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Feeding the Nation: Japanese Food Identities in Times of Globalization

Deconstructing 'Kokushu': The Promotion of Sake as Japan's National Alcohol Drink in Times of Crisis in the Sake Industry

Dick Stegewerns


Whereas sake was only termed ‘Nihonshu (Japanese alcoholic drink) in the late nineteenth century, as a translation of the English ‘Japanese rice wine’ that foreign traders used to promote the export of this new exotic alcoholic drink, sake occupied such an overwhelming share of alcohol production and consumption in Japan that most Japanese ignored the newly coined term and continued to use the word ‘sake, which is the generic term for all alcoholic drinks.1 In sharp contrast, the recently coined term ‘kokushu (national alcoholic drink) has come about under the very different circumstances that the sake industry had been decimated and most Japanese no longer drink sake.[1] In a situation where


sake can thus hardly any longer be termed Japan’s nationally consumed alcoholic drink, the Japanese government and the sake brewing industry have jointly started promoting the use of the term ‘kokushu . However, in the related discourse the dire situation in which Japan’s ‘national alcoholic drink’ has been for almost half a century is not acknowledged. Moreover, when it is acknowledged, the Japanese people at large are blamed for forgetting their cultural roots, while the decimation of the sake industry was primarily the result of ill-advised decisions by the government and the sake brewing industry in the post-war period.

Before the war most of sake was pure and organic, in the sense that no alcohol was added after fermentation and no chemical fertilizers were used in the cultivation of the rice. However, wartime conditions and post-war mass production did away with the pure and organic qualities of sake. In Manchuria the army needed sake that would not freeze in the cold climate, and around 1940 local breweries experimented successfully in making alcohol-added sake with a higher alcohol percentage. Not long afterwards breweries in the Japanese homeland were confronted with government demands to decrease their use of the strategic ingredient of rice, and make as much alcoholic liquid out of as few rice grains as possible. Now a new way of post-production (interventions in the brew after fermentation) was started, in which alcohol, and subsequently more water, sugar, acid, etc. were added to the sake in order to increase volume. It will hardly need mentioning that this type of sake with ‘minimal rice and maximal external elements and intervention’ was not a high-quality product. However, even when the dark wartime and occupation periods gave way to high-speed economic growth, the short-sighted tax bureaucracy and sake industry continued to give priority to volume and easy money over quality, thus ensuring that all sake remained impure, and most breweries completely forgot how pure pre-war sake was made. As consumers became increasingly affluent and had more choice, they gave up en masse on the inferior product that sake was, thus bringing about a decimation of the consumption and production of sake, and the number of breweries. It was only with the rebirth of pure sake with no added alcohol from the 1980s onwards, the reform of the rigid three-class categorization of sake, and the liberalization of the alcohol market in the 1990s, that regular small-size breweries were faced with the need to turn their product into a brand in order to survive. In the new century, this has led to a remarkable increase in the quality and variety of sake. Accordingly an ever-increasing proportion of the product is pure sake - currently accounting for more than 25%. This development has now even resulted in a sake boom, where, for the first time in decades, restaurants are trying to lure people in by placing bottles of quality sake outside, and we find a new and young generation tuning into this ‘new and hip drink’, whereas previous generations had given up on what they saw as ‘that awful booze your granddad used to get drunk on’.

This chapter will analyse the introduction of the term ‘kokushu and will scrutinize the various ways in which it is linked to Japanese culture and Japanese national identity. In doing so, it will also analyse the extent to which the discourse on sake promoted by government and industry as Japan’s national alcoholic beverage is in line with the facts, data and common interpretations of the post-war and contemporary history of the sake industry.

  • [1] Suzuki, Nihonshu no kingendaishi, 1—4.
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