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Sake as Japan's National Alcoholic Drink?

Especially in the Japanese language variety, ‘Nihonshu wa kokushu de aru’ or ‘Japanese sake is the national alcohol beverage’ appears to be a form of pleonasm. However, when one knows that the share of sake in the annual consumption of alcoholic beverages has decreased from more than 80% in the 1930s to less than 7% nowadays and the sake industry was decimated during the latter half of the twentieth century, it is clear that rather than being a pleonasm it is, in fact, closer to being a misrepresentation. One may even wonder why the Japanese shochu (Japanese spirit) distillers and


beer brewers do not openly refute this statement, as their share is larger than that of sake, accounting for 10.4 and 31.2%, respectively.[1] Most likely, it is the strong awareness of the foreign roots and the related lack of unicity of their products, and in the case of shochu its more regional character, that have made them remain humbly silent.

Whereas the brewing of a fermented alcoholic rice-based beverage happens in almost all rice cultures in the world, and this tradition was definitely not indigenous to Japan but imported from the Asian continent together with the main ingredient of rice itself, it is a fact that the brewing method that was developed and completed in Japan during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is completely unique.[2] There is no other fermented alcoholic rice beverage in the world that can boast the quality, solidness, and complexity of sake. And, moreover, through the unique process of multiple simultaneous fermentation, sake is also the fermented beverage with the highest alcohol percentage in the world. So, on the basis of this sixteenth to seventeenth century ‘sake revolution’, there is no need whatsoever for the Japanese to restrain themselves in declaring sake ‘the Japanese alcoholic beverage/nihonshu or ‘national alcoholic beverage/kokushu. In this sense, it seems rather more astonishing that they have only recently started promoting the unique qualities of Japanese sake so vociferously.[3]

On the other hand, how solid is one’s position in promoting the unique qualities of one’s national drink when only a minor proportion of annual production can bear the ‘pure rice sake’ (junmaishu) label on the bottle?[4] Although the other bottles need not be labelled quite so prominently as ‘distilled alcohol, sugars, etc. added sake’, let alone ‘impure sake’, when promoting their product, the addition of elements alien to the natural fermentation process will most likely become increasingly evident to both Japanese and foreign consumers, and accordingly the mission of promoting sake may easily backfire.

  • [1] ‘Kakushurui no hanbai (shohi) suryo kosei hiritsu no suii’ in Kokuzeicho Kazeibu Shuzeikyoku,Sake no shiori.
  • [2] For the revolutionary development of a rather common fermented rice-based alcoholic drink ofthe Middle Ages to the unique sake ofthe early modern period, please refer to the various works byYunoki such as Nihonshu no rekishi; Kato, ‘Nihon no sakezukuri no ayumi’, in Nihon no sake norekishi, 168—260; and Yoshida, Edo no sake: Sono gijutsu, keizai, bunka.
  • [3] A good marker may be the reports of and posters for the big sake fair ‘Nihonshu Fair’, organizedin Ikebukuro every June since 2007 by the Nihon Shuzo Kumiai Chuokai. It is only at the time ofthe seventh edition in 2013 that the term ‘kokushu’ pops up in a corner on the first page of thereport. By the ninth edition in 2015, the term is found very prominently on both the Japanese andthe English posters publicizing the event. On the English poster no attempt has been made totranslate the term as the foreign audience is endorsed to ‘Taste the Kokushu'.
  • [4] Whereas almost all sake before the Second World War was pure sake, clinging to the new ‘wartimetradition’ of adding so-called ‘brewer’s alcohol’ and other elements caused the extinction of pure sakein post-war Japan. However, through the combined efforts of a few ‘heretic’ sake brewers and sakedealers, pure sake was reintroduced from the 1980s onwards and at present the pure sake categoriesare the most successful in the sake industry. See Stegewerns, ‘The Three Waves (and Ways) of SakeAppreciation in the West’, in Devouring Japan: Japanese Cuisine and Foodways. In the 2015 fiscalyear, the pure sake categories accounted for a record 26.9% of total sake production in Japan andboasted a 63% share of the so-called six designated sake categories. ‘Tokutei meisho no seishu notaipu-betsu seisei suryo no suiihyo’ in Kokuzeicho Kazeibu Shuzeikyoku, Sake no Shiori 2017.
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