.

Q: What kind of platform is the cultural division trying to create?

Iwamoto: For example, when you go overseas, if along giving a teacup to a foreigner, you also explained how it was used and appreciated in Japan, they would at least understand the concept. 

The platform we are aiming for is a place that can connect the world, countries, cultures, and things. And we are trying to create such a place.

Q: What do you mean by exploring possibilities from both perspectives: culture and production?

Iwamoto: With the start of matcha production overseas, I believe that the price for matcha around the world will fall lower and lower. In order for Japanese matcha to win in such a world, there is almost no other way than by being a high value-added product.

And there’s no way that people who drink expensive matcha overseas would use inexpensive tea utensils. However, there is too little connection between the tea industry suppliers and the Japanese cultural industry.

(photo by TeaRoom)

The vendors selling Japanese tea are not connected to the distribution of traditional crafts, which is the cultural side, and the cultural people talking about Japanese culture are only talking about culture, and not selling goods.

I believe that it is necessary for the tea industry to properly participate in the distribution of cultural assets, and that it would be better for the tea industry and culture if cultural people could also sell their products.

Based on this idea, the cultural division will be exploring new possibilities for Japanese tea on the cultural side, and the possibilities of culture from the perspective of the tea industry.

Restructuring the tea industry and passing on the culture.

Q: What do you think or want the future of the tea industry to look like?

Iwamoto: I think there will definitely be a decrease in upstream players. In order to increase the number of players who want to make Japanese tea at that time, we need to communicate with society how attractive the tea industry is, and we need to increase the number of players who can take this action.

​​On the other hand, the upstream consolidation will put long-term pressure on the profits of soft drink manufacturers who dominate the downstream (consumers), so they will have to create some kind of shift in the consumer experience. For this reason, I believe that efforts to create new downstream trends will increase.

From our position, we believe that the tea industry needs to be more co-creative while disintegrating the boundaries with other industries. To make a move toward inbound travel by connecting with the tourism industry, and to move toward Japanization and the creation of Japanese experiences with the design and architecture industry. To explain the appeal of crafts to the art industry and increase points of contact with them. To be a contact point for wellbeing initiatives to promote the benefits of tea.

As a result, I believe that one of the visions for the future is for society to invest in tea and for various players to restructure the tea industry. On the other hand, if we do not create an environment that allows this to happen, the protective industry will continue to slowly decline.

Q: What is your vision for the future of TeaRoom?

Iwamoto: I want the future of the TeaRoom to be one where future generations will say they are glad it exists.

We would like to be in a position to explore sustainable forms of industry by creating points of contact with society and encouraging investment in industries such as culture and agriculture, which currently have few points of contact with society and little circulation of financial capital.

Q: Lastly, please tell us what kind of world without conflict TeaRoom aims to create.

Iwamoto: There are good conflicts and bad conflicts, and I think these are themes that should be discussed on a case-by-case basis. Personally, however, I would like to first resolve the conflict between culture and industry, and between social issues and business. It is a concept that is in conflict with two terms.

Although we believe that we can use our culture to resolve conflicts, especially conflicts in Japan and around the world, through tea and its philosophy, the reality is that we have not yet reached that point.

On the other hand, there are things we have already learned about culture and industry, social issues and business, and we are rushing to solve them first.

In the world of the tea room, I believe that if people are affirmed as human beings and can experience the joy of sharing a bowl of tea in the same place, conflict will naturally disappear.