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Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee
Despite its popularity in Japan, the Jamaican coffee industry has experienced a number of major setbacks in recent decadesImage: Peter Widmann/imago images
Society

Japan's love affair with Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee

Julian Ryall Tokyo
June 15, 2021

Once a symbol of post-war recovery, the aromatic and smooth brew from the Caribbean even has its own day on the Japanese calendar.

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Every morning, as Kazunori Kamiyoshiwara starts his working day in the bustling Chuo district of Tokyo with a mug of coffee, it reminds him of the spectacular peaks of the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, where the haze creeps through the valleys and gives the region its name.    

It may be almost exactly 12,900 kilometers (8,015 miles) from Tokyo to the Blue Mountains, but that first coffee of the day transports Kamiyoshiwara to a place that has almost religious significance to millions of aficionados in a country that takes its coffee very seriously.

As director of Japanese coffee importer Ataka Trading Co, Kamiyoshiwara has visited Jamaica's coffee plantations in person. But Blue Mountain Coffee means so much even to Japanese fans who are unlikely ever to visit Jamaica that they have set aside a day, January 9, in its honor. 

Post-war recovery

The relationship dates back more than half a century and reminds the Japanese of the first seeds of recovery they experienced after the end of World War II, Kamiyoshiwara explained, although he admitted that the trans-Pacific relationship has also seen some testing times.

But today, the love affair shows no sign of abating among those who really know their coffee. 

"Jamaican coffee was first imported to Japan in the early 1950s, at the very start of the economic recovery after the war years and as some people finally had enough money again to buy premium coffee," he said. 

"In those days, Blue Mountain Coffee was promoted by small-scale roasters in Japan as the coffee that the British royal family drank, so it was the one that everyone hoped to be able to have," Kamiyoshiwara added.

"But it was also important as we associate Jamaican coffee with a high-quality import that was available again and meant that the worst years after the war were behind us."

Initially, imports had to come from the UK and it was not until 1952 that the first shipment direct from Jamaica was unloaded in Japan. Its popularity soon caught on and imports grew steadily for the next 30-plus years until, by the late 1980s, Japan was importing fully 90% of the coffee bearing the Blue Mountain logo. 

Distinctive aroma, 'clean' brew

The coffee that is grown in the Blue Mountains is famous in Japan for its distinctive aroma, sweetness and for giving a "clean" brew, attributes that are the result of the "perfect" climate, altitude and growing conditions where it starts out.

Jamaican coffee — which can trace its roots back to the early 1700s — is made from the Arabica Typica variety, which yields beans that are more delicate and flavorful than the Robusta beans raised in other countries. It also contains two-thirds less caffeine than standard coffee. 

Despite its popularity in Japan, the Jamaican coffee industry has experienced a number of major setbacks in recent decades. Most plantations were devastated in a huge hurricane that hit the Blue Mountains in 1988 and crippled production.

The Japanese government provided grants and assistance to help the industry get back on its feet, only for another hurricane in 2004 to cause further damage

From importing 1,200 tons of beans in 2000, imports fell to 750 tons in 2004 and then to a mere 500 tons in 2008 after the global financial crisis.

Prices for the raw beans subsequently rose and other countries began to snap up Jamaican output, notably China. Japan currently imports around 500 tons a year, said Kamiyoshiwara.

From 10,000 yens (€75.29, $91.28) for 1 kilogram of beans around five years ago, prices have since settled back around the 5,000 yens (€37.65) per kilogram level at which Japanese consumers are comfortable, he pointed out. 

January 9 commemoration 

Ataka Trading is one of six Japanese companies that make up the Association of Japanese Importers of Jamaican Coffee and were instrumental in the 2018 naming of January 9 as Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee Day in Japan.

The date is significant, Kamiyoshiwara said, as it was the day on which a cargo ship left Kingston port carrying 1,400 bags of Jamaican coffee, more than 60% of the entire 1967 crop. It was such a significant deal — for both countries — that it was the lead story in Jamaican newspapers the next day. 

The frontpage of a Jamaican newspaper in 1967
A Jamaican newspaper in 1967 prominently reported (top right) about the shipment of 1,400 bags of Jamaican coffee, more than 60% of the year's entire cropImage: Jamaican Embassy in Tokyo

In a message to mark this year's Blue Mountain Coffee Day, Norman Grant, president of the Jamaica Coffee Exporters' Association, praised the efforts of 5,000 coffee farmers and 102,000 coffee plantation families for their hard work in a year that has proved significantly more challenging because of the coronavirus pandemic and called on them to redouble their efforts in the year ahead. 

"Let's sip and share a cup of the world's best coffee, the King of Coffees, and experience this sophisticated coffee experience," he said. "Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee, the winning bean and a coffee of unmatched quality."

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