Commonly referred to as “unfiltered” sake, nigori literally means “cloudy”, and refers to sake that still contains rice solids that have not fermented. Nigori sake is far more popular outside Japan than in Japan. Photo: Marcin Jucha / 123rf
As a Chinese who has lived in Japan for more than 20 years, I always find it fascinating to see how sake is entwined with many of the country’s traditions and customs. In Spring, the Japanese drink sake with friends and while away the hours underneath cherry trees. In autumn, the Japanese enjoy sake by the light of the full moon during harvest seasons. In winter, the Japanese drink warm ‘snow-viewing’ sake in the country’s first big snowfall of the year. To the Japanese, by offering sake to the gods in rituals and drinking it with their own meals, they would attain a sense of unity with their gods, and gain protection and blessings.
The origin of sake is unclear. The earliest Japanese reference to sake is found in the kojiki (古事記), Japan’s first written history compiled in 712 AD. It is commonly recognised that the Chinese low-temperature brewing technology had been traditionally applied to sake production in Japan. Even though modern brewing technology was subsequently adopted to improve the flavour of the drink in the Meiji period, today the Chinese cultural influence can still be told by the names of different sake.
For example, the Shimane Sake Brewers Association’s ‘Ri Haku 李白’ adopted the name of eminent Chinese poet Li Bai (李白) of the Tang dynasty; the Akita Brewing Company’s ‘Sui Rakuten 醉樂天’ was named after Bai Letian (白乐天), another poet of the Tang dynasty. Ancient Chinese intellectuals, such as the ‘Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’ (竹林七贤) during the Wei and Jin dynasties, and the ‘Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup’ (饮中八仙) appearing in one of the poems by Du Fu (杜甫), a well-known poet in the Tang dynasty, were widely known as the names of sake. In addition to famous historical figures, many sake names use Chinese phrases that construct a poetic world filled with scenes and emotions which can ostensibly only be reached by one’s active imagination and artistic experience. If a person is familiar with Chinese culture, by just looking at the label on a sake bottle, they will enter an artistic space, even before tasting the alcohol.
THE CULTURAL HERITAGE
Japanese culture is underpinned by farming, and offering sake to the gods as thanks for a good harvest has continued since ancient times. Till today, shrines all over Japan use sake in sacrifices and various traditional ceremonies. Many of the sake breweries in Japan have a long history. According to statistical data from the Teikoku Databank, by the end of 2017, there were 1254 sake breweries in Japan, out of which about 66% were founded in the Edo and Meiji eras, and 72% have a history of more than 100 years. The selection of rice, the production of the sake, as well as the packaging process all follow the traditional way; even the tools used in each process are full of craftsmanship and identical to how they looked 100 years ago.
Kunio Yanagita, the founding father of Japanese native folkloristics, mentioned sake and local culture as follows:
The fact that the famous families in each region who serve the sake that everyone drinks gradually became a business of sake brewing at festivals and ceremonies that led to the local community’s maintenance and strengthening shows the profound relationship between sake breweries and local culture.1
The close relations between sake and local communities still exist nowadays. Many sake breweries are family-owned local companies – maintaining a harmonious relationship with local communities and gaining their trust are at the heart of the companies’ governance principles.2
To maintain this social link between sake breweries and local communities, the Japanese government has been controlling the issuance of sake brewing licences as a means to balance the supply and demand in the country. The National Tax Agency only grants the licence when the new brewery can demonstrate that it will be a stable producer right from the start and will not affect other existing breweries to a significant degree.
Chinese influence on sake names
Kumazawa Brewing Company’s ‘Tensei’ is taken from the Chinese myth about Emperor Huizong of Song (宋徽宗) dreaming about the colour of the sky where the cloud breaks after rain (雨过天青云破处) – a mesmerising jade celadon colour. Source: www.kumazawa.jp
THE FADING LOVE
Over the years, this policy has been protecting small and medium breweries from the big producers and new players to the market. Yet, sake sales within Japan have decreased by 30% since 1975, according to Japan’s National Tax Agency. Why does the Japanese’s love of sake seem to be fading? The aging population of the country is one factor driving a reduction in total alcohol consumption, including sake consumption. Sake has an old-fashioned image, and middle-aged men form the main consumer base. While sake is relatively sensitive in matching food, ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine and whisky are more appealing to the young generation. Sake also has a higher sugar content compared to other types of alcohol — for those on a diet, sake is less suitable for evening drinks. Experts also pointed to the transformation of Japanese society after World War II, in which Japan as a whole has been very interested in acquiring a Western, as opposed to traditional, way of living.
The rise of domestic sake in the UK
The demand for sake grows with the increasing number of Japanese restaurants in the UK. Located in Peckham, Kanpai is the first sake brewery in the UK. Other than brewing its own, Kanpai organises sake-making workshops and tasting sessions. It also has a taproom that offers sake on tap and experimental sake cocktails. Photo: Nathaniel Noir / Alamy
As the consumption of sake declines, the number of companies that manufacture sake is also reducing. According to the National Tax Agency statistics, there were more than 1,900 manufacturers in 2001, but in 2015, the number decreased to 1,421. Most of the companies are small and medium-sized enterprises with 300 or fewer employees.3 Only 4.5% of the total alcohol tax revenue comes from sake, the lowest among all types of alcohol in Japan.
GLOBAL MARKET IMPACT
But even while consumption is declining in Japan, sake is becoming more and more popular overseas. Sake exports reached USD212 million in 2019, a record for the tenth consecutive year. Among the alcohols produced in Japan that are exported overseas, sake is the top batter, accounting for 35% of the total. The main export destinations are the US, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The US accounts for more than a third of Japan’s sake exports. Some breweries have been set up in the US, France and Australia over the past few years to produce sake (these can only be called “sake”, not “Japanese sake”) for the local markets.
The increasing demand from overseas, especially from Western countries, is changing the appearance of sake. Traditionally kanji (Chinese characters) and kana (syllabic scripts) are commonly used for the labels, which are not immediately recognisable to Western customers. In recent years, many brands added sake names written in romaji (the use of Latin script to write the Japanese language) or English translation, and some make these roman letters appear even more prominent on the label than their original kanji or kana scripts. To make the packaging more appealing to international buyers, the bottle shapes are more diverse, and many resemble sparkling wine, champagne and whisky bottles.
Overseas demand has not only had an impact on the look of sake, it has also greatly eased the supply and demand situation that the National Tax Agency has been trying to balance, and gives more room for the industry to grow. On 20 November 2019, the government announced a major change that removes the minimum production requirement for new sake brewing licence issuance, on the condition that the sake made is only for sale outside of Japan.
Traditional sake barrels
Kagami-biraki is a ceremony performed at celebratory events, in which the lid of the sake barrel is broken open by a wooden mallet and the sake is served to everyone present. It represents an opening to harmony and good fortune. Photo: Carol Di Rienzo Cornwell / Alamy
In the past, to apply for a new licence, an applicant must have the equipment and materials for an annual output of 60,000 litres. This condition required a huge investment to set up the necessary equipment even before obtaining a licence to make a drop of sake. After this restriction was removed for new breweries that intend to sell only outside of Japan, it has become a lot easier to start sake production on a small scale. This good news not only benefits aspiring entrants to the sake business, but also creates more growth for ancillary businesses, such as equipment manufacturers. Overall, innovation and new perspectives on sake production are expected.
Another implication is that the location of a new brewery will now not be as restricted as before since the target market is strictly overseas. The local environment plays a vital role in shaping the sake characteristics. The new brewery can be located near an old one for easy access to the same sources of rice and water under the same climate conditions. This is good news for overseas consumers who expect premium-quality sake.
UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
The Japanese government has recently decided to apply to have Japanese sake listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, with the aim of boosting name recognition and brand power as part of efforts to expand overseas exports. Photo: Tony Mcnicol / Alamy
Other than deregulation, in January 2021 the Japanese government announced its plan to seek UNESCO listing for sake as a new intangible cultural heritage. The government expects that UNESCO recognition will motivate sake brewers and rice growers, and make sake more popular worldwide. In February, the government adopted a bill to create a registration system for intangible cultural and intangible folklore cultural assets in the country, for better protection and preservation. According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs, sake brewing techniques fall within the category.
The sake brewery that I recently visited is the Kumazawa brewery. Founded in 1897, this sake brewery is the only brewery left in Shonan, Kanagawa Prefecture. Their words about sake brewing and local culture always resonate with me, and I would like to quote the words to conclude this article.
While staying true to the traditional art of sake brewing, SOTO Sake adds a modern spin and takes up a minimalist packaging design to appeal to the wider international audience. Source: www.sotosake.com
Ren Zhe is a political scientist at the Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization. His research interests include Chinese politics and comparative politics. He obtained a Ph.D. in International Studies from Waseda University. He is a Korean Chinese and has been living in Japan since 2001.
Kunio Yanagita, “Meiji Taisho shi Sosei Hen,” 1993, Kodansha Gakujutsu Bunko.
Koji Kihara “A Study on the Role of Local Companies in Local Communities – A Case Study of Sake Manufacturing” (in Japanese), Tokyo University of Agriculture, Agricultural Sciences Bulletin Vol. 56, No. 1, 2011.
National Tax Agency, Sake Bookmark, March 2020.