“They do drink tea, just not like us”: Imperial Japan, perceptions of tea drinkers in the Middle East and North Africa, and expanding global markets during WWII

By Kelly Hammond
Submitted to Session P4886 (Colonialism and Culinary Cultures in the Middle East and North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
World History;
LCD Projector without Audio;
When Sino-Muslim Tang Yichen recounted his Japanese-sponsored hajj in a journal published in 1938, he spent a few pages ruminating on the universality of tea. Although the Muslims he encountered on his journey from Japanese-occupied Beijing to Mecca prepared the beverage differently, he remarked that all Muslims could take solace in the shared pleasure of sharing a pot of tea with their co-religionists around the world. Around the same time as Tang embarked on his hajj, the Japanese Islamic Association published a number of privately-circulated dossiers for imperial officials along with a number of journal articles in well-read circulars about new markets for tea grown in Manchukuo and Japan in the Middle East. Avid tea drinker themselves, members of the Japanese Islamic Association observed Middle Eastern tea drinking habits to report back to imperial officials on the viability of the region as a place for Japanese tea exports. These were concerted endeavors by the Japanese imperial government to insert themselves into markets throughout the Middle East. Their efforts provide new ways of thinking about the intersections between religion, economics, and diplomacy during WWII.

This paper attempts to unravel some of the ways that the well-travelled and highly-educated members of the Japanese Islamic Association explained Middle Eastern tea drinking habits to both everyday-Japanese readers and imperial policy makers. Their efforts were two-fold: to expand markets, and to make “Middle Easterners” legible to the subjects of the ever-expanding Japanese Empire. Through a close reading of a number of texts produced between 1938 and 1941, the paper provides a new look into the ways that scholars of Islam in Japan represented Middle Easterners as both similar and different to the Japanese. My observations about tea form part of the larger conclusions for my book project which bring into question both the spatial and temporal boundaries of the Japanese Empire while examining Japanese constructions and perceptions of the “other” beyond their East Asian colonial possessions. In conclusion, I draw attention to the lasting impact that both Japanese consumer products and the transnational actors who worked in the service of the Japanese Empire, such as Tang Yichen and the members of the Japanese Islamic Association, had on the non-aligned movement in the early 1950s.