Presenting a “Quintessential” Japanese Product

“Presenting a “Quintessential” Japanese Product: Green Tea at the Philadelphia and Chicago World Exhibitions”
Robert Hellyer (Wake Forest University)

Following the Meiji Restoration, Japan began to ship increasing volumes of green tea to the United States, challenging Qing China’s long-held monopoly.  For Japan’s tea exporters, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia presented an opportunity to expand their share of the green-tea dominated US market. At their pavilion adjacent to that of China, Japanese representatives displayed a full range of teas produced in various parts of Japan.  In 1893, Japan competed not with China (which did open a tea pavilion) but with well-financed contingents from India and Ceylon who sought to convince Americans to turn away from green teas and instead consume their black teas, grown on recently established plantations.

For Japanese representatives, both fairs provided chances to display a ‘quintessential’ Japanese product but one that Americans were more familiar with in a different form—heavily roasted and colored. Western export firms controlled processing before shipment and hired Chinese experts who employed time-tested, Chinese processing methods, including the adding of pigments that gave Japanese green tea a rich, green color to meet American tastes. Especially at Chicago, Japanese representatives strove to present less roasted and uncolored varieties, hoping to expand Japan’s overall market share.

The stories of Japanese tea at the two expositions demonstrates first how Meiji Japan competed commercially with the Qing and British empires (the latter in the form of Britain’s South Asian colonies) on the world market.  It also reveals how expanded international engagement during the Meiji period transpired in ways beyond a bilateral encounter of Japan with the West.

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