The original image of a traditional tea farm is long gone. Only a handful of places either maintain a small area of a truly traditional tea garden as an image of what was current in the past, or – as in Mandokoro in Shiga prefecture and Kasuga in Gifu prefecture – traditional tea harvest and cultivation practices have not given precedence over contemporary modes of manufacturing. But, apart from these limited examples, almost the entire face of Japan’s tea production has shifted to what we now look to as the appearance of a tea farm. ‘Then what is different?’ you may ask. A tea bush does not naturally grow in ridges, endlessly stretching across the surface. For a tree to grow in such beautifully shaped ribs, running parallel with the mountains almost like waves riding up the hill, a reasonable amount of human interference is unavoidable.

The face of a tea garden is shaped by its harvesting methods

Tea pickers in an original tea garden

A tea bush is in fact a tree, which grows towards the sky. Hidden underneath those lanes of bushes grow several individual trees that have become entangled through continuous tea harvest and topping off. In the past the tea bushes stood one besides the other in a wide area, forming a group of small individual dot-like rounded bushes. The space in-between the bushes allowed tea pickers to move around the tree and effectively pick the leaves during harvest. Nowadays the bushes are still similarly positioned, but due to advanced harvesting methods – obtaining leaf only from the upper surface of the trees – the bushes have continued to grow to the sides, while their growth upward has been limited by regular trimming, resulting in entanglement and the unified appearance as one single row of bushes.

Yet, no man can easily format a tea farm as such without the help of dedicated equipment. And if we look at a picture of what a tea farm in the 19th century looked like, as opposed to the farms we know today, it immediately becomes clear that harvesting methods have seen an immeasurable transition in recent years. Whereas in the past tea was almost exclusively picked by hand, contemporarily machines have gained preference, and this leaves a huge mark on the outlook of tea gardens. But when did this change take place? I consulted a research paper from the Journal of the Japanese Society of Agricultural Machinery by Hitoshi Yoshitomi[1] in which he dates the advent of tea harvest related equipment and gives explanation to the effects this novelty had on tea production in Japan.

The first tea harvest machine

According to Yoshitomi’s paper, the first mechanized tea harvester was introduced in 1961. In succession, the prototype of the two-manned portable tea harvester, which is also the widest employed type of equipment contemporarily, became available in 1971. Almost immediately the effect of this tool became apparent, and harvest rates transcended efficiency with over 60 times the volume that could be obtained through hand picking with the same number of laborers.

Traditionally, women temporarily exchanged their city dwellings for the rural environments of the mountains during tea-harvesting seasons in order to work on the field and aid with the tea harvest. Great numbers of tea pickers inhabited the tea farms and worked from dusk till dawn. Most of them only brought a few clothes to change in, and stayed for a period of approximately 2 weeks. During the Late Taisho, early Showa period (1920’s) however, the country modernized, and more women found alternative jobs elsewhere. This resulted in more expensive wages for female workers, imposing a higher labor cost on tea farmers, which made it difficult to keep employing large numbers of tea pickers. To solve this issue, scissors were invented that could help speed up the harvest and measurably increased the amount one individual could gather.

Tea harvest scissors

tea harvest scissors
tea harvest scissors

The first appearance of scissors for the harvest of tea was in 1913, which were patented as the Uchida-style tea picking scissors in 1915. The initial shape of these scissors resembled contemporary hedge clippers or shears with the addition of a linen bag to collect the harvested tea leaf. In 1951 research on the automation of these scissors began, and a prototype of the first man-held automated tea picker was introduced and patented in 1956. In 1959 this prototype became functional and was tested during a trial run at the tea fields of the National research center for tea in Makinohara, Shizuoka.

First automated tea harvest clipper
First automated tea harvest clipper

This automated tea picker consisted of a heft to which a drum was attached wherein sharp blades were made to rotate by the other hand that controlled a lever which was handled in the same way one would haul-in a fishing-rod upon catching bait. The drum, controlled by the left hand, was positioned right above the tea bush at the height of the base where the tea leaf had to be cut, while with the right hand the blades inside the drum were made to revolve. This equipment became fully automated when in 1962 a battery was added. A larger machine resembling the contemporary hedge trimmer was invented in 1970, and became available for sale in 1971. This machine required to be handled by two persons, one on either side of the tea bush, and accelerated the reshaping of the landscape of the traditional tea farms in favor of ease of labor and the optimization of the harvest.

First automated tea harvest clipper
First automated tea harvest clipper

The background of the time demanded a solution in order to save tea production since laborers were becoming scarce and expensive. This sparked research towards equipment to aid with tea harvest, and resulted in a variety of – initially manual, then automated – harvesting equipment. While this equipment solved the problem of labor, and assisted manufacturers to maintain a sufficient yield – even with fewer staff – machinery simultaneously demanded a different approach to the way the farms were laid out and treated.

A raise in productivity

Where harvesting by hand didn’t require a dedicated shape of bush, machinery however demanded an equal surface in order to smoothly glide over the bushes, and gather leaves in one single stretch. Drawn by the promise of a 60 times higher produce, the implementation of machinery prospered, and with it the layout of traditional tea gardens changed forever. In addition, dedicated harvesting equipment didn’t only allow tea producers to maintain their yield with a lesser number of laborers, it in fact increased the amount of crops that could be harvested drastically. This demanded for similar solutions in the face of tea processing, and also here mechanization of traditional processes became detrimental.

portable tea harvester

[1] Yoshitomi, Hitoshi. 1995. “The Forefront of Mechanization in Tea Industry.” Journal of the Japanese Society of Agricultural Machinery 57 (5): 79–82.

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