Report: 3rd EAA Global Lecture: “Green with Milk & Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cups”


The EAA Global Lecture co-organised by EAA and Go Global Gateway at the University of Tokyo was held on Zoom on December 9, 2021. The third guest speaker of the series, Dr. Robert Hellyer (Wake Forest University), gave a talk on his newly published book, Green with Milk & Sugar: When Japan Filled America’s Tea Cup (Columbia University Press, 2021).



The lecture began with the stories of his family that motivated him to explore the trans-Pacific tea trade: of his paternal grandparents, who were involved in their family’s tea export business and sailed to Shizuoka in 1932, and of his maternal grandmother, who was based in the Midwest and would serve black tea as a daily beverage but saved green tea leaves for her guests (as it was considered as the most sophisticated type of tea back then). These personal stories closely linked with the commercial and commodity chains of green tea, he said, lay at the heart of his book.

Having introduced the background of his research, he then moved on to explaining the history of green tea consumption both in Japan and the United States since the 1850s. “Tea” for the Japanese in the 1850s, according to Hellyer, was a brown beverage, as the majority of people in the countryside mostly consumed bancha at that time. One can still find this legacy in the word chairo (literally, tea color), for “brown” in Japanese. But to Americans, “tea” around the 1850 (and several few decades before then) meant what we would call green tea. How and why did tea in the United States and Japan undergo a transition to arrive at the situation today, whereby Americans prefer black teas and the Japanese consume predominately sencha green tea?

To answer this question, Hellyer then took us through some of the key points in exploring the research, focusing on the following four points: i) American teaways (for this term, he takes inspiration from the concept of foodways, which is used by scholars to explore cultural, social, and economic practices related to the production and consumption of food) and Japanese green tea’s place in them; ii) the origins and implications of Japan’s tea exports since the late nineteenth century; iii) turning points for tea in the United States and Japan in the 1920s and 1930s; and iv) how sencha green tea gained its position as a global icon of Japan through connections with the outside of the nation. The talk further detailed the ways in which the United States developed its own distinct teaways. For instance, drinking green tea was not an exclusive beverage limited to a particular class; it was democratized and became available to all classes in the United States, and often consumed hot with milk and sugar.

The story got even more interesting when Hellyer demonstrated how a shift in taste for tea took place in the United States after 1920. The 1920s marked seminal moments for the shaping of Americans’ taste for tea in that they started to consume black teas instead of green tea. This transition was partly due to the increase of tea production in South Asia, which had significant impact on tea consumption in Britain and its colonies. To sell more tea and change Americans’ taste for tea to expand their market share, one of the strategies adopted was the India-Ceylon tea lobby’s negative campaign, which attacked the teas produced in China and Japan with racist overtones. It was a combination of several factors, Hellyer explained, including the success of negative advertising campaigns, the lower price of black teas, the increasing prominence of national black tea brands, and the popularity of orange pekoe (a type of black tea) in the United States that turned Americans’ attention toward black tea.

The lecture covered various hidden international dimensions of the green tea trade which were underexplored in previous research: aspects of the tea trade and tea consumption that cannot be examined through studies focusing on nation-to-nation relations. Captivated by Hellyer’s atypical approach that took them on a journey exploring teaways and filled with the fascinating stories of people involved in the tea trade, the audience of academics and students both from inside and outside Japan actively joined in the Q&A session after the talk, which developed into a stimulating discussion.


Reported by Mai Kataoka (EAA Project Research Fellow)