Sake Samurai: Selling Sake as the Crystallization of Japanese Culture

It is merely some 10 years ago that the sake industry, in the form of the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council (Nihon Shuzo Seinen Kyogikai), launched various initiatives to lend sake a higher and respected status. These initiatives were to a large extent aimed at the outside world, although it is hard to ignore that the ultimate objective was to strengthen sake’s standing inside Japan on the back of Western - mainly West European - authority. In this sense, it smacks of the so-called gaiatsu (foreign pressure) strategy the Japanese government has often implemented to sell controversial policy changes to the Japanese people.

In the formation statement of the Sake Samurai project of October 2005, the Junior Council presents its motivation and aim as follows:

The Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council, fearing that the pride of the Japanese people was in danger of being lost from Japan, formed the Sake Samurai [... ] as a gathering of those who share a love of sake and the desire to nurture it, to restore the pride of sake and to spread sake culture not only within Japan but throughout the world.[1]

Their self-identification as samurai fighting for the cause of sake is based on a rather romantic definition of samurai as ‘those who are pure of heart, defending what is precious to them with passion and resolve’. The practice of sake brewing is also presented in an ahistorical way, which hardly touches upon the very modern practice of brewing sake in sake factories and breweries:

In ancient times, Japan was known as ‘the land of abundant reed plains and fresh ears of rice.’ Water and rice. Indeed, these two elements are at the very heart of Japan. Nurtured over a long history in a beautiful land, Japanese sake made from such simple ingredients merges timeless wisdom with sophisticated craft.[2]

Like most people with a mission, they point out that at present the drink is in a critical state of crisis, which calls for urgent measures:

Yet this ‘national drink’ is no longer an ordinary part of our everyday lives. Particularly in recent years, various changes in the social milieu have pushed sake, together with traditional foods and customs, toward the periphery of the Japanese lifestyle. We fear that the pride of the Japanese people is being lost from Japan.[2]

The above analysis is consciously vague, not even trying to detail such abstract terms as ‘in recent years’ and ‘various changes in the social milieu’, let alone doing some soul-searching on the brewers’ side. The crisis in the sake industry has been around for half a century and the decimation of consumption, production, and the number of breweries is to a large extent a result of the lack of quality control of a mass product that in a very untraditional way was distorted by elements external to the natural fermentation process such as distilled alcohol, sugars, MSG, etc. On the whole, the Japanese cuisine recently bestowed with the status of intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO is not an industry in crisis, as Japanese people have, to a larger extent than many other modern nations, held onto their own cuisine.

But luckily the situation across the ocean is a lot brighter:

Meanwhile, Japanese food and sake have made remarkable inroads overseas, growing in estimation with each passing year. Japanese food and sake convey the beauty of Japanese culture to the world with the wisdom and knowledge of the Japanese people, and the world in turn has recognized Japan’s culture as an outstanding one.11

Thus, a picture is painted of an outside world that is becoming more and more overawed by the brilliance of Japanese food culture, whereas the Japanese themselves have forgotten ‘the pride of Japanese culture’ and ‘the pride of Japanese sake’. In this state of what we may term a crisis of national culture and identity, the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council has gallantly imposed upon itself, as an heir to Japan’s tradition, the challenging task of changing the long-term tendency of the Japanese to become un-Japanese:

As bearers of Japan’s sake culture, we must act now to revive the pride of Japanese sake now being lost. As ‘samurai’ who love and protect sake, we are determined to spread the word about Japanese sake, a world-class culmination of Japanese culture and traditional craft, around the world. Pledging that those of like mind will broaden the circle of Sake Samurai worldwide, we hereby declare the formation of the Sake Samurai.[2] [2]

Out of an acute awareness of the diminishing pride of the Japanese in their own culture and sake as the crystallization of that culture, a pure-hearted group of people within the sake industry has resolved to save sake, Japanese culture, and their own incomes and their family tradition of brewer ownership from extinction.

I cannot help but be bewildered at this group of brewery owning scions who, dependent on the toils of rice farmers and sake brewing artisans, and themselves in essence being merchants, identify themselves as representatives of the pre-modern military and bureaucratic ruling class. Nonetheless, in most cases foreigners will be unaware of the connotations of social hierarchy that come with the term ‘samurai’, and in this sense it must be admitted that ‘sake samurai’ sounds a lot cooler than ‘sake merchant’ or ‘brewery owner’. Moreover, as sake professionals, they are very well aware that the sake they are making nowadays is worlds apart from the sake that was made before the Second World War, let alone more ‘traditional’ sake. On that same basis, they should be able to come to a more plural definition of Japaneseness, Japanese culture, identity, and tradition, which does not merely incorporate The Tale of Genji and samurai, but also more modern phenomena such as pachinko, manga, and anime. Just as they know that the direct path to bankruptcy is to change their complete line-up into pre-war-types of traditional sake, which most Japanese no longer recognize and appreciate as sake, and that the way out of the crisis is rather dependent on modern concepts such as quality control, innovation, PR (public relations), and marketing.

The Sake Samurai project of the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council concentrated on two activities. Since 2006, they have bestowed the title of Sake Samurai upon half a dozen people every year, 50% of them foreigners, and organize a Shinto conferral ceremony at Kyoto’s Shimogamo Jinja (although one can only wonder why they do not use Kyoto’s Matsuo Taisha, the shrine of the god of sake).[6] Apart from this, they function as the Japanese front desk of the International Wine

Challenge (IWC), an internationally acclaimed annual wine competition in London, which introduced a sake division in 2007 (the director of the IWC incidentally became a sake samurai soon after).[7] Although the results of the sake part of the competition hardly make any waves in the West, the related stickers on the bottles of the prize-winning brands are directed at the Japanese audience, who do not know that there may be as many as 10 gold prizes in one sake subdivision, many more silver prizes, and that the sticker with the text ‘commended’ rather means that the sake was only considered mediocre. Another more recent feat is the establishment of sake level 1, 2, and 3 courses at the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust (incidentally, the representative of this institution, which is better known under the abbreviation WSET, immediately also became a sake samurai). WSET is a highly respected institution in the wine world with its headquarters in London, but has dependences organizing officially approved courses all over the world. Although the content of the sake courses and the related demands are not yet on a par with WSET’s wine courses, it is nonetheless a far cry from the pay-much, success-guaranteed 2-day crash courses that various dubious institutions provide both in Japan and other countries, and which have completely corrupted the title of ‘sake sommelier’.[8]

This first project by sake brewery owners to overcome the crisis in the industry on the one hand links their product strongly to Japanese culture and tradition and on the other hand invokes the authority of foreigners who subscribe to the Council’s aims. It is very instructive in the sense that many characteristics of their message have been copied by almost all other industry and government projects to stimulate the internal consumption and export of sake, such as: (1) Not blaming the breweries and/or the government for corrupting sake by continuing the wartime experiment of adding alcohol and other external elements, but instead blaming the Japanese consumers for straying from their roots. (2) Strutting tradition while most sake breweries and sake factories make outspokenly modern sake, which in many cases can hardly be called ‘rice wine’ anymore. (3) Hushing up the pure sake movement and not honouring any junmaishu advocates, as if their contribution is non-existent or negligible. (4) Although many of the activities and policies are aimed at the West or make use ofWest European (wine) authority, the ultimate aim is the home market.[9]

Apart from this, it is also quite telling that in the above-cited formation statement of the Sake Samurai project the term ‘kokushu, here in the English translation of ‘national drink’, is only used once. In all other cases, and in all other Sake Samurai-related texts, either nihonshu or sake is used.

  • [1] This is the English version of the October 2006 Sake Samurai project introduction as providedon the official Sake Samurai website. See: Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council. SakeSamurai — Prospectus.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] A Japanese list of all persons awarded the Sake Samurai title since 2006 can be found athttp://www.sakesamurai.jp/person06_2.html.
  • [7] The fact that this accounts for the main part of the Sake Samurai’s activities is evident from the‘news’ part of its website, which is dominated by IWC-related news. See: http://www.sakesamurai.jp/nwes.html.
  • [8] The Japan Sake Brewers Association tried to introduce an officially designated title of sakesommelier but fell out with the institute to which it had outsourced this project, which was thusprimarily led by commercial motivations. It has even implemented a system in which you have topay the institute an annual fee to be able to hold on to your title. In the West, sake sommelier titlesare being awarded to people who have never had any sake in their lives and only tasted a dozensake during their 2-day course. Although it must be said that the Japan Sake Brewers AssociationJunior Council has neither shown any qualms in awarding the highly respected title of sakesamurai to people who have no knowledge of sake at all.
  • [9] This is also abundantly clear from the fact that the English part of the Sake Samurai website hasnot been updated since 2007. (‘It is editing. Please wait for a while.’)
 
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