In Japan, trade legislation imposes a minimum annual production of sake of 60,000 liters per company, or about 33,000 bottles of a sho (1.8 liter)! This enormous rate dissuades new entrants in the market, at the risk of seeing the decline of the tradition in the face of the consumption of foreign alcohol on the increase in Japan. Explanations.

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Japanese sake (Nihonshu to designate sake produced in Japan, Seishu in the local language) is an alcohol composed of 80% water and 20% rice, produced by fermentation.

Its production is an ancestral tradition of Japan, and yet its authenticity is in danger. In 2016, sake production in Japan amounted to around 606,000 kiloliters, of which only 3% was for exports. However, with the saturation of the domestic market, thesmall producers, who represent the vast majority of the sector, are turning to export since the 2000s, following in the footsteps of the big companies.

Sake exports, particularly to the United States, the leading importing country, have broken records for ten consecutive years to reach 23.4 billion yen (185 million euros) in 2019 (three times more than in 2010). However, the sector is threatened.

To save the tradition: adapt the law

Thanks to the adoption of the amendment to the law on the taxation of alcoholic beverages (which will come into force in April 2021), licenses will now be granted without a production floor. However, this authorization is subject to a size condition: said production must be reserved for export only. The Japanese won’t be able to take advantage of it. The goal ? Attract new producers and operators abroad.

Only problem : entry into the international market puts small producers in difficulty, to the benefit of large companies: the sake industry. However, the preservation of tradition is mainly due to small productions whose know-how has remained unchanged.

Sake brewing demonstration at the Hakutsuru Brewery Museum.
Source: commons.wikimedia.org

The government has thus taken some symbolic measures, such as the creation, in 1978, of a Sake Day. It was set at 1er October to coincide with the start of production. Some aid has been provided to small producers, for éeliminate all unnecessary price competition and regulate the sector. Between 2000 and 2016, exports more than doubled in terms of volume and practically multiplied by five in terms of value.

The preservation of know-how remains a major political issue in the land of the rising sun, where tradition is of paramount importance. But if the Japanese always seem to enjoy an astonishing balance between modernity and tradition, in spite of everything, the work of time seems to gradually erase certain practices, for lack of means, for lack of market.

An ancestral traditional production

This ancestral drink was born from the ancestral legend of Susanô no Mikoto, who beheaded the eight heads of the dragon Yamata no Orochi after making him drunk.

The term “sake” appears for the first time in the Kojiki, one of the oldest Japanese texts (written around VIIIth century AD).

Susanoo Confronting the Yamata no Orochi, by Toyohara Chikanobu (circa 1870). Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Like any ancestral practice, its production is extremely ritualized: the making of the beverage is more important than the consumption of the beverage itself. Indeed, the first version of sake was “chewed”. We see a symbolic reference in the animated film My Name (see below). It is made by young girls, then acting as intermediaries with the Gods. They chew a mixture of fresh rice, fermented rice (koji rice) and water. They spit out this mixture in small jars, kept cold in stones dug for many years. This is how they produced the bijinshu where the ” beautiful women sake ” .

Offering of barrels of sake at the Meiji Shrine.
Source: commons.wikimedia.org

From the Nara period (710-794), sake takes on a more social meaning. It is used to impress at banquets. The imperial court then established its own brewery in order to make as many different sakes as there are gods. (Editor’s note: Simplified today, there is a typology of five kinds.)

After the IXth century, the development of new brewing techniques are born. They allow to an aristocratic elite to claim the exclusivity of sake consumption. In response to the production of white sake (much more qualitative, reserved for the aristocracy) is then born “black sake”. Its color, more delicious and artisanal, is due to the use of more common plants. Simpler, cheaper, this alternative sake is becoming the drink of the people.

The Imperial Court withdrew from this trade as early as the Kamakura period in 1185, giving rise to independent breweries. It’s the Kofukujî, a temple of Nara, which develops the modern brewing technology using the technique of pasteurization in XVIth century. (Editor’s note: In France, it was not discovered by Louis Pasteur until 1865)

Sake is now tasted in community, in dedicated temples or in markets.

Japan sees significant modernization taking place in the 19th centuryth century during the Meiji era (1868-1912): the scale of production is constantly increasing and industrializing. Western techniques influence large breweries and businesses, to the detriment of small local producers who, however, remain the guarantors of the tradition.

You have reached the end of this article, well done. A little pick-me-up?

So let’s take advantage of this pandemic to discover other horizons from a distance, and order an authentic sake from a small local producer. To taste as a digestif or a rosé cocktail with lychee as an aperitif, you will find a number of variations that will delight your taste buds. Smell, savor, and contribute to the conservation of this ancestral knowledge.

As a digestif, BONUS sources

The site of the Japan Culture House and his podcast MISO POINT

Podcast Myths and Legends, What a History on the heroes and divine and ancestral traditions (search, it’s worth the detour).

– Coline Desselle


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