We posted Part three of the History of Kombucha by Tadeusz Zagrabinski in February 2021. However, in March, Tadeusz posted additional information to his blog, by Finnish writer Reetta Näätänen which is reposted here with his express permission. It clarifies what the word ‘kombucha’ means in Japan.
After writing the four parts of Kombucha History, some additional information was sent to me by Reetta Näätänen from Finland. (For which I am grateful). Enjoy Reetta’s post!
Kombucha – True or False?
NB. In this text I use the term microbe drink to make a difference from the original Japanese kombucha drink that is made of kelp.
Sources of information are linked in the text, some of them are in Japanese.
Anyone who is familiar with Japanese food culture might have noted the drink called kombucha a few years ago, when it landed in Finland. Did the umami-rich, broth-like salty drink really make its way to the North? It turned out that this kombucha was a totally different drink from the original, and didn’t contain any kombu (kelp) but a collection of microbes fermented with black tea. Why did this sweet drink end up with the same name as the kelp drink? I needed to find out.
I came across several imaginary stories, that seemed implausible from the point of view of someone who has some knowledge about East Asian countries’ history and languages.
History of the Microbe Drink
Searching the internet, most sources cite that the microbe drink would probably be 200 to 2000 years old invention, probably in China or Manchuria, from where it spread to Russia, Eastern Europe and America. In 2000’s some American companies started to produce it commercially. Depending on which language you use to search for information, you can get stories about the drink’s inventor, time and place from Genghis Khan to Chinese emperors and from Hollywood stars to remote Siberian villages. However, apart from all the vague sources, there is a fresh, very detailed blog research text about the history of kombucha worth reading by Tadeusz Zagrabinski of Bärbucha, Berlin.
The microbe drink is called with many names depending on the language and country. However, they all translate into “mushroom tea” or “tea fungus”: Chinese hóngchájùn 红茶菌 (“red tea fungus”), cháméijùn茶黴菌 (“tea mold”), hóngchágū 红茶菇 (“red tea mushroom”), Japanese kōcha kinoko 紅茶キノコ (“red tea mushroom”) and Russian čajnyj grib чайный гриб (“tea fungus/mushroom”).
So, you would have imagined that the drink’s Western name would derive from these languages. For some reason that is not the case, but the drink is nowadays called kombucha, kelp tea in Japanese.
Etymology of Kombu
According to one prominent theory, the word kombu (昆布) is originally Ainu language (indigenous people of Hokkaidō, Northern Japan), and the Ainu word ”kompu” or ”kompo” (Akagi Sanpei: Ainu-go shōjiten, San-on Bungakukai 1972, p. 59) would be loaned into Chinese (昆布 kūnbù), when eating kelp became more common in China. From Chinese the word again was loaned into Japanese, and was pronounced kombu. (However, kelp in Chinese is nowadays called 海带 hǎidài.) Kelp was used as food probably already in Jōmon period (14,000 BCE – 300 BCE) especially in Northern Japan, and it was transported from Hokkaidō to Honshū and China in Kamakura period (1185-1333). In the 17th century the ship transportation got busier, and the sea route from Hokkaidō to Qing dynasty China was called the Kombu Road. Kombu was an important merchandise.
Guesses about the true origin of the microbe drink seem to vary a lot, and it is hard to find any convincing information. Nevertheless, a few stories seem to vigorously circulate in various blogs and kombucha breweries’ pages. I would like to share my own analysis about their credibility.
Popular claims about Kombucha
Japan’s emperor Ingyō had a Korean physician, Dr. Kombu, who introduced the microbe drink to Japan.
This story has spread incredibly widely, although no-one gives a single source to back it up. It is true that there was a ruler called Ingyō probably in years 410-453, but since this information is written in the oldest Japanese history chronicles Nihon Shoki and Kojiki (written in early 8th century posthumously) where much of the information is not historically correct, this cannot be authenticated. Also, “Japan” did not exist, but there was a country called Yamato, and Ingyō was the ruler of it, probably called amenoshita shiroshimesu ōkimi = the great ruler under the sun. The emperor system was established about 200 years later. Rulers before that are sometimes called “legendary emperors”.
“Kombu” is not a Japanese, nor Korean name. The word most probably had the meaning of kelp (saccharina japonica) already in Ingyō’s times, since the Ainu people had been using kombu as food for centuries before. There is no reason to presume that a person of that era would have a name meaning kelp. The first written proof of the word kombu is in poems from the 5th to 8th century according to Miika Pölkki, a Finnish Japanologist and expert of classical Japanese literature. Kombu also comes up in a book of laws Engi-shiki (written in 927). Ingyō would most probably have officials, musicians and doctors in his court who were from China and Silla (one of the 3 kingdoms in Korean peninsula at the time). But even if any doctor’s name would have been documented in the ancient chronicles written posthumously, it is difficult to know the names’ pronunciation, since the chronicles were written in Chinese kanji writing system using Japanese grammatics and were to be read in Japanese pronunciation. The Japanese phonological kana writing systems were developed a few decades later than the chronicles were written.
I haven’t found any evidence that the microbe drink would have come up in any Japanese historical documents. Tea (camellia sinensis) however was highly regarded ever since the Buddhist monks brought it to Japan from China in the 9th century. In 1193 there was a book written about the health benefits of tea: Kissa Yōjōki (Treatise on Tea Drinking for Health). Also the first medical guidebook in Japanese (based on Chinese medicine) called Ishinpō was written in 984. Kombu is mentioned in the latter, but no mention of microbe drink. If the microbe drink would have been an important nutrition or medicine, it would certainly have been mentioned in some historical documents. In fact, the first document in Japan about “mushroom drink” (kōcha kinoko) is from 1974, when a Japanese person visiting a village in Siberia came across the microbe drink and brought some of its SCOBY back to Japan.
The SCOBY resembles kelp, hence the name.
When you compare the looks of the gigantic kombu kelp and SCOBY, it is hard to believe that anyone would accidentally mix them up.
The word kombucha started to be used in the wrong context in the West for unknown reasons.
The most plausible explanation. My guess is, that the reason to start calling the microbe drink with a Japanese word, although with totally different meaning, might have been for marketing purposes. Maybe the Russian and Chinese names, or mushroom tea, were not commercial enough?
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary the first mention of “kombucha” being used in the meaning of the microbe drink was in year 1944. On the other hand, Tadeusz Zagrabinski refers to a source that has mentioned the word kombucha used in the meaning of the microbe drink already in 1927 in Europe. However, the first documented mention of kombucha as kelp drink is from Heian period (794-1185). It was used as medicine, and became more popular with common people in the 17th century.
Kombucha in modern Japan
What do the Japanese think about the use of the word kombucha in wrong meaning? The word itself may bring an idea of a Japanese product, but there is no evidence of any connections between Japan and the microbe drink. The original kombucha has at least a 1000 years long history in Japan, so what kind of confusion has risen from the new use of the word?
As mentioned before, the microbe drink is called kōcha kinoko in Japanese. Only a few years ago some breweries started to produce the microbe drink to the Japanese market – but instead of writing the word kombucha in its original way in kanji , the new drink is now written either in katakana syllable writing that is usually used with foreign loan words, or in Roman letters. So., the microbe drink kombucha is written コンブチャ and kelp drink kombucha昆布茶.
So why isn’t the microbe drink called kōcha kinoko any more? After the SCOBY from Siberian village came to Japan, people started fermenting their own microbe drinks and unfortunately things didn’t always go right, and many people suffered from poisoning. The microbe drink hype stopped as soon as it had started. Even to this date, older people might remember this incident, so the word kōcha kinoko doesn’t have a very good reputation in Japan, that’s probably why the microbe drink’s new coming has taken the name kombucha in its Western meaning. However, this new drink isn’t widely known among the common people. I made a little survey among my friends in Japan, and only two of my friends had ever heard of it, and one of the two thought it was yoghurt.
Most Japanese people will probably think no harm about the new meaning of kombucha, and since it’s written with katakana or Roman letters some won’t even see the connection with the original meaning. However, linguistically kombucha has no other meanings in the Japanese language but kelp tea. Some people, especially the older generation, seem to be slightly offended by the fact that kombucha has lent its name to the microbe drink. All the friends I talked to however thought that it would be nice if the Japanese origins and actual meaning of the word would be more widely known.
Writer: Reetta Näätänen majored East Asian Studies and Japanese studies in Helsinki University in 1994-2001 (Bachelor of Arts degree). Later she ended up on musician’s career through Sibelius Academy (Master of Music degree) and works as a clarinetist in Tampere Philharmonic Orchestra. She has also worked as Japanese language interpreter and practiced the traditional Japanese Way of Tea (chadō) for more than 20 years.