The Official Decree to Toast with Sake: Local Endeavours to Support the Sake Industry

At Japanese receptions, all tables are generally provided with beer bottles, usually from the big producers Kirin, Suntory and Asahi, and one struggles to find sake or the Japanese distilled drink shochu. One is not supposed to start drinking before the speech by the host, followed by a toast - kanpai no ondo - often conducted by a guest of honour. By this time, all attendees are supposed to have been provided with a glass of beer, and after the ‘Kanpai call by the honoured guest, they take some sips, put down their glasses, and end this part of the ceremony with a round of applause, after which the more informal part of the meeting can finally commence.

Those involved in the sake industry have always been chagrined by the fact that the many receptions in Japan have been a strictly beer affair.

Especially in the case of official receptions organized by national, regional, or local institutions of government, why promote the Western drink of beer instead of the Japanese drink of sake? Nonetheless, due to the bad image of sake for most of the post-war period and the fact that many attendees would most likely refuse to drink sake, the disgruntlement of the sake industry did not go any further than silent resignation.

This was until the city of Kyoto, the symbol of almost everything that is regarded part of traditional Japanese culture, and the Fushimi sake factories, constituting the second biggest sake-brewing centre in Japan, joined forces and were successful in having the city assembly decree on 15 January 2013 that at all receptions organized or sponsored by Kyoto City would include sake not beer as the alcoholic beverage to accompany the toast.[1] This ‘Nihonshu de Kanpai-Jorei (Ordinance to Toast with Sake) was successful in garnering a lot of media attention, and before long other prefectures and municipalities joined in. At the moment, toast ordinances have been implemented by more than a hundred cities and prefectures, although these also include such ‘heretic’ examples as Yamanashi Prefecture ordaining a toast with local Koshu wine (Jap. koshu see also Wang’s article in this volume), municipalities on Kyushu prescribing shochu, and the city of Nasu-Shiobara using milk instead.[2]

Initially, the national government made a conscious decision not to get involved in this movement amongst local government institutions, most likely because it did not think it opportune to take sides in what in essence is a competition between the interests of the beer industry and the sake industry. However, in the wake of the 2011 Triple Disaster it changed its neutral stand. Under the motto of supporting and revitalizing North-East Japan, and with the strong motivation to show that Japanese agricultural products were not contaminated by nuclear radiation, it made a case of providing sake from the affected regions, especially Fukushima Prefecture, at government receptions and requested that all other government institutions followed suit. Japanese embassies and consulates, formerly notorious for spending their entire budget remaining at the end of the fiscal year on expensive French wines, were dictated to spend a certain part of their budgets on sake from North Eastern Japan. The government even actively indicated which brands and which types to buy, probably out of (the very realistic) fear that their diplomats had hardly any knowledge about sake.[3]

Not long afterwards, as part of the 2012 ‘Enjoy the Kokushu’ campaign, sake was prioritized, no longer for rather negative reasons such as relief-purchases and enacting food safety, but on the more positive basis of export promotion. Government-sponsored receptions, dinners, etc. are now regarded as venues for promoting sake. Together with this more positive and prominent treatment, sake has been raised to the position of ‘the national alcoholic beverage’ that accordingly needs to be showcased as the drink that accompanies toasts at government-linked receptions (at least at events ranked minister-class or above).[4] Perhaps, just as revolutionary, diplomats now need to take a crash-course in sake before they are sent to foreign countries.[5]

So when, during his April 2015 visit to the United States, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was prominently promoting a bottle of sake, it was not so much because he wanted to push this particular brand which happens to be from his election district (since Dassai is probably already one of the most successfully exported sake brands made in Japan), or that he wanted to support a campaign to drink more sake from Yamaguchi Prefecture, but it was rather to profess the Japanese government’s full support in putting sake on the map as one of Japan’s main export products.[6]

Regrettably the sake served at municipal, prefectural, and national receptions is not selected on the basis of quality and variety. Government institutions have to be impartial, so they end up serving sake equally from all breweries in the city or the prefecture, no matter how mediocre the product of some breweries may be. On the national level, they cannot, of course, serve sake equally from all breweries in the country, so institutions are upholding neutrality by serving sake from breweries that pick up awards at the annual sake competition in Hiroshima, thus serving only heavily polished daiginjo and ginjo sake,[7] [8] and regrettably neglecting the full variety of sake.2

  • [1] The ordinance is available at: http://www.city.kyoto.lg.jp/sankan/cmsfiles/contents/0000150/150907/seisyujourei.pdf.
  • [2] A list of municipalities and prefectures that have implemented toast ordinances updated untilJanuary 2014 can be found at: http://www.nippon.com/ja/column/g00147/. By late July 2015,the number had increased to 108. The newspaper Asahi Shimbun has established a specialwebpage with a handy overview of related news under the title ‘A toast ordinance, also in thismunicipality’, at: http://www.asahi.com/topics/word/%E4%B9%BE%E6%9D%AF%E6%9D%A1%E4%BE%8B.html.
  • [3] This part is based on conversations with ambassadors and other officials of various JapaneseEmbassies in Europe and observations at receptions and dinners organized by these embassies.
  • [4] See the report by the government-instated Advice Committee for the Promotion of ‘EnjoyJapanese Kokushu’ entitled ‘Seifu ga shusai suru kokusai kaigi nado de no nihonshu shochu nokatsuyo ni tsuite (“Enjoy Japanese Kokushu” Suishin Kyogikai to shite no kangaekata)’.
  • [5] ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ (‘Kokushu wo tanoshimo’) Suishin Kyogikai, Kokushu-to noyushutsusokushin puroguramu.
  • [6] Prime Minister Abe brought Dassai 23 to serve at the state dinner hosted by President Obama. Whenthe latter visited Japan the previous year, Abe had presented him with two bottles of Dassai sake after thetwo had drunk Kamotsuru sake from Hiroshima during their visit to the Jiro sushi restaurant.
  • [7] DaiginjO and ginjo are terms that have been incorporated in the new way of legally categorizingsake in Japan since 1989. These terms limit the rice variety, the temperature, the tank volume,etc., but the most prominent criterion is the polishing rate (seimai buai), which is a percentage thatindicates how much of the grain is left after polishing. In the case of ginjo at least 40% has beentaken off, making the polishing rate 60% or lower. In the case of daiginjo at least 50% has beentaken off, making the polishing rate 50% or lower.
  • [8] ‘Enjoy Japanese Kokushu’ [‘Kokushu wo tanoshimo’] Suishin Kyogikai, ‘Seifu ga shusai suru’.
 
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