I have a confession: I love matcha. Whatever the form—latte, iced or hot; tea; biscuit, candy—I will consume it. But as a newcomer and an outsider to matcha culture, I worried its sudden popularity was becoming part of an ongoing problem. So while for the first six months of my matcha mania, I was naively singing the sweet praises of matcha and did everything in my power to spread the word and convert all of my friends to the beverage, I was stopped short after Mitski tweeted about "the degradation of matcha from ancient ceremonial tea to caffeinated flavor powder" and started to realize that I was being an active participant in a form of cultural appropriation.
For those of you who have been sleeping on this trend, matcha is a finely ground powder made up of green tea leaves that are grown and processed in Japan. Its origins reportedly date back to 1191 A.D. when the first green tea seeds were brought to Japan from China by the zen monk Eisai. Over time, matcha tea ceremonies became a tradition that is integral to Japanese culture—it's a bonding experience that instills mindfulness and respectfulness. Of course, all of this rich context can get easily lost in translation when it becomes commodified in the west.
Living in a city like New York gives me the privilege of having access to all the latest trends. However, it's also easy to get caught up in things for the wrong reasons. My transition to matcha was natural as a hardcore lover of tea, but I admit that I have yet to go to a traditional matcha tea house. Out of convenience, I frequently rotate between Cha Cha Matcha and Matcha Bar, but there are other specialized cafes that serve matcha like Chalait, Greecologies, and Argo. (L.A. is also home to Alfred Tea Room, which has a variety of matcha drinks to choose from on the menus.) Meanwhile, there are many authentic Japanese-owned tea spots also in New York (though with less of an Instagram presence as the American-owned versions) such as Cha-An, Ippodo, Matcha Cafe Wabi, and Takahachi Bakery.
Instead of focusing on my guilt in trading my hard-earned green dollars for green tea, I wanted to talk to the people who might be affected by this issue—Japanese-Americans—and figure out if my guilt is misplaced.
Kiku Shinfuku, a Japanese-American writer based in Los Angeles, has lived in the U.S. since she was eight years old. She immediately pointed out that the health benefits of matcha are probably what people find to be the most appealing quality of the tea, so she has no problem with interested consumers exploring the powers of the delicious brew. Shinfuku's main issue with Americanized matcha is sweetening it; she finds the concept both bizarre and confusing, though she admits that it's part of what happens when a trend gets translated.
"I don’t get angry over it; it’s definitely not keeping me up at night. I think it’s a good thing because it’s so healthy," she says. "Whenever I go out to places [with] my mom, we’re more judgy of the specific location versus the overall matcha. I think if we kept seeing matcha all over the place we’d feel more like, 'Oh, this must be a new trend or a new health benefit that people are talking about,' versus if we went to a place and we ordered matcha and it came out totally wrong, then we’d be like, 'This is kinda weird. This isn’t really what real matcha is.'"
Shinfuku acknowledges how bothersome it might be to some Japaense people to be served this "condensed, short offspring" of matcha, but she is personally more offended by the in-your-face erasure of sushi. "My family is really confused at how sushi is today and what is considered sushi [in the U.S.]," she adds. "I think there’s good ways of introducing and being respectful of both viewpoints of someone who wants to innovate a little bit because it’s a tradition that came from another country. Some of it’s a good idea, but sometimes it’s a total bastardization of what the tradition is. So that’s really tricky ground, I think."
Katie Iida is a half-Japanese student at New York University. Her grandparents were born in Japan, and then immigrated to the U.S. with her father and his siblings. Iida explained that she would feel more comfortable supporting a Japanese-run traditional tea shop. One of her favorite spots is Nohohon in the East Village because of how culturally authentic the business is. The owner of the shop is from the island of Hokkaido, and speaks Japanese while she makes the matcha in front of customers with all of the traditional instruments.
"There definitely is something really special about a Japanese tea ceremony. Every bit of it is very structured and you have to turn certain things a certain way at a certain time, so it's very specific," Iida says. "It's really beautiful and calming, and I think that that's something that's really important to the history of matcha... That's something that could potentially be disassociated with it."
Iida approves of supporting the traditional Japanese form of matcha in the U.S. (and specifically in New York), but she is wary of larger corporations coming in and appropriating it. While spreading awareness of the benefits of matcha is all well and good, it's important to maintain the traditional properties that come with it. She adds, "If it gets too far away from what it's supposed to be known for and the actual culture of it, then there will be less of an association with the traditions. I can see that becoming something that I would not want to see from the distribution of matcha."
Shinfuku thinks that matcha becoming popular in the U.S. would and should be welcomed rather than criticized by Japanese people. "One thing that people forget is how western Japan really is. They love America and they think that their culture immigrating to the U.S. is a really cool thing versus from the U.S.," she says. "I think they think it’s cool when they can soak into the U.S. culture a little bit, so I think they have a different viewpoint... When you talk to people in Japan, they don’t see a problem until you point out the problems that come with it from an Asian-American standpoint."
As long as people are supporting Japanese-owned businesses that promote traditional aspects of their culture, Iida is open to the idea of giving American consumers a real taste of what Japan has to offer. "I think that Japanese culture sometimes can be widdled down to sushi, and that's not the culinary experience you get when you go to Japan," she says. "Obviously, sushi is wonderful and it's a strong Japanese tradition, but I also think that the introduction of these other traditions that we have is really wonderful."
So think before you drink, but still feel good about drinking up.