What makes coffee production in Okinawa unique?
According to the International Coffee Organisation, Japan is the third-largest consumer of coffee in the world, after the European Union and the US. In 2020/21, the country imported just under 7.4 million 60kg bags of green coffee.
Japan has a rich history of coffee consumption. From the opening of the first kissaten in the late 1880s to the emergence of third wave coffee culture in the early 2000s, the country has a longstanding relationship with coffee.
However, as well as this, a small part of Japan also technically lies in the Bean Belt, meaning it has the right climatic conditions for coffee production. The Okinawa Islands, located some 26 degrees north of the Tropics, are home to around 30 coffee farms which produce small quantities of green coffee.
To learn more about this small-scale production in Okinawa, I spoke to several local farmers. Read on to find out what they had to say about Okinawan coffee.
You may also like our article on exploring Japanese coffee shop culture.
A brief history of coffee production in Japan
It’s believed that coffee cultivation first began in Japan around 1876 on the Ogasawara Islands (also known as the Bonin Islands), which are an archipelago of over 30 subtropical and tropical islands around 1,000km south of Tokyo.
Japanese samurai and admiral Enomoto Takeaki is said to have initially proposed the idea of growing coffee on the islands to the Emperor Meiji’s government which was in power at the time. Following this, 500 coffee saplings were shipped from the Netherlands and planted on farms in the Ogasawara islands.
Some six years later, the first coffee plants were cultivated in Okinawa. However, as coffee is not native to Japan, initial trials were mostly unsuccessful. This is largely because producers had very limited knowledge and expertise, as well as little financial and technical support.
Moreover, in the early 1900s, many rural Japanese workers migrated to Brazil in search of work. A large proportion of these migrants actually worked on coffee farms, where there was a notable labour shortage.
Naturally, this meant that many of these agricultural workers came to understand more about coffee production – some of which later returned to Japan.
As such, today, many of Okinawa’s coffee trees can be genetically traced back to native Brazilian varieties.
A profile of Okinawan production
As it was not especially profitable, coffee production in Okinawa was initially more of a hobby, rather than a means of sustainable income. However, it has slowly grown over the last 120 years, and there are now about 30 coffee farms across the Okinawa Islands.
Most coffee is grown in the northern Yanburu region of the main island, however, a small number of plants are also cultivated on neighbouring islands.
The majority of Okinawan coffee is shade grown and intercropped with other tropical plants such as mango and banana. Furthermore, coffee is produced at very low altitudes, usually between 150 and 500 m.a.s.l.
Takuyuki Matayoshi is the President of Matayoshi Coffee Farm in the Yanbaru region. He tells me that he only grows arabica plants on his farm, which are mostly the Yellow Bourbon variety, with a smaller number of Red Bourbon plants.
“Yellow Mundo Novo is also another common variety in Okinawa,” he adds.
Cherries are typically harvested from October to April. Once picked, each farm generally processes their coffee on-site.
Takuyuki explains that he uses mostly natural and honey processes at Matayoshi Farm, but notes that other methods are sometimes used by farmers in Okinawa.
What makes this coffee unique?
Although Okinawa is by no means a major coffee producing region, the expertise on the island and the conditions mean it does have the potential to yield high-quality beans.
The island’s unique terrain and climate can impart desirable flavours to the coffee – with some producers and roasters claiming that no two harvests yield the same results. As well as this, some producers are carrying out more experimental processing methods to increase quality.
Yoshiyuki Nakamura is the owner of Mame Porepore, a roaster based in Okinawa. He also placed second in the 2018 World Roasting Championship.
“I enjoy the different flavours in the coffee each year,” he tells me. “I think that Okinawa’s coffee production is still developing, so farmers’ knowledge and skills will continue to improve.”
Takuyuki describes some of the prominent flavours and qualities of Okinawan coffee.
“It’s easy to drink, with notes of black tea and a clean and refreshing aftertaste,” he says. “Also, because it grows at very low altitudes, the beans are soft which affects how it’s roasted.”
However, unfavourable weather conditions (such as typhoons) mean that some harvests can produce very low yields. Takuyuki explains that sometimes this means that no coffee can be sold.
However, in some cases, 100g of Okinawan coffee can cost up to ¥4,300 (around US $32).
In turn, this means many local consumers are not able to afford it, but there is growing interest from Tokyo coffee shops and roasters, as well as further afield.
Agrotourism & Okinawan coffee farms
As Okinawa is a prominent tourist destination, some coffee farms on the island have capitalised by doubling as agrotourism ventures. Many provide guided farm tours and some even have spaces for visitors to stay.
These tours can be an integral part of coffee production in Okinawa as they can help to diversify farmers’ income – especially when harvests are lower than expected.
“We invest money in running guided tours so we can also reinvest back into our farms,” Takuyuki says.
By offering these experiences, guests can tour farm facilities and understand more about the coffee supply chain.
Takayuki and his team run guided tours and educational workshops about coffee farming and processing. This, he says, ultimately helps to raise awareness. Visitors are also encouraged to participate, and drink some of the farm’s coffee as part of the process.
“Guests are then able to understand how much effort goes into one cup of coffee,” Takuyuki explains.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic, Okinawan tourism saw a sharp drop in revenue, which ultimately impacted producers, too. Alongside low yields, Takuyuki tells me that it’s been difficult for some producers to remain profitable.
Could it be successful on an international scale?
While there are a number of challenges facing Okinawan coffee production, arguably the biggest one is scale. With just 30 coffee farms across the island, it is hard to see it ever becoming anything beyond a niche coffee origin which blends cultivation with agrotourism.
However, to try and improve its international presence and share its unique insight, some local farmers have established the Okinawa Coffee Association – which is based at the University of Ryukyus on the main island.
Founded in 2014, the association carries out research, as well as holding seminars and workshops, to disseminate more information to Okinawan coffee producers and beyond.
The association’s ultimate goal is to improve the island’s agricultural practices, as well as providing more technical and financial support from the Japanese government. Effectively, it encourages farmers to not only grow, harvest, and process their own coffee, but to also market and sell it themselves in an effort to boost the local economy.
Furthermore, in 2020, the association hosted the first ever Okinawa Coffee Summit. At the event, local producers – as well as coffee farmers from Taiwan – were able to network and share their expertise, and hopefully establish more profitable coffee production for the island.
While Japan will never be able to fulfil its consumption with domestically-grown coffee, it’s clear that Okinawan coffee is worth talking about. In the years to come, support from groups such as the Okinawa Coffee Association could see the islands begin championing a new niche, signature agricultural product.
Furthermore, despite the challenges of growing coffee on the islands, the producers there are clearly resilient. They are experimenting, and quality continues to be a part of the conversation.
Yoshiyuki is certainly right in saying: “The highlight of Okinawan coffee today is how it will grow and develop in the future.” But what exactly the future will hold remains to be seen.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring Sicilian coffee production.
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